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Sinan Ciddi on the Current State of Turkish Democracy: Summary and Assessment

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Last Thursday March 19 Sinan Ciddi of the Georgetown Institute of Turkish Studies spoke at Boston University on “Elections and the Struggle for Political Legitimacy.”  His focus was the current state of Turkish democracy, namely how and why current President Erdogan has come to dominate all aspects of the Turkish government and the likely course of Turkish politics in the near future.   Ciddi offered some thought-provoking and timely insights into the current trajectory of AKP rule and the possible outcome of the June 7th general elections.

Erdogan’s rise to power was until recently enthusiastically supported by Western governments and, despite his increasing authoritarianism, Ciddi reminded us that a large plurality of Turks still enthusiastically support Erdogan and his party.  During the last ten years the AKP has transformed the economy and infrastructure of Turkey.  Lower class and rural Turks in particular have seen a significant, positive change in their income and access to necessary services.  Those Turks whose lives have been significantly bettered under Erdogan’s leadership are extremely loyal to his party and him personally and care little about the more abstract political issues at stake.

Ciddi characterizes President Erdogan’s efforts to convert the Turkish government into a Presidential system as “regime change.”  The change is already de facto, but it is important that it has not yet been legally established.  In other words,  though Erdogan operates as if he already the official head of the Turkish government, the office of the Presidency still retains only limited official abilities to influence legislative functions.  During the early years of AKP rule, the party and its leadership were hailed as denizens of [relatively] liberal, democratic change and shining examples of how Islam and democracy could co-exist.  Now Erdogan is daily, and not undeservedly, characterized as an aspiring dictator by the international media.

Erdogan’s seeming transformation from a committed democrat to a committed autocrat has been distressing and puzzling to many of his former Western allies, but Ciddi believes that Erdogan’s current trajectory was in many ways set before he even ascended to the office of Prime Minister.  Ciddi identifies Erdogan’s Islamist background as a significant influence in his current political vision and the instigator of his authoritarianism.  For Turkish Islamists, Kemalism and its program of modernization and Westernization serve as their political foil, and Erdogan’s current political agenda is still significantly motivated by opposition to everything the “old” Turkey represents.  Ciddi points out that though Erdogan insisted that he had accepted the secular, democratic nature of the Turkish state, he provided no proof of his reformation besides his declared conversion.  Ciddi asserts that Erdogan never reformed his beliefs and deep down still maintained a commitment to the illiberal Islamist political vision.  Ironically Erdogan is attempting to eradicate the monolithic ideologically of Kemalism, only to replace it with his own monolithic vision for a “new” Turkey.

Erdgoan’s actions are not pure motivated by political ideology however.  Ciddi believes that there are two other significant factors driving Erdogan: a desire for revenge and the need to escape criminal inquiries.  Turkey’s Islamist movements were subject to decades of political oppression and marginalization.  Erdogan’s mentor, who was also the first Islamist Prime Minister of Turkey, was forced out in a virtual coup and the AKP party itself narrowly avoided being shut down by the constitutional court.  After the constitutional court case against the AKP, Erdogan set about systematically crushing or usurping the power of all the institutions that previously targeted the AKP or its predecessors, in particular the military, the judiciary and the presidency.  But Erdogan may have some even more unsavory rational for curtailing the independence of Turkey’s political institutions.  The corruption charges that were brought to light a little over two years ago were never full investigated.  While Ciddi refuses to say definitely that Erdogan, his son and his closest ministers were involved in graft, he rightfully insists that the allegations need to be fully investigated.  However, it is very clear that the investigation will never see the light of day so long as Erdogan maintains his grip on power.

Ciddi concluded his talk with general observations and predictions about political future of Turkey.  Turkish society is currently extremely polarized politically. largely thanks to Erdogan’s handling of the Gezi protests and his subsequent consolidation of power.  Though the opposition parties remain divided, unpopular and ineffective, Erdogan has been unable to crush the grassroots opposition.  The individualistic, disorganized nature of the popular opposition actually works in its favor.  Erdogan can and will continue to arrest individuals who dare to speak out against him but the lack of organization and leadership means that he will never be able to silence even a fraction of his citizen critics.  In this line, Ciddi expects that there will be social and political turbulence in Turkey for the foreseeable future.  The Gezi protests made clear that Erdogan does not know how to manage popular protest movements, and indeed they are a new phenomenon in Turkey.  Previous opposition movements were institutionally based, organized through unions and fringe political parties, and Turkish politicians have no political playbook for dealing with disorganized popular movements.  Turkey has not seen such social unrest since 1978.  At this point, “anything can happen.”

