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Turkey: the road towards dictatorship and the west’s responsibility

The recent arrests of HDP co-leaders and MPs is another dangerous episode in Turkey’s road towards absolute dictatorship.

Thanassis Stavrakis AP/Press Association Images. All rights reservedLet us stop pretending otherwise: Turkey is now under a dictatorial regime established step by step under the gaze of, and with tacit support from western governments and institutions. Kurdish and democratic forces within the country are paying a heavy price, not only because of the brutality of the AKP ruling elite informed by a mix of neoliberal economic policies and political Islam, but also the failure of western governments and institutions to read the script correctly and develop a principled response. The west’s failure today is similar to the appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s.

At the time of writing, at least 11 MPs from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), including co-leaders Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas, have been arrested and the party’s headquarters have been raided. These atrocities followed long interruptions of the internet in the Kurdish region. This is a large-scale collective punishment with the aim of spreading fear among the population at large. One can only wonder how a NATO member and EU candidate can disrupt communications, business transactions and public services, including health provisions without any challenge from western governments.

Tracking the cumulative authoritarianism of AKP rule

The Turkish multi-party system had been a veneer for an essentially state-centric and authoritarian regime since 1947. The regime has always oscillated between parliamentary elections and military coups. The electoral victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 was presented as a breakthrough. Yet, the AKP had soon become an architect of cumulative authoritarianism and has recently acted as a midwife for a botched coup. This trajectory has been underpinned by an Islamo-Calvinist belief in the market economy that resonates with neoliberal economic dogmas. It requires adherence to an Islamic political order in which elections are devices to confirm those in power rather than means of holding them to account and ensuring minority rights.

11 MPs from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), including co-leaders Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas, have been arrested and the party’s headquarters have been raided.Indeed, the transition to the current dictatorial regime started in 2005, soon after the AKP elite felt confident enough that there was sufficient support for Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conception of democracy as a train, which you disembark once you reach the right station. In March 2005, less than six months after a local election victory, Erdogan branded demonstrators protesting police brutality against women in Istanbul as ‘Euro-informers’ – i.e., traitors whose loyalties are to foreign powers rather than to the Turkish state. This statement set in motion a 10-year process of authoritarian consolidation, during which all political dissent was equated with treason and conspiracy.

The first casualty of this consolidation process has been the institutions of good governance. Between 2005 and 2015, Turkey remained in the bottom 50% on the World Bank Governance Indicators. Governance quality fell from the bottom 48% to the bottom 35% with respect to voice and accountability; and from the bottom 28% to 10% with respect to political stability. Its ranking when it comes to rule of law stagnated around 57% and eventually fell to around 50% by 2016. Large-scale corruption scandals involving government officials and their political backers have been covered up and those who exposed them silenced.

After the botched coup of July 2016, tens of thousands of academics and educationalists have been fired.

Press freedom was curtailed year after year. According to Freedom House data, Turkey was ‘partly free’ with respect to press freedom in 2005. In 2015, it became ‘not free’. In 2016, the legal and political environment of press freedom in Turkey was among the worst 10-15% in the world.

Turkey has never been known for academic freedom. State tutelage over the higher education system has been enshrined both in the Constitution and under the Higher Education Law. Academics have always been forced to toe the government’s line under successive AKP governments; and those who signed a letter calling for peace and for international monitoring of state violence in Kurdish towns and cities have been persecuted since late 2015.

After the botched coup of July 2016, tens of thousands of academics and educationalists have been fired, and the president has been given the power to hand pick all public university vice-chancellors, leading to an unprecedented atmosphere of fear in the system. According to Scholars at Risk’s 2016 report, the Turkish government's actions have “harmed the reputation of Turkey’s higher education sector as a reliable partner for research projects, teaching and study exchanges, and international conferences and meetings.”

