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Reconciling the AKP's vision of Turkey

Turkey's reality is hardly the picture of unabated democratic progress that Prime Minister Davutoğlu paints. But should the AKP be judged so harshly for continuing what are, by comparison, some of the milder faults of its predecessors? 

Alexander Christie-Miller
17 December 2014

This article is a response to a conversation between Richard Falk and Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, which took place on 28th September–see part 1part 2part 3 and part 4. There was much internal debate at openDemocracy about whether or not to publish the series. Read the Editor in Chief's reasons for doing so here, along with the many other responses to Davutoğlu published in this series, listed to the right under 'Related Articles'.

Turkey President Erdogan's palace edited.jpg

The new 1000-room, presidential 'White Palace' (Ak Saray) in Ankara. The government pushed through its construction in spite of two separate court orders calling for a halt on the grounds that it was illegal. Demotix/Nathan Morley. All rights reserved. 

“Representative democracy is based on the separation of powers. I believe we can now declare that representative democracy has been guaranteed in Turkey,” says Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in his interview published in openDemocracy today. He describes a country in which military dominance has been replaced with democratic, civilian rule, in which institutions serve the nation, and in which “a new balance between accountability and responsibility” has emerged in government. 

It’s a picture that—outside of AKP’s admittedly large constituency—few observers of Turkey’s progress over the past few years will recognise. Only this weekend police arrested more than two dozen opposition journalists, TV producers and former police officers on dubious charges of ‘founding an armed terror group’. Meanwhile, 35 football fans went on trial this week on similarly flimsy charges of ‘mounting a coup attempt’ against the government for joining mass protests in summer 2013.

AKP’s opponents allege the exact opposite of what Davutoğlu claims: that the party’s ‘civilianisation’ of Turkey’s politics has entailed the partisan takeover of the state apparatus by AKP supporters, attacks on freedom of expression, the rule of law and separation of powers, and a steady dwindling of citizens’ ability to challenge their leaders.

When listing the steps AKP has taken in this direction in the past year alone, it is practical to resort to bullet points: 

- In February 2014, it passed a law allowing a government-appointed board to order the blocking without court order of any website within four hours. After then-Prime Minister Erdogan vowed to "eradicate Twitter", this was blocked, along with YouTube, a ban that was lifted a month later after the country’s Constitutional Court ordered that it was "illegal and arbitrary".

- In the same month, the AKP passed a new law handing the government more direct control over the country’s top judicial board, opening the way for increased political manipulation of the judiciary. The Constitutional Court later annulled some articles of the law on the grounds that they violated the separation of powers.

- In April, amendments to an existing law dramatically expanded the powers—and reduced the accountability—of the National Intelligence Agency (MIT). Journalists leaking intelligence documents now face tougher prison sentences; MIT operatives enjoy effective immunity from prosecution, at the same time as receiving sweeping new powers to spy on Turkish citizens.

- Published this week, a draft bill on security would increase police powers to carry firearms, extend detention without trial to 48 hours and allow for the searching of suspects without court order, as well as extending prison sentences for those convicted of involvement in ‘propaganda protests’.

- Also this week, the government announced it is working on a draft bill to end the autonomy of Turkey’s chambers of architects and engineers, which have acted in recent years as one of the few organisations capable of effectively scrutinising and challenging a series of contentious and environmentally-devastating mega-projects.

It’s hard to see the consistency between the sentiments Davutoğlu expresses to Richard Falk—“The rule of law underpins all efforts to prevent any type of majoritarianism and to ensure the protection of human rights”—and the government’s own recent legislative record. Unless, of course, majoritarianism is the goal, as one might conclude from listening to the pronouncements of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—increasingly the sun around which the Turkish state revolves.

In August, Erdogan became Turkey’s first elected president. “In a democracy, everything comes from the ballot box,” he said in June—a sentiment he has often repeated before and since. The nakedly majoritarian concept of a ‘national will’ has become a staple slogan in his and the AKP’s arsenal when justifying their often-contentious policies, or at the massive rallies he has marshaled to demonstrate his authority. In a move symbolic of the winds of change in Turkey, a vast new 1,150-room palace, originally built for the prime ministry when Erdogan occupied that office, was promptly shifted to the presidency after his election.

In his interview, Davutoğlu tellingly dodges Falk’s question about whether he will now be forced to play second fiddle to Erdogan (in spite of the fact that Turkey’s constitution invests the prime minister, not the president, with the lion’s share of executive power). The latest ministry budget allocations for 2015 give a hint of where things may be headed. While spending will rise on average by 5.5 per cent, the presidency’s will rise 97 per cent, while Davutoglu’s prime ministry will find itself slightly worse off—dropping 0.5 per cent. 

The new presidential palace has itself become a symbol of the lack of accountability and contempt for the rule of law of which the AKP’s opponents accuse it. The government pushed through its construction in spite of two separate court orders calling for a halt to building work on the grounds that it was illegal. Appeals are still pending, though the building opened in October. “If they are strong enough, let them come and tear it down,” Erdogan said about those court decisions. “I will inaugurate it, I will move in, and I will do my job.”

The enemies within

It is impossible to properly understand recent developments, particularly the avalanche of legislation in the past year, without referring to the monumental row that burst into the open last December between AKP and its one-time ally, the Gülen Movement—or as Davutoglu calls it, the ‘parallel state’.

Few observers seriously question that the Gülenists were the driving force behind the series of police investigations that became public in that month, alleging massive corruption in AKP’s top ranks, and that those investigations were an effort to topple the government. In the eyes of AKP, it was a 'coup attempt’, the combatting of which justified extraordinary measures.

