March 27, 2014 § 8 Comments
The short answer is, nothing good. No matter how things shake out on Sunday when Turks go to vote in municipal elections, I don’t thing the results are going to alleviate Turkey’s current instability but will only exacerbate it. The reason for this is that whether the AKP does well or the AKP underperforms relative to expectations, it is going to take away the wrong lesson from the whole process.
Let’s assume that the AKP does well and hangs on to Istanbul and Ankara, more or less sweeps the interior of the country, and limits its losses to the CHP to Izmir and a couple of other cities along the southeastern coast, along with losing Diyarbakır and Van to the BDP. Should this happen, Prime Minister Erdoğan and the AKP are going to seize upon this as a vindication of everything they have done – the harsh rhetoric against demonstrators, the purges of Gülenists, the cowing of the media, blocking Twitter, etc. – and assume that the only opposition they have comes from unruly and anarchist “Gezi people” or terrorist sympathizers; in other words, nobody whom Erdoğan views as legitimate. This is the story that Erdoğan has essentially been repeating over and over again ad nauseum for months, and I don’t think it is just campaign rhetoric. Erdoğan and his inner circle genuinely think that everything they have done is for Turkey’s benefit, don’t see how anyone can believe otherwise, and view all opposition as a Kemalist or Gülenist or leftist or military or Zionist or foreign plot to humiliate them and bring the “new Turkey” to its knees. A perceived electoral victory will convince Erdoğan that his version of events is the correct one, and he will only double down on the over the top rhetoric and the polarizing policies that are designed to appeal to his base of supporters, who at this point are not prepared to believe anything that is reported about corruption, graft, illicit business dealings, personal failings, or anything else.
The other factor here is that Erdoğan fetishizes elections in the sense that he views them as conferring the right to do absolutely anything he pleases. He is a true republican (small r) theorist in that once the people have voted and empowered their representatives, the representatives are not encumbered by any type of public opinion or populist will until they are turned out of office. This is the reason he has been hyping these elections so heavily and talking about them as a demonstration of the AKP’s power. Should the AKP do well, Erdoğan will point to the election results as an ex post facto legitimation of anything and everything that he has done, and it will only spur him to make sure that the party does even better during the presidential election this summer and the parliamentary elections next year. He will not view this as a bullet dodged, but as an exhortation to keep up the pressure on his opponents. In short, a victory will magnify all of his worst instincts and inclinations and convince him that his vision for the country is the right one and that it must be enforced at any cost.
Should Erdoğan and the AKP do worse than expected, and somehow lose Istanbul – which to them is the worst possible thing that could happen given its symbolic importance to the AKP, its role as a political bellwether for the rest of the country, and Erdoğan’s view of the city as his own personal fiefdom – they will not take it as a humbling warning. They will go into panic mode, and lash out at everything and anything. Expect to hear claims of election fraud, efforts to obstruct AKP voters, and Gülenist plots. Social media will become an even bigger target, protestors will be dealt with even more harshly, and Turkish cities will become even more frequent sites of confrontations between police and civilians. The hyper nationalist rhetoric will get turned up, and I wouldn’t even put it past the realm of possibility that Erdoğan would seek to create a distraction, such as military escalation with Syria, to change the subject and try to regain his footing.
If I had to make a prediction, I think that there is a good chance that the CHP takes Ankara, but the AKP will hold on to Istanbul. In Ankara, Mad Melih Gökçek seems to have jumped the shark – all you need to know is that part of his election platform is his pledge to build a Las Vegas hotel-type canal, replete with gondolas and everything, in landlocked Ankara – and the polls there (to the extent they are in any way reliable) are as tight as I’ve seen anywhere. When you add in the recent scenes of teargas and bludgeoning of protestors, I have a feeling that the CHP will pull out a victory. In Istanbul, however, Erdoğan is not going to allow any other party to win. I say that in the sense that Istanbullu friends tell me that the mismatch in money and campaign organizing between the AKP and CHP is evident all over the city, and I say it in the sense that the APK will do anything to win Istanbul, legal or not. Istanbul has huge symbolic importance given its status as the imperial Ottoman capital during Turkey’s glory days, to which Erdoğan and the AKP constantly harken back, and the AKP sees it as its headquarters. Erdoğan micromanages everything in the city, which is what led to the Gezi Park crisis and protests in the first place, and I don’t see him giving it up willingly.
To all my Turkish friends and readers, please make sure to go out and vote on Sunday, and let’s hope that the aftermath is not quite so dire as I predict.
March 21, 2014 § 5 Comments
Governments that ban social media platforms under the flimsy justification of them being national security threats are not democracies. Prime ministers who say things like, “I don’t care what the international community says, everyone will witness the power of the Republic of Turkey” sound more like Emperor Palpatine or Bond villains and not like democratic leaders. Cabinet officials who received Fulbright scholarships to study in the U.S. and have MBAs from schools like Northwestern and call shutting off access to Twitter the better of a series of bad options are nothing but toadies of an autocratic prime minister who has ceased functioning in a rational manner.
When you shut down Twitter and yet the president of your country, your deputy prime minister, and other elected officials in your party nevertheless circumvent your attempted ban, it not only shows how out of touch you are with reality, but what a laughingstock you are becoming. It also shows you to be sadly incompetent. When you shut down Twitter ten days before elections in a transparent effort to control the flow of information, you are a menace to your own citizens and the principles of free speech, liberalism, and democracy.