I am in general agreement with the majority of Ciddi’s analysis, with my major point of contention being the origins of Erdogan’s authoritarian ambitions.  I have argued elsewhere that it is the illiberal nature of Turkish political institutions, not his Islamist roots, that set the stage for Erdogan’s consolidation of power.  Ciddi’s introduction of the idea that revenge was a motive in Erdogan’s campaigns to crush the power of the military and judiciary is an interesting one.  I don’t rule out revenge as a factor, in all probability it did play a role.  However, I still believe that the major motivating factor behind the efforts to subvert the power of the military and judiciary, not to mention Erdogan’s coveting of the presidency, was simply to consolidate and retain power.

There were several interesting points brought up during the Q&A after Ciddi’s talk.  Prescient of yesterday’s very public intra-AKP spat, Ciddi asserts that there are very real fractures within the leadership of the AKP and that the rank and file of the party are increasingly unhappy.  He attributes some of this frustration to the fact that since become president, Erdogan has closed himself off to all but his most inner circle of advisers. During his years as Prime Minister, Erdogan had a very open and even collaborative relationship with his advisers and other party members according to Ciddi.  He characterized party divisions and infighting as natural given Erdogan’s de-facto one-man rule.  Such a political system is inherently a house of cards and all those within the system are aware of its weakness.  Ciddi also posited that Davutoglu may not be the simply Erdogan puppet many are making him out to be and he may assert his independence after the upcoming election.

Regarding the most talked about component of the election, the Kurdish vote, Ciddi urges caution.  He reminded us that the HDP and its leadership have their own ideological agenda centered around Kurdish nationalism and autonomy. and predicted that even if the HDP breaks the 10% threshold and is able to seat its candidates in parliament, they may very well be induced into forming an alliance with the AKP in return for greater Kurdish regional autonomy.  Ciddi added that this would ultimately be a misguided political gamble as he believes that Erdogan in the end is not truly committed to meeting Kurdish demands for equal rights and political autonomy.

I agree with Ciddi’s assessment of Erdogan’s position on this issue but would posit that the HDP leadership, and even most ordinary Kurds, are well aware that Erdogan is largely disingenuous in his efforts toward Kurdish-Turkish reconciliation.  It is like the Turkey-EU assention situation, Turkey knows that the EU will never actually allow it to join them but is unwilling to fully pull out of the assention process.  In both situations the spurned party is willing to let talks go on as there is no desire to upset the status quo and risk returning to the bad old days.  The HDP will indeed bring their own agenda if their candidates are seated in parliament, but unlike Ciddi I don’t believe they would acquiesce to being the AKP’s puppets. To become a partner in the AKP’s illiberal policy agenda would be to support policies that are likely to be disproportionally used against Kurds.  If the Kurdish party earns more than 10% of the vote, and this is still a big if, it will be a significant net positive for Turkish democracy.

Ciddi believes that the AKP will still enjoy a majority in parliament after the June 7th elections, though they will not have enough seats to pass the constitutional changes needed to create a presidential system.  As he himself confessed, Ciddi is not a fan of the AKP but he also could not envision any other current Turkish political party actually governing.  The CHP is notorious among Turks for being corrupt and inefficient and the MHP is more than happy to remain a minority opposition voice. The takeaway from Ciddi’s talk: the AKP is not going anywhere, but that does not mean that Turks will sit by idly as Turkey is transformed into a one-party state.

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Twitter and the March 30th Elections

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My prediction that Turkey would not ban twitter was disproven in remarkably short order.  Starting midnight Friday Turkish time twitter was blocked.  The ban failed spectacularly with millions of Turks using DNS and VPN networks, tricks that have become common knowledge in Turkey from the days of the YouTube ban, to circumvent the block.  Tweets in Turkey were up 138% from average in the the hours immediately after the ban.  Within a matter of hours, news of the ban had gone viral worldwide and everyone from the US State Department to Russell Crowe put out statements condemning it.

