The Update – Turkish Politics, 1 December 2011

Rising Authoritarianism in Turkey

On Friday’s issue the Economist writes:

“The West does not seem to notice the steady deterioration in human rights in Turkey, instead extolling it as a model for the Arab spring. “Europe is too mired in its own problems and America needs Turkey for regional security,” shrugs a European ambassador in Ankara. It will fall to Turks themselves to battle for their rights—so long as they can keep out of jail.”

AKP and Judiciary

Is AKP becoming more authoritarian and will it get better?  Yes and no.  There is statistical evidence that shows tolerance for dissent has declined under AKP, and fairly good qualitative evidence that it will get worse. The next question is whether this is an issue for the economy and markets.  The answer is once again, yes. In the short run, intolerance for opposing views deprives AKP from what it needs most:  Constructive criticism.  In the long run, the threat to stability is even more apparent:  The push will come to shove.

More Evidence of AKP’s Errand Ways

Obviously, the Economist—despite its pretensions- is not the ultimate authority on AKP’s human rights record.  However, there are many publications and impartial observers which have joined the chorus recently.  For instance in TIME blog Pelin Turgut writes:

Pelin Turgut

“Held up as an example of secular democracy for the Middle East, Erdogan’s government is increasingly under fire for its treatment of journalists, pro-Kurdish advocates and opposition activists. There are more than 1,000 cases before the European Court of Human Rights concerning the Turkish government’s alleged quashing of freedom of expression, according to officials. “This situation has a chilling effect on journalism and journalists in Turkey,” said Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary-general of the Council of Europe.” (TIME, November 25, “Is Turkey using the courts to silence critics?”

Sometimes intolerance for dissent and adulation for authority reaches absurd proportions, affecting a rather innocent profession like economics, as well:

“Some of these economists say they have come under pressure for criticizing the bank for keeping rates too low, especially after Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan in July accused them of trying to force interest rates up so they can “earn more money on Turkey.”


“This is a ridiculous debate but there is a rising pressure.…In all topics people are censoring themselves,” said one Istanbul economist, who declined to be named. “When I criticize the central bank it might be published in Sabah [a large pro-government newspaper] and then I can’t get an appointment in Ankara and can’t do my job effectively.” (WSJ, November 24, “Turkey Official Says Zero Rates an ‘Ideal’”)

The rising tendency for authoritarianism also finds its way into the much-celebrated TIME article on PM Erdogan.  The author sums up the atmosphere of fear prevailing in the country in one sentence:

“On a recent trip toIstanbul, two top journalists agreed to talk with me about Erdogan only if I promised not to name them.” (TIME, November 28, “Erdogan’s Moment”.

When President Abdullah Gül was speaking of how they democratize Turkey at Yildiz Technical University. Students who unfurled a banner were being beaten by the police, mercilessly (the picture above). The banner was just reading: "Free Education For All."

Finally, AKP’s authoritarian streak hasn’t gone unnoticed by EU.  The president of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek has some unusually harsh words for Turkey during his visit:

European Parliament President Jery Buzek

“The head of European Parliament strongly criticized the “unusually high number of journalists imprisoned and arrested inTurkey,” rejecting the reasoning behind the arrests that the “[journalists] were active against the government.”

“The argument that journalists are active against the government is unacceptable. It is typical for journalists to write and question the government. That should not be surprising,” European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek told reporters in a press conference Nov. 25 after his discussions in Ankara.” (Hurriyet Daily News, November 25,  “Euro Parliament head slams arrest of scribes inTurkey”)

Turkey - Set Journalists Free

This author has made a list of detentions in politically charged trials which portray a fairly grim picture:

University students:  Up to 500

Ergenekon-Sledgehammer Suspects: Over 300 hundred

Journalists in detention:  70

Journalists in trial:  Close to 1,000

KCK detentions:  3,500-5,000

In AKP’s Defense

The very same AKP accused of authoritarianism has recently

  • Passed a legislation returning confiscated properties of non-Moslem charitable foundations
  • PM Erdogan officially apologized for the Dersim Massacre, where in 1937-1938 up to 20K Alevite Zazas were killed by the armed forces under the pretense of putting down a rebellion.
  • Turkey became the first country to ratify “Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence”.

Alevites in Turkey

Yet, all these achievements ring hollow.  A majority of confiscated foundation properties had been sold to third parties, which were not covered under the restoration act. PM Erdogan apologizes for a horrendous crime committed 80 years ago, but fails to do a very simple thing that would materially improve the plight of up to 10 million Alevites in Turkey:  Grant their temples (cem evi) the status of “places of worship”, thus ending the effective ban on building new ones. The parliament ratifies treaties to end violence against women but fails to pass legislation to end reduced sentences for honor killings, as the  police and the judiciary refuse to go after domestic abuse, child brides or  forced prostitution.

It will get worse

One may argue that AKP is justifiably paranoid about past coups and might have gone too far in its zeal to root out all coup mongers and its sympathizers.  One may even make the argument that AKP’s method of dealing with PKK’s semi-legal allies, the KCK is more humane than what past governments had undertaken to suppress Kurdish separatism:  Cold case murders, burning of villages and forced relocation of whole tribes.  Finally one may conclude that authoritarian streak was caused by the circumstances of AKP’s troubled past and its current environment and it  will end here.