The worst part of all of this is that it will likely have zero measurable effect on the upcoming local elections, as AKP supporters at this point have gone into hear no evil, see no evil mode, and have genuinely convinced themselves that everything Tayyip Erdoğan and his government are doing is in the service of fighting for Turkish democracy. Even if the Twitter shutdown did convince people to cast their votes elsewhere, a government that does this sort of thing is unlikely to be reluctant to take other more insidious measures when it comes to ensuring that the vote goes their way.
The best part of all of this is that Turks are not taking this lying down, and are tweeting, mocking their dear leader, and defacing AKP elections posters with Erdoğan’s visage by painting on them the numbers for the DNS server that allows Turkish Twitters users to bypass the ban. Many Turks are not willing to let Erdoğan dictate to them what they can or cannot do, and that is a very heartening thing to see. If there is another silver lining to this, it is that any remaining reticence in Western capitals to see Erdoğan for what he has become should be gone for good. The prime minister’s decade-old comment about democracy being a train that you ride until you are ready to disembark has never seemed more salient.
The final point to note here is that Erdoğan, whose political instincts used to be top notch, appears to have badly miscalculated this time. The courts are denying that they issued any shutdown orders, other countries and NGOs are criticizing him left and right, and the economy has taken yet another dip in response to his latest move. Even if the local elections at the end of the month go the AKP’s way, Erdoğan’s own political viability has never been more in question. He may have some more tricks up his sleeve, but it is difficult to envision how Erdoğan ever recovers the colossal stature he had only a couple of short years ago.
March 12, 2014 § 4 Comments
Yogi Berra’s famous dictum was the first thing that came to mind yesterday as I watched yet another round of peaceful protests overtake Turkish cities and be met with the predictable barrage of TOMA water cannons, tear gas, and massive police force. This round of protests is in many ways an extension of the Gezi protests last summer, as they were ignited by the death of Berkin Elvan, a fifteen year old boy who had been in a coma since being hit in the head with a teargas canister in June. Just as the government’s overreaction in June directly led to yesterday’s events, no doubt the effects of the police response yesterday and the continuing teargassing of mourners during today’s funeral will reverberate down the road, as more civilians were injured yesterday, including people struck with teargas canisters. So yet again Turkey’s cities are filled with protestors angry at the government, and the official government response is to cause chaos and destruction in urban centers and send the message that protest and dissent will not be tolerated in any form. This is becoming habitual rather unique, which does not augur well for the future.
The most remarkable part of all this is that the government has demonstrated that it has learned absolutely nothing from its experiences of the past year. Not only was yesterday’s response inappropriate, it was also ineffective and counterproductive. For some reason, Prime Minister Erdoğan – who, by the way, given his propensity to micromanage everything from local construction projects to whom television stations interview is no doubt directing the police response – believes that violence will succeed in getting everyone off the streets and creating compliantly meek citizens. Rather than indicating that he has heard Turks’ legitimate complaints and grievances and is working to address them, he deems it better to act as imperious as always. An apology from Erdoğan for Elvan’s death does not seem to be forthcoming, and there has not even been a simple statement of regret. Contrast this to Erdoğan’s public tears and repeated decrying of the Egyptian government for the deaths of Egyptian protestors, and you can understand why many Turks are fed up. Given that Elvan was killed after leaving his family’s home to buy bread and that Turks have been hanging bread outside their doors as a symbol of protest and mourning at his death, Claire Sadar’s bitingly sarcastic prediction that we are perhaps about to see the emergence of the bread lobby as Erdoğan’s newest bogeyman captures well how tone deaf Erdoğan’s past rhetorical broadsides have been. Successful leaders learn from their mistakes and move on, but there is no evidence that Erdoğan has even a sliver of this trait.
Turkey’s claims of enhanced democracy under the AKP are crumbling in other ways as well. The protests are overshadowing the news that former army chief of staff General Ilker Başbuğ and other military officers ensnared in the Ergenekon trials were released from prison over the past week, exploding forever the idea that the AKP’s greatest achievement has been subordinating the military to civilian control by punishing officers for numerous coup plots. Whether the military will be willing to align with Erdoğan in his fight with the Gülen movement after everything it has been through is an open question and my hunch is that the answer is no, but it’s clear that the prime minister is eager and open to partner with anyone in his latest battle. The Ergenekon prosecutions were largely shams, so releasing officers who were convicted under false pretenses is a good thing, but do not think for a second that this is being done in the service of democracy. Rather, it is being done to curry favor with one undemocratic actor in order to create a stronger coalition against another undemocratic actor. In the process, the AKP’s claim to have installed a consolidated democracy by defanging the military has gone up in smoke, as the government itself has now conceded that the trials themselves were marked by all manner of irregularities and is working to reverse the verdicts. In the process, Turkey’s justice system is turning more and more into one big kangaroo court.
The variable injecting massive uncertainty into everything this time around is the municipal elections scheduled for March 30. When the Gezi protests were violently suppressed, elections were still some ways off and there was room for the government to recover. Now, however, elections take place in less than three weeks, and will come on the heels of more injured protestors, more inflammatory government statements, the graft and corruption scandal, and they have also taken on an outsized importance in Erdoğan’s mind itself. If the AKP does not do as well as they have become accustomed to, or loses Ankara or Istanbul, it will severely damage what has been up until now an aura of invincibility surrounding Erdoğan and the AKP. Erdoğan himself has been saying for months that the municipal elections should be viewed as a proxy for the party’s national power, and given the allegations swirling around him and his family, the results matter more to him than perhaps even to the mayoralty candidates. With the stakes involved and more information coming out every day about the government’s illicit behavior and attempts to influence all sorts of decisions, I have grave doubts about whether these elections are going to be free and fair, and whether the AKP’s efforts to put its thumb on the scale are going to cross over into more egregious election violations.