Despite  the world-wide condemnation (which Erdogan famously stated he did not care about), the ambiguous legality of the court orders instituting it and the epic failure of the ban to prevent anyone from using twitter (besides party die-hards), the blockade has still not be lifted.  Sunday, Erdogan once again denounced Facebook and YouTube, leading to fears that these social networks will be blocked shortly.  Of greater concern is the fact that DNS networks were blocked over the weekend and rumor has it, thanks to the new internet law, the government will soon have the ability and legal authority to block specific IP addresses, making subverting social network bans much more difficult for the average person.  However as Zeynep Tufekci observed, only a full block of the internet would prevent Turks from finding ways to get online.

Some have dismissed the twitter ban as technological and political naivete, or the last desperate efforts of a tyrant on his way out.  Though the ban in many ways has been a complete failure and is no doubt an indicator that Erdogan fears for his political future, there is shrewd political calculation behind this move.  Erdogan is betting that the ban will do more damage to his opponents than to himself in the final days leading up to the March 30 elections.  Evidence of Erdogan’s motives appeared shortly after the ban was put in place  when the hashtag “we’ll go to the streets for Twitter” began trending in Turkish.  Government critics and opposition figures countered this sentiment, calling for calm, and it was soon discovered that the hashtag was most likely spread by government trolls.  Erdogan was likely expecting the banning of twitter, a platform that figured prominently during the Gezi protests last summer, to trigger more protests.  In the year since Gezi, Erdogan and his political allies have been using the threat of “Gezi People” trying to destroy Turkish democracy and overthrow a duly elected government as a way to strengthen their hold over their conservative base.  Protests in response to the ban would have only served to strengthen his case.

It is also widely believed that the twitter ban may be a preemptive strike against the release of even more serious evidence of Erdogan’s involvement in corrupt activities, or possibly even a sex tape, in the last week before the March 30 elections.  Although the block on twitter would do little to stop the dissemination of such tapes, bans on YouTube and Facebook in addition to the blockage of IP address might indeed slow their spread among all but the most technologically savvy Turks.  However, it is important to note that such new evidence, if it does exist, may not do much to change the mind of current AKP supporters. At least some supporters do not believe the party’s denial of corruption charges.  Multiple reports have found that Erdogan supporters are willing to ignore or accept corruption because of the economic and infrastructure improvements the AKP has brought about over the last 10+ years.

Like the corruption allegations, the twitter ban indeed appears to have done little to diminish Erdogan’s popularity among his base supporters.  He was cheered after announcing his intention to shut down twitter at a rally in Bursa Thursday and was again met with approving cheers when he spoke of doing the same to Facebook and YouTube at an even bigger rally in Istanbul Sunday.  Unlike Mubarak, whose attempt to ban twitter was indeed an indication that his rule was coming to an end, Erdogan is a legitimately elected head of state.  Despite the fact that he is increasingly despised by 50% or more of the population, the fractured and ineffective nature of the opposition parties means that the AKP still enjoys a plurality of support among Turks, and that’s all they may need in order for the party to continue to control the key cities of Istanbul and Ankara.

Given the symbolic importance that both the government and the opposition have ascribed to this election, analysts and pollsters have already spent months trying to predict its outcome, especially in the mayoral races in Istanbul and Ankara.  Turkish polls are notoriously biased (one of the leaked tapes revealed Erdogan personally fixing a poll before it was released) and methodologically unsound.  However, given the recent gerrymandering of local election districts, the resilience of the AKP’s base and the weakness of the opposition, the AKP may very well legitimately maintain power in Turkey’s two largest cities.  Despite the fact that the odds are arguably in their favor, there have been concerns about the possibility of election fraud, which has not been the case in decades.  The EU has offered to send observers and the government has at least officially welcomed the offer.

Even if these elections are monitored, I foresee accusations of fraud no matter which side ultimately prevails.  Given the importance of these elections for the AKP’s self-declared mandate, observers have rightly worried that they will have no qualms about stuffing ballot boxes.  However, a potentially more dangerous scenario would be for the opposition parties to take Ankara and Istanbul legitimately, only to have the government question the legality of the elections.  This could lead to the canceling of the elections and Erdogan securing an even tighter grip on power, having more “proof” that there is a 5th column trying to revert to the bad old days of secular dictatorship.  This would be a worst-case scenario, but most credible predictions about Turkey’s immediate future look bleak.  Unless a strong opposition party emerges, and the AKP collapses, Erdogan will continue to push the country into two ever more entrenched camps.  The more polarized the country is, the more difficult it will be for the two sides to reconcile within a democratic system.

Don’t Panic Revisited

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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.

Written by ataturksrepublic

January 21, 2014 at 5:01 pm