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As of a few days ago, I am officially a new co-editor of the Iran, Iraq and Turkey section of Muftah.org. I will have a regular post up on the site every Sunday, but will continue to maintain this blog as well for my more specialized and theoretical reflections. You can read the pieces I have already contributed to the site here. I am very excited to be working with the great team over at Muftah and encourage you to spend some time checking out their great collection of articles.
In December I wrote a post arguing that the power of the current government, while formidable, was not absolute. However, in the 7 weeks or so since I wrote that piece, the situation has drastically changed. In order to fight back against the “parallel state” they claim is behind the ongoing corruption investigation, the government has set about consolidating its power. (Just today a bill was proposed that will mandate consent of the Prime Minister in order to prosecute senior members of the military and 800 journalists from the state-run TRT news conglomerate). Most worrying is a bill that will be up for debate in Grand National Assembly this week that, if passed and signed by President Gul, will strip the judiciary of any independence from the executive branch. Because of the AKP’s large majority in the Assembly, the bill is expected to pass when brought to a vote.
Before the restructuring of the judiciary could take effect, President Gul would have to sign it into law. Gul has long been the voice of reason in Turkish politics and many, including myself, have hoped that he could serve as an effective check on Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies. Unfortunately, Gul’s actions last week show his comparative liberalism may be all talk. He signed into law a widely criticized bill that makes it illegal to provide first aid to a sick or injured person without “authorization.” Gul has also refrained from criticizing either the medical or judicial bill. In the case of the judicial bill, he has expressed hope that the same reforms to the judiciary can be done through a constitutional amendment, which would relive Gul of the responsibility of having to put his signature on the bill.
For the first time since I started writing about Turkey, I believe that its democratic institutions are seriously under threat. If this bill is passed and the judiciary is effectively merged with the executive Erdogan and the AKP will have destroyed the last internal check to their political power. If the AKP has a strong showing in the March elections, which polls and reporting suggest will happen, I would not be surprised if Erdogan announces his intention to continue on as Prime Minister.
If there was ever a time for the US to throw its diplomatic arsenal at Turkey, it is now. Unfortunately, the US government has stated its intention to do precisely the opposite. On January 12 Secretary of State Kerry met with Foreign Minister Davutoglu and they subsequently held a joint press conference. The press conference revealed that Kerry and Davutoglu discussed Turkey’s ongoing political problems. However, Kerry also unequivocally stated that “the United States of America has absolutely no interest in being caught up in or engaged in or involved in the internal politics, the election process of Turkey.” I would normally agree that the US should keep its distance from internal political rows, but this is an exceptional case. Given the strategic and symbolic importance maintaining democracy in Turkey, it would be detrimental not only to Turkey but to US interests for the Department of State to avoid voicing its displeasure regarding recent political developments. If done behind the scenes as to avoid playing in to current conspiracy theories, I believe a multi-facited diplomatic blitz could discourage Turkey’s leadership from further assaults against the country’s democratic structures. Not only should State personel be involved in this effort, but President Obama should take advantage of his historically close relationship with PM Erdogan and make a personal appeal. Turkey is in several tight diplomatic spots right now. It is going ahead with plans to pump oil from Iraqi Kurdistan, much to the chagrin of the central government in Baghdad. The Syrian crisis has flooded Turkey with refugees and compromised the safety of its southern borders. If the US offers to help Turkey solve these or other international problems the Turkish government may be more inclined to take US displeasure with the current political developments seriously. If the US government is truly committed to supporting democracy building abroad, it must make efforts to prevent the erosion of democracy in one of its most strategic allies.