Yet, there are some small rays of hope. President Abdullah Gül went farther this week in denouncing Erdoğan’s threats to ban Facebook and Youtube than he has in the face of similar comments in the past. Gül, Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek, and EU Affairs Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu all expressed condolences to the Elvan family yesterday, which is farther than any government official went during Gezi. So even if Erdoğan is too stubborn to ever change his ways, perhaps others in the AKP have learned something about how to interact with the people who have put them in office, even if it is nothing more than a small gesture such as offering sympathies to the family of a boy killed by the government for no reason while buying groceries. Let’s hope that Berkin Elvan eventually becomes an exception rather than a rule.
February 25, 2014 § 13 Comments
Let me stipulate from the beginning that I have no idea whether the allegations are true that Tayyip Erdoğan conspired with his son Bilal to hide one billion dollars once Turkey’s graft probe was opened in December. Recordings of the two Erdoğans having four separate phone conversations about this topic are on Youtube [ed. note: the billion dollar figure is listed in the introduction to the Youtube clip and has been widely reported, but the taped conversation itself shows the Erdoğans talking about hiding tens of millions and not billions], and for those of you - like me – whose Turkish is not nearly good enough to translate a bunch of garbled conversations in their entirety, a translated transcript can be found here. Erdoğan has not yet denied that the voices on the recordings are his and Bilal’s, but instead has dismissed the taped conversations as having been “montaged,” by which I assume he means that different recordings were spliced together to misrepresent what he said. Sabah and Yeni Şafak are both claiming that the recordings were doctored and that they have their own recordings of the people who edited the Erdoğan phone call. It wouldn’t surprise me if Erdoğan was hiding huge sums of money, and it also wouldn’t surprise me if he is being framed to look much worse than he actually is (although the latter would surprise me more than the former). Neither side here is particularly laudatory or above dirty tricks, and it’s a shame that this is Turkey’s new reality; a corrupt and paranoid government in a death match against a shadowy and corrupt powerful social group.
Of everything that has come out of Turkey in the past two months, this is the most explosive and has actual potential to bring down Erdoğan and the government, since these are charges that are going to be less easy to just dismiss. Assuming for the moment that there is some element of truth to the news and that Erdoğan is sitting on a pile of money that he is trying to hide, three quick takeaways come to mind.
First, one has to begin to question whether the prime minister is capable of thinking clearly. He certainly knew that his phones were tapped, as he expressly warns Bilal on the recording. Furthermore, in December 2012 it came out that Erdoğan’s home office, car, and parliamentary office were bugged, which had Gülenist fingerprints all over it. He knew that he was being listened to and he knew that the Gülenists had dirt on many of his closest allies, and yet he still allegedly called Bilal four times to discuss hiding money on the very day that the heat was the hottest. Leaving all of his other issues aside, is this someone who should be running a country? I have always assumed that the crazier statements that emanate from Erdoğan’s mouth are in the vein of him being crazy like a fox, and that he doesn’t actually believe that higher interest rates will lead to inflation or that there is such thing as an interest rate lobby or that social media is actually the worst menace to society that exists. But maybe he really does believe all of these things, in which case his judgment is fatally flawed and it explains why he would talk about hiding one billion dollars over an unsecured line when he had a very strong hunch that the people who were looking to bring him down were listening in.
Second, and this flows from the first, Erdoğan has reached the point where he is in such a cocoon that he assumes he can just do anything and say anything without real consequences. And really, why wouldn’t he? Throughout Gezi and the corruption scandal up until today, the AKP has not been in any real danger of losing a national election, and Erdoğan himself has been able to dictate what his next moves will be. He says all manner of outrageous things, micromanages municipal building projects, has Turks gassed and beaten in the streets, tries his best to sabotage his own economy by driving away foreign investment, and yet still has a large percentage of his supporters who are willing to believe every explanation and denial, no matter how ridiculous, and to go down with their captain as he sinks the Turkish ship of state. Maybe he isn’t losing his marbles, but just assumes based on recent history that he can do anything he wants and get away with it. He can siphon off a billion dollars and give it out to his family and friends, and talk about how to hide it when he knows his bitter rivals are recording him, and then not even deny that it is him talking on the recordings, and he may still not be dislodged from power. Maybe the joke is on us and not on him. Or maybe it’s not, and he is in such a state of epistemic closure and surrounded by sycophants that he has very badly misjudged the situation, which speaks volumes as well. I don’t know which of these possibilities is the right one, but none of them are good.
Lastly, let’s drop the pretense that Turkey’s political system comes close to anything resembling a consolidated democracy, a mature democracy, or any other phrase the Turkish government wants to use. We are accustomed to seeing dictators steal from public coffers in order to line their own pockets along this order of magnitude, whether it be the Shah’s plane having difficulty taking off from Iran because it was so laden down with gold bars or Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s various seaside palaces or Teodorin Obiang buying mansions, private jets, and yachts. When a prime minister is elected three times in a country that is trying to join the EU and is a NATO member and has been widely hailed as the world’s most successful Muslim-majority democracy, you do not expect to see that prime minister – a man who grew up in a poor neighborhood of Istanbul and has never held a job outside of working in politics and does not come from family money – amassing a billion dollars on the job. As much as this is an indictment of Erdoğan, it is a far bigger indictment of the Turkish system itself, since a functioning democracy with genuinely transparent institutions would never abide such over the top corruption. No democracy is perfect, and certainly the U.S. has plenty of its own issues, but one can never envision something like this taking place under everyone’s nose for over a decade. As bad as I have been saying that things are in Turkey, it’s even worse than I thought, which makes me extremely sad and disheartened for a country that I adore.