Despite political pressure from within, and recommendations by international human rights lawyers since 2005,  successive AKP governments avoided meaningful peace negotiations with the Kurds. Eventually they pulled out of a half-baked ‘peace process’ just after the elections in June 2015. Indeed, between June and the second round of elections in November 2015, the AKP government used state-orchestrated violence to silence the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). After the elections in November, the AKP unleashed an unprecedented military attack on the Kurds, destroying towns and cities, killing innocent civilians, and causing a massive wave of internal displacement. The unlawful and disproportionate use of state violence has been documented in a Human Rights Watch report and acknowledged by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.

11 HDP lawmakers were detained early Friday, Nov. 4, 2016 including co-leaders Demirtas and Yuksekdag. Picture by Lefteris Pitarakis AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

More recently, the AKP government has arrested and detained the co-mayors of Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city, on the grounds that they are members of a terrorist organisation. The evidence against them consists of speeches they made in favour of democratic local autonomy and the provision of municipality services for the burial of PKK fighters killed in armed clashes with the security forces. This is despite the fact that burial services are among the duties and responsibilities of the municipalities across Turkey. The co-mayors have been detained and sent to jail in Kandira F-Type prison in Izmit province - more than 800 miles away from Diyarbakir!

In addition to scores of media outlets being shut down over the last two weeks of October 2016, the AKP government has ordered the raid of the main opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet and the houses of its journalists, editors and trustees. Currently, 15 journalists and top managers of the paper are under police custody with no access to lawyers .

The sweeping crackdown after the botched coup is implemented through decrees under the state of emergency. Although Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) provides for derogations from the Convention in states of emergency, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) remains the ultimate authority to determine whether measures taken during the state of emergency are in conformity with the Convention. The latter clearly provides that derogations are strictly required and proportionate. Even at the outset of the state of emergency, the Commissioner for Human Rights stated that the first decree raised very serious questions of compatibility with the ECHR and rule of law principles, even after taking into account the derogation in place.

Since then, the scope, modality and arbitrariness of both government actions and state of emergency decrees have worsened beyond anything past Turkish governments have done.

The current regime in Turkey bears the hallmarks of a dictatorial regime.

This state terror cannot be justified by invoking derogations from ECHR under the state of emergency. In France, a state of emergency has been introduced, but necessary checks and balances have been put in place by the judiciary, the French Parliament, the National Human Rights Institution, and the Ombudsman. Furthermore, the measures taken by the French government have been far more limited in scope compared to those in Turkey. In the latter, the Parliament is totally dysfunctional, the judiciary under total control of the government, who had already introduced legislation that ensures the immunity of security forces for their actions in the crackdown against the Kurds.

Overall, the current regime in Turkey bears the hallmarks of a dictatorial regime. Erdogan and the AKP elite, together with the military, are building defences that will make the regime totally unaccountable and perhaps irreversible. One such defence is the instalment of a civilian mob culture in the media, mosques, neighbourhoods, universities, etc. This mob culture consists of: (i) demonising and criminalising all political opponents; (ii) state-centred encouragement of political lynching through various means, including arrests, business raids, cyber and media hostility campaigns, ethnic and religious hatred against the Kurds, Alevis and other minorities including the LGBTQ community; (iii) demands for re-introduction of the death penalty, for which Erdogan has declared support several times after the botched coup; and (iv) conspiracy theories that present the west as the enemy of Turkey.

The other level of defence is the transition to a ‘unitary presidential system’ in which the president would appoint the judiciary, the university rectors, and be in control of the security apparatus. This is highly likely to be adopted soon, with the support of the MPs of AKP and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP).

The implosion of the unipolar world system as an explanatory factor

Given that the evidence above has been common knowledge, it is safe to assume that western governments and institutions have also been aware of the dictatorial drift in Turkey. This begs two questions: (i) why has their response been muted; and (ii) have they been in a position to respond differently?

The answer to both questions lies in the crisis of the unipolar world system that the United States, with Europe in tow, has been trying to establish since the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the exception of the transition decade in the 1990s, the US has been totally unsuccessful in establishing itself as a monopoly power. On the other hand, European politicians have had to toe the line without any discernible benefits, with the exception of the false sense of power in the UK that has eventually led to Brexit. This dismal result has been associated with human cost and economic ruin in Iraq, Libya and Syria; and with continuing perceptions of insecurity despite the eastern expansion of NATO.