That’s partly why the AKP has been able to style authoritarian moves as necessities to preserve more basic democratic government. To save itself, the AKP had to exert massive pressure on the judiciary, forcing the swift removal of state prosecutors supervising the probes, as well as the dismissal or transfer of thousands of police officers either involved in them or otherwise suspected of Gülenist sympathies. Meanwhile, it has done a poor job of credibly denying the details of the corruption allegations themselves.

“The corruption isn’t complete rubbish. It exists,” Etyen Mahcupyan, Davutoğlu’s chief advisor, acknowledged on live national television last month, also admitting that the government had gone “outside the normative legal limits” to thwart the probes. “Because it didn’t want a coup, society decided to bear corruption for a while longer,” he told the CNN Turk interviewer. “Turkey is undergoing an important transformation. There was no willingness to see the gains of the last 10 years lost in one swoop.”

One of the clever pieces of ‘newspeak’ that the AKP and its supporters have successfully introduced into Turkey’s political lexicon is the description of the Gülen movement as the ‘parallel state’. The movement had indeed infiltrated the state and its supporters had been responsible for a string of legal abuses against their opponents that smeared Turkey’s reputation before the AKP’s latest lurch towards authoritarianism. However the use of this phrase offers a rationale by which any public functionary who offers resistance to AKP’s agenda may be pursued and prosecuted merely on the grounds of their ideological or religious views.

It would be wrong, however, to believe that AKP’s regressive tendencies only appeared after the Gülenist row. When exercising power, Turkish political parties have long operated on a principle known as kadrolaşma—the peopling of state institutions with one’s own followers. In the country’s fractured political past, parties never held power for long enough to carry out this process comprehensively.

Different branches of the state were split between different camps; the bureaucracy was dysfunctional and served narrow and conflicting political interests. The military hovered in the background, ready to intervene if things took a turn not to its liking. The AKP has abolished this state of affairs. It does not follow, however, that they have built impartial, credible state institutions in its place. The AKP’s ‘civilianization’, as many people see it, is merely kadrolaşma carried to its logical conclusion. 

The Gülenists—perhaps the most efficient practitioners of kadrolaşma Turkey has ever seen—were intimately involved in this process, working hand in hand with AKP to infiltrate state institutions, then launching from their strongholds in the police and judiciary, a series of dubious trials under which hundreds of military officers, as well as bureaucrats, academics, writers, and journalists, were imprisoned on charges that have since been exposed as largely cooked up.

The Gülenists and the AKP had long been using state institutions to pursue their enemies and consolidate their power by undemocratic means. For examples, one could look at the punitive multi-billion dollar tax fine levied against the anti-government Doğan Media Group in 2009. At the time, Doğan had been aggressively reporting another AKP corruption scandal—the Deniz Feneri case in Germany, that exposed signs of serious wrongdoing by members of Turkey’s governing party. Like the latest corruption allegations, they too were swept under the carpet. Since then, Doğan has shed some of its media titles, and the remainder have markedly toned down their criticisms.

For a more recent example, one might look at the country’s first ever presidential elections, in which Davutoğlu’s predecessor Recep Tayip Erdogan won 52 per cent of the vote. A delegation from the OSCE noted what it said were the “misuse of state resources, the staging of campaign activities during official state events,” and biased news coverage in favour of Erdogan’s campaign. 

This was hard to miss for anyone following the elections inside Turkey, since it extended to the country’s large taxpayer-funded media. Over the course of three days leading up to the vote, TRT, the state TV broadcaster, aired five hours of Erdoğan’s election campaign, and none at all of his opponents. The example is important, given that elections are increasingly the sole yardstick by which he would have Turkey’s democracy be measured.

What's the yardstick?

Of course, it’s possible to paint things in a more positive light. After all, Turkey has never been a haven of democratic values. The chaotic 1970s are remembered for nightmarish street violence between rightist and leftist gangs; the 1980s opened with a military coup in which 600,000 people were arrested and hundreds ‘disappeared’; the 1990s were characterised by the worsening Kurdish insurgency in the southeast in which the army drove some 350,000 Kurds from their villages. 

By this yardstick, the first decade of the Twentyfirst Century was a golden age for Turkey—the economy surged, torture was dramatically reduced in prisons, and the situation of the country’s long-suffering religious and ethnic minorities has eased. Should the AKP be judged so harshly for continuing what are, in comparison, some of the milder faults of their predecessors? 

The AKP is currently engaged in peace negotiations with the PKK, and is holding out the prospect of enhanced rights for Kurds, though progress has been glacially slow. It is also embarking on an initiative aimed at solving the grievances of Turkey’s Alevi community, a Muslim minority who feel marginalised under AKP, and who make up between 15 to 20 per cent of the population.

Its claims of inclusiveness may be vindicated if either of these initiatives bear fruit, though the AKP’s opponents—and sometimes the target communities themselves—view them as cynical efforts to bolster the party’s vote ahead of elections next year. Those elections are crucial because the AKP hopes to garner enough seats to replace Turkey’s constitution—which dates from the time of the military junta that ruled Turkey after the 1980 coup—with a new, more progressive document. 

As ever, intentions that appear positive on the surface contain darker undertones: the AKP is determined to endow Erdogan with even stronger executive power. His most recent election marks the only time that a plurality of voters have ever backed Erdogan's vision for a 'New Turkey'–and that in a race against a weak opposition candidate, on a relatively low turnout, and with the state apparatus campaigning for him.

For many of those that did not vote for him, the prospect of an even stronger Erdogan is a frightening one.

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