February 20, 2014 § 1 Comment
I have a piece in Foreign Affairs today in which I argue that Turkey is backtracking on a couple of issues that have created friction with the U.S. in response to more open American criticism of Turkey. The Obama administration has generally given Turkey a free pass on its bad behavior across a range of issues, and I’m not confident that this new approach – which is more of a piecemeal one rather than a comprehensive rethinking of our strategy toward Turkey – is going to be more than a temporary blip. It should be though, and it shows that Turkey is indeed responsive to pressure. Here is a teaser:
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu did something extraordinary when they emerged from a January 12 bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Friends of Syria conference in Paris. Such occasions are usually marked by predictable boilerplate rhetoric about how productive the talk was and how closely both countries are working to solve pressing global issues, and Davutoğlu’s comments followed the standard script. What happened next was more unusual. After Davutoğlu finished speaking, Kerry took the opportunity to chide his Turkish counterpart for neglecting to mention an important component of the talks: Kerry’s emphatic rejection of Turkish claims that the United States had been meddling in Turkish politics and trying to influence the Turkish elections. As Davutoğlu sheepishly looked at the floor, Kerry continued that Davutoğlu now understood the score, and said that the two countries “need to calm the waters and move forward.”
Kerry’s addendum came in response to what has become a familiar Turkish government strategy of shifting the blame to outside powers, and particularly to the United States, when faced with any sort of internal opposition. During the Gezi Park protests in June, for example, Turkish government figures blamed Washington, CNN, and “foreign powers” for inciting unrest. More recently, when an ongoing corruption scandal exploded into the open in late December, Turkish ministers were quick to insinuate that the United States was the hidden hand behind the graft probe. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to expel U.S. ambassador Francis Ricciardone for allegedly provoking Turkey and “exceeding limits,” a reference to allegations that the ambassador was somehow meddling in Turkish affairs and prodding the investigation of government officials.
It isn’t surprising that the Turkish government has blamed the United States for self-inflicted wounds. But it is surprising that the United States has finally responded forcefully. And, if Turkey’s behavior after the flap is any indication (it made a quick about-face on a number of issues that have been particularly angering the United States), the Obama administration should make getting tougher with Turkey a priority.
To read the rest of the article, please head over to Foreign Affairs.
February 14, 2014 § 1 Comment
Almost one year after Bibi Netanyahu’s attempt to patch up relations with Turkey with his phone call apology to Tayyip Erdoğan as Barack Obama stood looking over his shoulder, Turkey is again talking about about normalizing relations with its former ally. In the eleven months since the apology, Turkey and Israel have been negotiating over the terms of an agreement, with precisely how much compensation must be paid to the families of those killed aboard the Mavi Marmara the major sticking point. Turkey has seemed in no rush to get a deal done, and at various times has made noise about Israel having to admit fault or to pay more money than Israel is prepared to do. And of course, Erdoğan and others have wasted no opportunity to bash Israel whenever convenient, either directly such as blaming Israel for the Egyptian military coup, or indirectly in referring to “dark forces” and “foreign powers” seeking to bring Turkey down. Formal negotiations may be taking place, but Israel and Turkey haven’t seemed terribly close to actually burying the hatchet.
Last month, however, news leaked that Turkish and Israeli negotiating teams were getting close to a final deal over compensation, and last week Ahmet Davutoğlu publicly confirmed that an agreement to normalize ties was in the works. As usual when it comes to this subject, I have been skeptical that this will actually happen, which is why I have resisted the impulse to write about it. Right on cue, two days after Davutoğlu made his announcement, Erdoğan came out and said that normalization won’t happen until Israel agrees in writing to completely end the blockade of Gaza. Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said yesterday that Israel is ready to sign an agreement but that Erdoğan himself is the stumbling block holding up a deal.
So what’s up with the mixed signals? Are Turkey and Israel close to an actual deal that will see ambassadors return to Tel Aviv and Ankara, or is this more of the same old routine? It is pretty easy to explain what is going on here, and it boils down to Turkey’s competing priorities that are pulling it in different directions. On the one hand, Turkey has had a very rough eight months. The Gezi protests, the economy spiraling downward, the lira crashing, the corruption scandal, the war between the AKP and the Gülenists, a growing Syrian refugee problem…it is entirely understandable that Turkey is feeling battered. On top of that, the Western response to attempts to blame Turkey’s problems on the U.S., Israel, Lufthansa, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, the interest rate lobby, the porn lobby, and anyone else the Turkish government can come up with has been to warn Turkey that it is destroying its reputation in Western capitals. When you add anger over Turkish behavior such as agreeing to buy a missile defense system from a Chinese firm under sanctions or funneling money to Syrian jihadi groups into the mix, Turkey all of a sudden has legitimate concerns about its relationship with the U.S. and EU countries. Viewed this way, the turn toward getting serious about reconciliation with Israel isn’t actually about Israel at all. Because the Turkish government in many instances takes an Israel-centric view of the world, it thinks that patching things up with Israel will solve its problems with Washington. By normalizing ties with Israel, it is signaling to the West that it is still a reliable ally who can be trusted, and that it shouldn’t be left on the outside looking in. Normalization with Israel is another way of saying, “We know we have behaved badly and in strange ways, but we haven’t gone all the way down the rabbit hole quite yet.” This explains Davutoğlu’s comments, particularly since the Foreign Ministry is more sensitive than other Turkish state institutions to Turkey’s perception among Western policymakers and its diplomatic status.