However this author argues that AKP’s task of purging its imagined enemies is not over.  In fact, it is just starting. Last Friday, the Ergenekon prosecutors asked for the names of former Yargitay prosecuting team which launched the probe that lead to the closure suit against AKP. Soon, they will be charged as accomplices of the alleged Ergenekon terror organization. The pro-AKP press still clamors for the investigation of “Ergenekon links in judiciary, media and the financial community” suggesting that the rooting-out of enemies is still in its early stages.

Pro AKP newspapers

A more freighting development is the announcement by yet another prosecutor to probe the 28 February affair,Turkey’s last and post-modern coup, where the coalition of centre right DYP and Islamist Prof Erbakan was toppled under immense army pressure. The author predicts that another sweep of secularists is underway.  He is in no way againstTurkeygoing after coup-mongers, their accomplices or thinly concealed fronts for PKK. However, there is very strong evidence that

  • The presumption of innocence is always violated in these mass-trials
  • These trials serve as a way of silencing AKP’s critics
  • In case of  sorting out Ergenekon and 28 February event there is a better way: Truth and reconciliation commissions

Aziz Kocaoğlu from CHP, Mayor of İzmir

Most recently, AKP’s lust to crush the opposition infected the Izmir Municipality, one of the strongholds of CHP, where the Ministry of Interior gave permission to prosecutors to probe 89 officers and employees, including the popular mayor. Let’s put this in perspective:  Essentially, theIzmirmayor, several CHP member borough mayors and dozens of CHP members of the municipal assembly are accused of forming a crime syndicate to amend zoning laws for illicit financial gains.  The accusation of manipulating zoning laws for self-enrichment coming AKP is preposterous, because this is the specialty of AKP mayors. Similar accusations levied by CHP against the mayors of Kayseri and Elazığ had been ignored by the Ministry of Interior. Requiring Ministry of Interior permits to investigate municipal officers is one of the greatest abuses of administrative power in Turkey, because it allows AKP to shield its mayors against all charges of corruption, while putting pressure on CHP.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, CHP President

Throughout history there is a very familiar pattern of popular governments falling into the trap of convincing themselves that they are the saviors of their nation, with the opponents being—by logical definition—enemies of the nation.  AKP’s Turkey has reached that stage. AKP defines what the proper topics for national debate are, how it should be debated and what type of arguments may not be introduced to the debate. Those who  defy the rules are by definition enemies of the democracy and must be put behind the bars.

Does it really matter?

While some readers may agree with the hypothesis of this article, it is fair to ask whether it matters to the economy and markets. Yes, it does in many ways. First of all, a free press is actually the market place for novel ideas and suggestions for better practices in government policy. By suppressing dissenting views AKP deprives itself of what it needs most:  Constructive criticism and ideas for improved governance. This is very apparent in the furious debate on interest rates.  A simple and rather politically neutral tool of controlling domestic demand is treated as evil. Those who advocate higher interest rates are enemies of the nation. The same fate awaits those who suggestTurkeyneeds to moderate its break-neck pace of growth and focus on sustainability.

Secondly, AKP’s authoritarianism is not limited to controlling social life.  The party has absorbed all independent regulatory bodies into the ministries, save the Central Bank. These act as extensions of the government, thus withholding from the economy another sets  of checks and balances against arbitrary government policy, while increasing the pro-cyclicality at large.  Utility prices are hiked not when market conditions warrant, but when it is politically expedient for AKP to do so.

Ümit Boyner, President of TUSIAD

Finally, there is real fear in the business community. Turkey’s secular-minded big business  organisation TUSIAD is so intimidated by the government that it is having difficulty to find a new chairman. All business NGOs feel the need to pay loud homage to government policies lest their members are cut off from lucrative state tenders or face tax probes. Once again, the authoritarian streak silences interest groups whose input are crucial for the effective administration of policy.

In one sentence, there  is no one left in the Turkish economy to tell AKP that the emperor is naked.  This is a very grave condition to be in at a time when the global economy and in particular the EU banking system are facing monumental challenges in 2012 which will directly impact Turkey.

In the long run, the dangers are greater.  In Turkey, push always comes to shove.  AKP is largely the product of 80 years of secular oppression against Islamists and conservatives.  Now, the party is creating its own victims in secularists and dissenters, whose thirst for revenge would polarize the nation for another generation.  AKP’s narrow view of human rights is simply not enough to govern an open society that is rapidly integrating with EU and the rest of the world through commerce, tourism and the social media.

Moreover the Arab Spring is fostering  new yearnings in minorities like Kurds and the Alevites for expanded freedoms. It won’t be surprising to see the university students, labor unions and women’s lib movement joining them soon, adding to the polarizing forces in the society and creating very real tensions that will be impossible to peacefully manage under AKP’s very restrictive view of social order and propriety.

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2 Responses to The Update – Turkish Politics, 1 December 2011

  1. Also internet censorship in the way of banning websites as soon as a court case is filed, imposing forced filtering and preventing DNS settings to be customised by citizens should be mentioned. Authoritarianism is a fetish for many Turks and “bullies” are now rampant in the public sector and even in the shape of religious bus drivers.

    Thanks for the article.

  2. ABDullah Gülü protesto eden kızı getirtikleri hale bakın.

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