A regime shielded from criticism. All photos by the authors.
A raft of changes to judicial and police powers is threatening to turn Turkey into an authoritarian police state, according to opponents of the ruling AKP party.
The changes include salary increases and the creation of new judges. The new laws also hand police unprecedented powers to search and investigate anyone whom they have ‘reasonable suspicion’ to believe may have committed a crime. It now seems these new laws are being used to target critics of the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, even before they have technically come into force.
The Turkish Bar Association said it was never consulted on the laws, which will come into effect in January. Although the opposition CHP had indicated it would oppose the bill, the package passed the parliament by 211 votes to 17. The CHP’s representatives declined to comment on where they were for the vote.
Turkish commentators have long criticised the CHP for its lack of visible opposition to Erdoğan’s policies. It may be that CHP lawmakers simply did not believe they could muster enough votes to seriously challenge the plans, and so did not bother to show up. The CHP is at a low point, with some disgruntled members breaking off to found a new Turkish nationalist party. The youth wing has been a bit more vocal, protesting against the law and being tear-gassed by the police the day after the vote, 2 December.
These events were largely overshadowed in Turkish media by the announcement on the same day of the latest round of exemptions from military service. All Turkish men are required to complete five to 12 months service but the government periodically exempts those who have repeatedly deferred it, on payment of a fee of around $8,000.
Even before the law was passed, a journalist who investigated a corruption scandal involving President Erdoğan and members of his family was questioned under ‘reasonable suspicion’ of involvement in anti-government activities.
On 3 December, members of the leftist academic group United June Movement (BHH) were arrested for handing out leaflets about a meeting they had organised. Reports on Twitter by other anti-government groups like the Social Democratic Party indicate their members are also being harassed by police under the new laws. Neslihan Karataş, a member of BHH, described the purpose of the group and the obstruction it received from the government:
Our goal is to hold Turkey’s left together and allow them to work together against AKP’s reactionary, fascistic, capitalist, imperialist agenda. [AKP] don’t want these kind[s] of movements to be visible and powerful. BHH is the movement that provided [for] all of Turkey’s socialist leftist movement and groups to come together and fight together. So, this is for sure becoming a threat to the [AKP]. This actually strengthens us. As [Erdoğan’s] fascistic practices become more visible to the public, we become stronger. We will not be afraid. We will shake off the dark, reactionary power they impose on us.
Critics see the latest developments as part of a rising authoritarian streak in the government. Erdoğan was in power for 12 years as prime minister and recently won the first democratic vote for president. As the London Independent pointed out, this puts him in a position to remove judicial opposition to his reforms by nominating judges. The new legal changes will expand the Supreme Court by eight members to 46 and create hundreds of other new judicial positions throughout the country.
Erdoğan has for some time considered himself a strong ruler in a more old-fashioned mould. In 2012 he made a speech about educational reforms, encouraging his supporters to mobilise against secular opposition, asking: “Am I the sultan? I am the sultan.” His supporters often refer to him as a kind of father figure who has made the nation more prosperous and powerful.
The Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş openly criticised the new laws, saying: “With meetings and protests we will stop this law. This law will backfire, people will not be afraid and go out to the streets … We will defy the parliament and unleash apocalypse in the streets.” The AKP prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu called his remarks “irresponsible”.
When Demirtaş called for protests over Turkey’s failure to support Kurdish fighters in Kobane, violent clashes between Kurds and Turkish police resulted in 30 deaths. Davutoğlu added: “I’m warning Demirtaş. If he is saying they will turn the streets into lakes of blood, then he is responsible for each drop of blood to be shed.”
Other aspects of the new laws are vague and carry the risk of criminalising judges or prosecutors who bring cases against government officials, part of proposals to increase penalties for those in public positions who threaten the “material wealth” of another person.
Another change allows the government access to notary records. A change to the Notary Law contains the sentence: “All information and documents connected to the procedures undertaken by notaries will be recorded and kept on the Turkish Notaries Union information system. These documents and information may be shared with persons and institutions entitled by statute ..."
Erdoğan has managed to fuse capitalism and religion in a successful political combination and is remoulding Turkey’s secular institutions to a more religious image. Education reforms which increase the number of religious schools have upset less religious Turks.
The cultural icon Orhan Pamuk, who won a Nobel prize in 2006 for his novels about modern Turkish society, has said that many are afraid to speak out against the state. “Freedom of expression has fallen to a very low level”, he said. Pamuk was one of a number of well-known writers to sign an open letter in March calling on Turkey to respect freedom of expression.
On 11 December, the anonymous whistleblower ‘Fuat Avni’ began to circulate rumours on Twitter that police would begin a general crackdown on opposition journalists, with editors of opposition newspapers Today’s Zaman, Bugun and Taraf among hundreds of potential targets for arrest. The focus was said to be on affiliates of the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, in revenge for leaks during the 2013 corruption scandal which implicated Erdoğan and members of his family.
People gathered outside the office of Today’s Zaman in solidarity and, by the evening of 12 December, ‘Fuat Avni’ was reporting that the government and police chiefs were delaying the arrests or formulating a new plan. He then reported that the government would pursue prosecutions against the journalists, with their newly created judges and prosecutors, and would begin arrests on 14 December. A scaled-back operation took place, targeting the Gülen-affiliated Zaman newspapers with dozens of arrests of journalists in different cities.
The Putin parallel
Turkey shares with Russia not only deepening economic interests but also the biggest growth in internet censorship. Erdoğan said at Ankara’s International Press Institute in October that he was “increasingly against the internet every day”.
The deterioration of relations between Russia and Turkey and the West and their similar style of leadership has made them ‘natural allies’, according to the pro-AKP Daily Sabah newspaper. Now Putin has strengthened this tie while hitting back at Western sanctions by dropping a planned gas pipeline to Europe—in favour of one to Turkey.
A Eurasian economic partnership of authoritarian strongmen seems to be forming in opposition to Western neoliberal expansionism. While another Turkish writer recently suggested that George Orwell would “applaud” Erdoğan’s policies, the prospect of geopolitical power blocs forming in a new cold war could rather be another of Orwell’s prophetic visions becoming reality.