On the other hand is the force that generally drives everything in the Erdoğan era, which is Turkish domestic politics. I’ve written about this so many times that there’s no need for yet another megillah, but making up with Israel doesn’t exactly play well with your average Turk, and that goes double for Erdoğan’s base. I’ve seen some counterintuitive speculation that normalizing ties would be politically helpful since it will give the AKP a foreign policy victory that it can hold up, but I think that misreads the nature of Turkish politics along with mistaking the nature of whatever deal emerges. Forcing Bibi to apologize could be spun as bringing Israel to its knees; signing a deal to normalize relations that lets Israel pay some compensation money without any real movement on Gaza (since Israel is simply not going to end the blockade just because Turkey asks) doesn’t have the same shine to it. Erdoğan is looking at municipal elections next month – elections that he has repeatedly been touting as a harbinger of the AKP’s strength – and then the presidential election this summer and parliamentary elections next year. He is, as always, thinking about maintaining and growing his political power, and taking a hardline with Israel is a no-brainer for him electorally. He is already facing much lowered polling numbers and political approval ratings, so he can’t take a chance at losing what has been such a fruitful issue for him.
Which one of these impulses will win out? I claim no inside information on how the talks are actually going, and my general cynicism and conviction that domestic politics rules all makes me think that normalization is not actually close. But I have been wrong on this issue before and very well may be again, so I don’t rule anything out. These dueling constituencies though – the outside world and the domestic audience – are tough to satisfy simultaneously, so at some point Erdoğan will have to make a choice as to which constituency is more important for Turkey’s long term health and his own political survival, and which of these two outcomes he values more dearly.
January 15, 2014 § 4 Comments
The ongoing fight between the AKP and the Gülen movement has now moved into a new phase, where the government is not only reassigning police officers and firing prosecutors, but seeking to get rid of the separation of powers that exists between the government and the judiciary by proposing to have the body that appoints judges – the HSYK – become subject to the oversight of the Justice Minister. The opposition and the HSYK itself have declared this move to be unconstitutional and the EU has warned the government against passing such a measure, but Prime Minister Erdoğan hasn’t shown much inclination to back down. In World Politics Review, I have a long essay tracing how we got to this point. My argument is that the Turkish judiciary has throughout its history been a political actor, both in how it has behaved and how it is perceived, and thus successive governments – including the current one – have had no problem in treating it as such. Going after the judiciary in such a brazen manner seems extraordinary, but it is keeping with a long tradition of thinking about Turkey’s courts as an arm of the government rather than an impartial institution. Here’s an excerpt:
The Turkish judicial system appears to contain all the hallmarks of one that is enmeshed in a rule of law regime—independent courts, numerous avenues for appeal, civilian justice walled off from military justice and robust legal guidelines that adhere to a written constitution. Nevertheless, appearances can be deceiving. The Turkish judiciary suffers from a fundamental flaw, which is that it has often behaved as a political actor and is widely perceived by average Turks to be overly politicized. While the notion that courts are completely insulated from politics is a fallacy—in the U.S., for instance, politicians used to be routinely elevated to the Supreme Court, and Justice William Douglas even mounted a presidential campaign while serving on the court—the perception in Turkey is that the judiciary pursues political aims and that justice is far from being impartial.
This is not to say that the entire system is rotten. Problems with Turkey’s administration of criminal justice are generally blamed on police and law enforcement abuses rather than on the courts. And there are many Turkish judges and prosecutors who perform their jobs in a manner comporting with the highest ethical standards. The level of confidence in Turkey that the judiciary as a whole is neutral or impartial, however, is not nearly as high as it should be.
There are good reasons for Turks to believe that the judicial system is an overtly political one. The first and primary reason is that the courts have intervened in Turkish politics even more often than has the Turkish military, which precipitated a coup during each of the past four decades of the 20th century. Articles 68 and 69 of the Turkish Constitution grant the Constitutional Court the power to shutter political parties whose platforms or activities violate a number of principles, including Turkey’s independence and territorial integrity, human rights, equality, rule of law or—and this is the crucial one—the principles of the secular and democratic republic. The Constitutional Court has relied upon this expansive but nebulously defined power on numerous occasions to close down political parties that have threatened Turkey’s hegemonic Kemalist ideology, targeting Islamist parties and Kurdish parties in particular as violating the principles of the republic.
One might argue that the onus for this lies more with the drafters of Turkey’s constitution drafters than it does with the justices of the Constitutional Court; after all, the justices were granted a constitutional power so it is well within their right to use it. The problem is not that the court has closed political parties per se, but the sheer scope of how often this power is invoked: Since its establishment with the 1961 constitution, the court has closed down 27 political parties. To put this into context, postwar Germany—a state that knows the dangers of illiberal parties all too well—has only outlawed two. The total number of parties closed down in all of Western Europe in the post-World War II period is four. One need not be an expert in the vagaries of the Turkish constitution to understand that the Constitutional Court has oftentimes not acted as an impartial arbiter of law, but has rather functioned as a vanguard for the Kemalist elite and its particular vision of what constitutes Turkey’s best interests.
To read the full piece, including analysis of how the courts almost shuttered the AKP in 2008, how the courts have not really evolved in the switch from Kemalist governments to the AKP but simply changed their priorities, and how the current fight over the judiciary fits into the larger picture, please head over to article at World Politics Review by clicking here (and using this link will allow you to get around the paywall and read the article for free).
