Turkey: The death of democracy

Turkey: The death of democracy

Turkish political scientists warn of the prospect of Erdogan’s authoritarian restructuring of the Turkish state outlasting his tenure

In October 2014, Istanbul was offered formal invitation by the European Parliament to begin proceedings for Turkey to join the exclusive club of liberal democracies that make up the European Union. It was an offer that was celebrated domestically by the Turkish State as proof of the universal appeal of the President’s self-described Muslim Democrat world view. However less than half a decade later, in 2018, Turkey is now one of the world’s largest prisons for journalists, academics and human rights activists. Last year, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary assembly voted to reinstate a full monitoring procedure against Turkey for the first time in 13 years citing ‘serious’ concern over current President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) respect for human rights and commitment to upholding democracy and the rule of law.

The withering criticism offered by the Council of Europe is mirrored in the comments made by The Venice Commission, a body of experts whose job it is to advise the European Council on constitutional matters. In its latest report, the Commission called Erdogan’s ability to ‘dissolve parliament on any grounds whatsoever’ as fundamentally alien to Democratic Presidential systems. According to RSF’s latest World Press Freedom Index, Turkey dropped two places from its spot in 2017 and is now ranked 157 out 180 countries. Similarly, Freedom House, a prestigious democracy watchdog downgraded Turkey’s freedom status from ‘partly free’ to ‘not free’ in its latest assessment 

Paradoxically, despite presiding over what Freedom House has categorised as the ‘most dramatic declines of freedom worldwide in the last decade’, Erdogan and the AKP’s assault on the inalienable rights of its citizens seems to receive scant attention in the public eye. Nor does it seem that the systematic and arbitrary incarceration of tens of thousands of lawyers, journalists, academics, soldiers and members of Turkish civil society has had an adverse effect on the popularity of Turkey as one of the world’s premier tourist destinations with 40 million travellers expected to visit by the end of 2018 alone. 

An increasingly tyrannical reign

Under the increasingly tyrannical reign of Recep Tayip Erdogan, Prime Minister for 11 years before becoming President in 2014, Turkey has veered away from the democratic reforms that were a precondition to its entry into the EU.  Instead, Erdogan the AKP have pursued an increasingly repressive and authoritarian approach and in doing so, have reversed decades of hard earned Turkish democratic progress. In other words, less than five years since Turkey received its formal invitation to join the EU, Turkish democracy lies on its death bed. 

Erdogan’s disdain for freedom of speech, expression and association has been an undercurrent in Turkish politics since his rise to power as Mayor of Istanbul in 1994. However, his all-out assault against these universal and inalienable rights expanded and accelerated in the wake of an attempted coup in July 2016.  In the immediate aftermath of the failed coup, Erdogan imposed a state of emergency and forced through a series of laws including a constitutional referendum in April 2017 that has allowed him and the AKP party to use the coup-attempt as an excuse to initiate a wide-ranging crackdown on any political opponents both real and perceived.

The laws before the failed coup and those that have been forced through by the AKP after the state of emergency centralise the power of the Turkish State in the hand of the President. By changing Turkey from a Parliamentary to a Presidential democracy, Erdogan and his subordinates have bestowed themselves with the ability to use the power of the Turkish State to impose punitive measures and silence independent and critical voices within Turkish civil society. In a recent report, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Turkey warned that Erdogan has, ‘created one of the worst environments for freedom of expression in Turkey in decades, if not one that is unprecedented in its modern history’. 

The emergency decrees adopted in the aftermath of the attempted coup are far-reaching and apply to anyone ‘assessed to be’ a member of a terrorist organisation as well as to anyone acting in union with or in contact with such organisations. Problematically, the decrees themselves are vaguely defined and do not specify the criteria on which over whom is guilty or innocent are based. Due to this ambiguity, they end up providing Erdogan and State authorities overly broad discretion to categorise who falls within either category. 

In effect, these decrees have allowed Erdogan and his subordinates to harass, intimidate and arrest any Turkish citizen they deem to be problematic as ‘terrorist sympathisers’ with the persons concerned not provided with any evidence against them and in many cases are unaware they are being investigated. Since the adoption of the emergency decrees, more than 30,000 people have been jailed and upwards of 100,000 soldiers, judges, teachers and civil servants have been dismissed from their jobs and blacklisted preventing them from finding work in the country again in the future. 

Squeezing civil society

In 2018, the Erdogan government imprisons more journalists than the rest of the world combined. According to the Stockholm Centre for Freedom there are at least 237 journalists and media workers in Turkish prisons as of August 2018 while nearly 10,000 journalists and media workers have been dismissed from their jobs. Part of Erdogan’s Machiavellianism has been to use the legal system to jail journalists. International observers have reported a number of instances where Erdogan has used the sweeping powers afforded to him as President under the state of emergency to implicate journalists in fabricated terrorism-related charges.

In a similar vein, since 2014, Erdogan and the AKP have strengthened their control over Turkeys judicial system. Erdogan has used his power as President to arrest, dismiss and force through the transfers of judges, prosecutors and lawyers on the grounds of affiliation with the banned Gulen movement. A movement that the AKP themselves had been closely aligned with until a split between the two in 2013. The Independence of the judiciary has been decimated by a process which has seen thousands of new, loyalist judges appointed in recent years at the same time as the dismissal or detention of up to 1/3rd of Turkeys existing judges.

The last few years has also seen Erdogan and the AKP revise the content of the national school curriculum to include religious and ideological content that matched the views of the government. The extended state of emergency has provided the authorities with a platform to exert greater control over the discourse taking place amongst students and professors in University Campuses. Following the attempted coup, the Government dismissed approximately 27,000 school teachers, as well as over 5,000 professors and administrators at universities. The licenses of approximately 21,000 teachers in schools operated by the Gulenist movement were cancelled. Under the state of emergency decrees of February 2017, 15 Universities were shut down, more than 5,000 academics were expelled in addition to a further 2,585 school teachers.  

What have we learnt?

One of the major tragedies of Erdogan’s quest for unbridled power has been his assault on the independence of Turkish state institutions. Those that he could not bend to his will, he manipulated. Those that he could not manipulate, he simply hollowed out, stripped and shut down till there were none left capable of presenting a political challenge to his repressive government policies. This rapid and systemic destruction of all the checks and balances in Turkish society capable of pushing back against the Erdogan’s tyrannical exercise of executive power has alarmed scholars who have spent decades observing the trajectory of Turkish politics.

Turkish political scientists warn of the prospect of Erdogan’s authoritarian restructuring of the Turkish state outlasting his tenure at the pinnacle of Turkish politics. The trouble with informal institutions or ‘the way things are’ is that they are uncodified. The lasting and pervasive damage inflicted by Erdogan’s newly centralised and authoritarian state structure does not solely consist of the draconian laws, rules, regulations and decrees passed by the AKP under the cover of the declared state of emergency, but rather through informal social norms based on ‘the way things have long been done’ that entrench themselves into our thinking and everyday social interactions. In this manner, academics warn that Authoritarianism has a tendency of building upon itself.

Turkish democracy’s descent into authoritarianism represents a standout case of a country rolling back democratic reforms. Its demise should serve as a valuable reminder to us all that we cannot take our democracy, however fragile, for granted. Under Erdogan’s extended reign at the helm of Turkish politics, Turkey has seen a squeezing of civil society space which in turn signals a radical backslide from its prior democratic path. An alarming trend that requires substantial attention and sustained world-wide diplomatic pressure to halt and reverse.