January 9, 2014 § 2 Comments
One of the tricky things about democracy is that we think of it as being an end-state that a country can hopefully achieve and maintain – hold regular elections with peaceful transfers of power, establish rule of law, incorporate and protect civil rights – but the pathway to getting there matters. It matters for two main reasons. First, democracy is not only about substance, but also about procedure. Countries that have hollow democratic institutions, where you have parties and elections but ones that are rife with corruption, patronage, irregularities, may look democratic from the outside but are not because their process is fundamentally undemocratic. Elections themselves do not magically confer democracy. Second, people and governments are not inherently democratic. Democracy generally emerges as a way out of a political stalemate or as a compromise between parties who are not powerful enough to impose their will on everyone, and as democratic behavior is repeated and becomes habituated over time, genuine democracy takes hold. In other words, behaving democratically is not innate, but it becomes second nature as it is carried out.
The idea that process matters is enormously important in order to understand what is taking place in Turkey, and why the AKP’s constant drumbeat of claims about the high quality of Turkish democracy must be taken with a huge dose of skepticism. Almost everyone agrees that one of the AKP’s benchmark achievements has been to bring vertical accountability to Turkey, meaning that no unelected entity – in this case the military – wields ultimate power. It is for this reason that Iran is not a democracy no matter how many elections they have and no matter how free and fair they might be (not that they are), and very few people except a band of the most hardcore secular Kemalists would dispute that taking the army out of politics is a good thing and that power should be vested in those who win elections rather than those who carry guns. So the AKP’s campaign to bring the military to heel is an unqualified victory for democracy in Turkey, right? Except that it is not quite that simple, since the way the military was brought under control was through two investigations and trials, known as Ergenekon and Balyoz, that were fundamentally flawed and involved everything from detentions without trail to blatantly forged evidence. Nobody believes that these trials were victories for the rule of law, even if the ultimate end served democracy. Officers were subject to a witch hunt and the army was the victim of a campaign of recrimination in retaliation for its own decades of hounding Islamists and religious Turks, and so while it is an unqualifiedly good thing that the army will no longer be intervening in Turkish politics, nothing about the way that this result was carried out was model democratic behavior. All it did was reinforce the idea that Turkish democracy means winning power through elections and then using that power to act in fundamentally undemocratic ways.
Looking at what is taking place now as the AKP purges thousands of police officers and prosecutors in the name of subverting a coup attempt, you see a similar dynamic. The AKP talks about the Gülen movement as an undemocratic “parallel state” whose power needs to be curbed, and much like the move to curb the power of the military, there is truth in this. After all, it was the Gülenists who were responsible for the shady military trials, and to mistake them for pure democratic actors would be rank naiveté. Yet even taking the AKP’s claims about their former friends at face value, and granting that the Gülen movement uses its influence in the judiciary and the police in unsavory ways and that there needs to be some sort of check, the process here stinks to high heaven. Reassigning hundreds of police officers at once because they arrest people suspected of corruption, nakedly trying to remove all separation of powers and subordinate the judiciary to the power of the government, sending envoys from the prime minister to personally threaten the lead prosecutor of the graft cases, prosecuting eight television channels for reporting about the graft and corruption investigations…there is no way to justify this on democratic grounds, and yet this is precisely the gambit that Erdoğan and the AKP are attempting. By claiming that there is a coup attempt underway and that extraordinary measures must be taken in the name of protecting Turkish democracy, Erdoğan and his government are simply demonstrating that they don’t know the first thing about democracy or how it works.
It is a classic authoritarian gambit to use the powers of the state to go after your enemies and to claim that it is all being done in the name of security and democracy. The fact that the Gülen movement used this tactic to go after the military does not make it acceptable to use the same tactic to go after the Gülen movement. The notion that the corruption investigations constitute an attempt to carry out a coup and overthrow the government would be laughable if what was taking place in Turkey right now wasn’t so damaging to Turkey in the long term. When a government violently cracks down on protestors, fires prosecutors and police who dare to investigate allegations of gross misconduct, introduces legislation to eviscerate judicial independence, and darkly talks about foreign conspiracies supporting domestic terrorists without any shred of evidence, and does all of this in the name of “protecting democracy” and fulfilling the will of the people – people who, if the latest polls are correct, overwhelmingly condemn Erdoğan’s move to block the investigations and purge the police – it has taken an Orwellian turn for the worse. This goes double when hints of changing party rules midstream to allow Erdoğan to run for a fourth term are portrayed as being democratically necessary rather than extraordinary manipulation.
Process and procedure matter. Rule of law is not something to be subverted in order to arrive at democratic ends, because the process of implementing rule of law is itself the mark of democracy. The more that Erdoğan and the Turkish government do whatever they please because they have won elections, the more Turkish democracy withers. The only way for democracy to really take root is to have democratic behavior become repeated ad infinitum until it is routine. As Steven Cook so aptly points out today, the AKP is trying to manipulate Turkish political institutions to achieve its own ends, and Erdoğan’s and the AKP’s “fealty to democratic change extends only so far as it advances their interests.” For those still desperately clinging to the vestiges of 2002 through 2007 and the conviction that “Turkey has never been more democratic than it is under the AKP” despite all recent evidence to the contrary, the repeated and by now habitual flouting of democratic process is not something that Turkey will be able to just shake off when the AKP decides that it is time.
December 26, 2013 § 8 Comments
I said last week that I thought things were inevitably destined to get uglier, and it seems that uglier has arrived. The latest from the AKP-Gülen fallout is that over 500 Turkish police officials and officers have been sacked, investigations have been launched into Prime Minister Erdoğan’s sons Bilal and Bürak along with the newly government-appointed Istanbul police chief, the chief prosecutor in the corruption case has publicly claimed that the government is obstructing his case by ordering the police not to arrest suspects and not to implement judicial decrees, and, in the biggest sign of just how much things have gone off the rails, Erdoğan last night replaced ten cabinet members at once. There is now no question left that this is the biggest crisis by far of the AKP’s time in power and that it overshadows Gezi by orders of magnitude.
If anyone still harbors any doubts that this is an AKP-Gülen fight, those doubts can be put to rest. After the initial arrests and announcements of corruption probes, Erdoğan purposely went after one of the Gülenists’ strongholds in replacing high-ranking police officials wholesale. What is now happening is a showdown between prosecutors, who are still largely Gülenist, and newly appointed police who refuse to carry out the prosecutors’ orders. Any semblance of impartiality and rule of law on either side has been completely thrown out, and Turkish institutions are being harmed in ways that will take years to overcome. When the courts and the police are being used to further nakedly political agendas, it is the first and easiest sign that Turkish democracy is as hollow as it has been since the military was openly running things. How this is going to eventually be sorted out I have no idea, but at this point neither side appears willing to back down and each day brings a new escalation.
Were this the only element to this, I’d put my money on Erdoğan emerging from this bloodied but still standing. However, the earth shattering cabinet shuffle, how it was done, and how Erdoğan assembled his new cabinet lead me to believe that the prime minister is in very serious trouble. In fact, this is the first time it has ever crossed my mind that his tenure as PM is legitimately in danger. First there is the fact that in the span of just a couple of days, Erdoğan went from denouncing any and all allegations of wrongdoing as a foreign plot to accepting the resignations of the three ministers he had been defending so wholeheartedly. Of the three, his closest ally was Erdoğan Bayraktar, who on his way out revealed that he was not resigning of his own free will but had been fired, and – this one is the real shocker – threw Erdoğan under the bus by alleging that any corruption in construction deals had been signed off on by Erdoğan and called on him to resign. For those of you who do not follow Turkey as obsessively as others, high level AKP officials simply do not publicly challenge Erdoğan like that. To put this in context, deputy PM Bülent Arınç made front-page headlines last month when he criticized Erdoğan’s stance on mixed-sex university housing and said that there was a contradiction between his own statements on the issue as the official government spokesman and the PM’s position. That was about the harshest public disagreement I can ever recall seeing between Erdoğan and one of his cabinet members or inner circle. Now, one of his closest cabinet allies has called on him to resign and implicitly accused him of wrongdoing. In addition, the previous interior minister, Idris Şahin, resigned from the party over the police purge and after accusing Erdoğan of allowing a small oligarchy to run the party. While this might be sour grapes due to his being replaced in the last cabinet shuffle earlier this year, it is still another crack in what up until now has been an impenetrable dam. Bayraktar made his comments during a live interview on NTV, which tried to cut him off and then later edited the interview clip on its website and during subsequent airings on television so that Bayraktar’s comments about Erdoğan were absent. That Turkish cabinet ministers now have to be censored because of comments they have made about the prime minister, and particularly when it is a minister known to be close to him, is one sign that the AKP is right now floundering around without much of an idea how to right itself.
Another sign is that it wasn’t just the three ministers whose sons have been implication in corruption who were shown the door. Egemen Bağış, who was EU Affairs minister and who is one of Erdoğan’s closest confidantes and attack dogs, and who often provides a window through his comments into what the prime minister is actually thinking, was removed as well, which to me is the most illuminating part of this entire episode. There have been rumors floating around about Bağış’s role in the scandal and about videotapes of him accepting seven figure bribes, but jettisoning him under pressure is still a remarkable move given his proximity to the prime minister. Furthermore, the new cabinet ministers are only going to make the AKP’s political problem worse, because instead of appointing people who might be more conciliatory, Erdoğan appears to have doubled down in appointing close allies with not much political experience and who are known hardliners. As a representative example, new Interior Minister Efkan Ala is not a member of parliament but is rather one of Erdoğan’s political aides, and reportedly urged Erdoğan to crack down harder on Gezi protestors this summer, calling the Istanbul chief of police to cajole him to use greater force. This is the guy who is now going to be in charge of Turkish domestic security and dealing with unrest, which signals to me that Erdoğan is in full panic mode and not thinking clearly. Once the public becomes more involved in this ongoing saga, things are going to get even worse, and I fear that what we have seen so far is just the warmup act to much more unpleasantness ahead.
All the while, Erdoğan’s comments and the comments of those around him increasingly beggar belief. Whether it is veiled threats to expel the U.S. ambassador, the by now rote accusations of U.S. and Israeli perfidy, the denunciation of foreign plots, Erdoğan’s claiming that photos of ministers accepting bags from businessmen implicated in the corruption scandal could be bags of books or chocolate rather than money (yes, he really said both of those things), Ahmet Davutoğlu’s tired refrain that this is all resulting from the jealousy of unnamed foreign countries determined to keep the new Turkey down…does any of this sound like it is coming from a government that has things under control? Let’s also keep in mind that this is all going down before large-scale or widespread public protests have broken out, and if Erdoğan already felt so much pressure that he was backed into turning over his cabinet in the middle of the night, just think about what will happen once real mass public pressure begins to bubble up. The AKP is shockingly off-message and has gone into full-blown populism mode, but with everything that has gone on and the implicit acknowledgement with the cabinet shuffle that all is not right, I think that Erdoğan might actually have suffered a fatal political wound. If the AKP does worse than expected in the local elections in March, which is a very likely possibility, it seems to me that Erdoğan’s aura of invincibility and stranglehold on his party will be permanently broken. Once that happens the long knives are bound to come out, and with the perfectly acceptable alternative of Abdullah Gül waiting in the wings, Erdoğan’s tenure as the sun around which Turkish politics revolves (to quote my friend Steven Cook) may be done. While I have learned enough to know that Erdoğan should never, ever be counted out or underestimated, we may have finally arrived at the exception to this longstanding rule of Turkish politics.
December 17, 2013 § 8 Comments
For months now there has been open war between the AKP and its erstwhile allies in the Gülen movement. The feuding can be traced back to an overzealous Gülenist prosecutor’s attempt to interrogate Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, and things have spiraled downward from there, with Gülenist media outlets such as Zaman now routinely slamming the prime minister and government officials making shadowy threats about the Gülen movement having to be put down. When the government announced a couple of months ago that it was going to shut down the largely Gülen-run prep schools called dershanes, things began to get really nasty, and despite Tayyip Erdoğan’s eventual partial walk back, in which he announced that nothing would be done about the dershanes until September 2015, this was an effort to strike directly at the Gülenists’ livelihood, which they could not simply ignore. The aftermath of the dershane fight saw all sorts of uncomfortable leaks about the government, including the revelation – that the government did not deny – that back in 2004, the Turkish National Security Council had issued a directive (signed by Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül) that plans should be made to counter and block the Gülen movement. While deputy PM Bülen Arınç and others immediately claimed that the directive was only advisory and was never implemented, the damage was done and the fighting between the top layers of the AKP and the Gülenists was fated to keep on escalating.
That brings us to today, when Turkish police arrested nearly 50 people at Halkbank, including the sons of two cabinet ministers, over corruption allegations in the government tender process. Halkbank has long been reputed to be actively involved in evading U.S. sanction on Iran, and indeed is the bank that processes Turkish payments for Iranian oil and gas, so it is highly likely that this probe is not based on fictitious charges. Nevertheless, it does not escape notice that the Turkish police and judiciary are dominated by Gülenists, and that the Istanbul prosecutor’s office has now arrested a number of people who are prominently connected to the government. Given the timing involved, this does not seem like a mere coincidence. I’ll also note that this fight has been taking place on the margins for awhile (in June 2012 I speculated that a split was coming, and I think that my hunch about who had tapped the PM’s office was likely correct in light of recent events).
Parsing what exactly is going on here is difficult, but I’ll take a stab at it nonetheless. The first big mystery is why Erdoğan decided to take a conflict that had been going along at a barely perceptible simmer and turn it into a huge conflagration with his aborted move against the dershanes. My hunch is that after three national elections in which each subsequent margin of victory was larger than the previous one, Erdoğan decided it was time to flex his muscles and show the Gülenists – who are in many ways natural rivals given their own Islamic, conservative backgrounds and tendencies – who was boss. In doing so, Erdoğan made a mistaken political calculation to rival the mistake he made in his approach to Gezi. If you need proof of this, think about how the conversation a few months ago was about who Erdoğan was going to install as a puppet PM after he assumes the presidency, and now it’s about whether he will be able to control his own party. Because Erdoğan never admits wrongdoing and loathes backing down, this feud was destined to get worse, and my bet is that it will get even worse still. Erdoğan is not going to crawl into a corner and lick his wounds, and I’d bet my last Turkish lira that the fallout from this will get uglier yet. As of this writing, Erdoğan is putting together a board that will have the power to fire prosecutors, which is a direct shot across the bow at the Gülenists.
The second big mystery is what the Gülenists hope to get out of this. There are some who think that the electoral alliance between the AKP and the Gülen movement is now over, but I’m not so quick to declare this marriage completely spent. I don’t see that the Gülenists have anywhere else to go; are socially conservative, religiously pious, pro-growth voters suddenly going to abandon the socially conservative, religiously pious, pro-growth party and vote for CHP? The same CHP that in public and in private denigrates religious voters, or that is so closely associated with the institution – the military – that is the Gülen movement’s biggest foe? I find it very difficult to see a situation in which that is a long term or even sustainable short term political solution for Gülen adherents. I think what is going on here is a struggle to take over the AKP rather than cast it aside now that the Gülenists are feeling personally threatened by past and present government decisions. Based on what I observe, the calculation seems to be to weaken the party ahead of municipal elections in March to the point where some important posts, such as the Istanbul mayoralty, are lost, and make the AKP higher ups realize that they risk losing a great deal if they so blithely cast the Gülenists aside. At the same time, the Gülenists seem to want to do whatever they can to destroy AKP officials or keep them under their thumb, which explains the rumors flying around now about AKP ministers on tape accepting 7 figure bribes and the Halkbank prosecutions. I don’t think the intention here is to break away from the AKP, but to more thoroughly control the AKP.
The great danger in all of this, of course, is that once things get too far out of hand, there is no going back. The Gülen movement may want to show how valuable/powerful they are in an effort to control the party, but the law of unintended consequences always rears its head and may end up blowing up the party instead. Similarly, Erdoğan may want to put the Gülen movement in what he views as its proper place while keeping them in the fold, and instead could prompt his own downfall. There is just no telling where all of this will lead, and neither party seems to want to back down or deescalate in any way. Both the AKP and the Cemaat may have a final aim in mind and think they know how to get there, but the environment right now is amazingly combustible and volatile. Each side is playing a very dangerous game of chicken, and anyone who claims to know precisely how this will end is much wiser than I. But stay tuned, because this is a battle of epic proportions whose chaos has the potential to overwhelm everything else taking place in Turkey.