The failure has been due to three factors: (i) the rise of China and Russia as serious contenders for the status of world power; (ii) the high price that regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, India, etc. have demanded for their role as sub-contractors in the project; and (iii) the rise of transnational Islamic terrorist groups from the ashes of the destruction caused by western interventions aimed at regime change. The combination of these factors have led to two outcomes. First, the unipolar world system project has proved to be the shortest-lived experiment in world politics. Secondly, current uncertainties about how to move to a multi-polar system have been associated with costs, which can be expected to be even higher unless the electorates challenge the prevailing political dogmas in the west.

Looked at from this perspective, the west’s silence against cumulative authoritarianism in Turkey cannot be explained by fear of Syrian refugees or as a price for securing Turkey’s fight against ISIS. These are just manifestations of a deeper malaise – i.e., the obsession with the idea of a unipolar system – that has been based on two fallacies: (i) belief in the supremacy of the western economic and security systems; and (ii) belief in the latter’s ability to pick and choose its allies from a pool of secondary-actors such as Turkey, to achieve regional objectives.

Today both beliefs have proven unfounded: the western economic system has delivered high levels of within-country income and wealth inequalities, and increased fragility; the security system on the other hand has benefited only the arms industry catering for an increased appetite for military spending without reducing the perceived security risks. All in all, the investment in the unipolar world system project has been truly disastrous for the western public, who financed the project either through low wages for the majority or by increased tax burdens on middle-income earners.

The west’s silence against cumulative authoritarianism in Turkey cannot be explained by fear from Syrian refugees.

The incapacity of western governments to react effectively to cumulative authoritarianism in Turkey can and should be read from this underlying anomaly. The US and Europe did not have leverage on Turkey because the latter (like other emerging regional powers) was willing to support the ambitions for a unipolar system only in return for increasing its influence in the Middle East. The US and Europe have agreed to this deal, cooked up clandestinely together with embedded ‘experts’ from academia and beyond.

Part of the deal has been to present Turkey as a role model for the Middle East despite mounting evidence of authoritarianism and institutional degradation. When the ‘role model’ argument lost its credibility after the botched coup, the west began to measure Turkey’s ‘value’ with a new currency: regime stability. That is why both the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland, and a retired NATO supreme allied commander, James Stavridis, called for stronger western support for the Turkish government – with little or no attention to the risk of human rights violations under the state of emergency. This was a nauseating indicator of the extent to which macht has overtaken recht in the formation of foreign policy in the west.

Aware of this set up, the Turkish government has: (i) ratcheted up its sectarian and interventionist foreign policy towards Syria and Iraq; (ii) worked with and supplied arms to terrorist organisations such as Al-Nusra, while turning a blind eye to ISIS activities within and outside its borders; (iii) adopted a hostile approach to the Kurdish political movement in Turkey and Syria; and (iv) suppressed all potential sources of domestic dissent.

In doing this, the AKP elite enjoyed a mixture of tacit and explicit support from western governments and institutions, who have muttered muted criticism followed by solid confirmation of Turkey’s strategic importance as an ally.

Appeasement politics, however, has backfired. Turkey is now a liability rather than an asset for western security. Its actions in Iraq and Syria have gone beyond support for or complicity with terrorist groups and begun to signal irredentist ambitions that complicate the west’s objectives in the region. Turkey is also playing the Russian card to push US and European policy makers to support its ambition of destroying the emerging Kurdish reality in Turkey and beyond. The next stage may well be a situation in which Turkey is ‘upgraded’ from liability to threat to European security – mainly due to higher levels of political instability under a dictatorial regime.

Turkey is now a liability rather than an asset for western security.

It is high time that western governments and institutions confess to their public and admit that the policy of appeasing Turkey in return for its support to the unipolar system idea has imploded. It is also high time to admit that the west has lost the moral argument against Russia. One does not have to subscribe to a benign conception of the Russian regime to see that it is Russia that argues for adherence to international law in combatting terrorism. Also, it is Russia that argues against unilateral interventions aimed at regime change, the consequences of which have been: (i) the mushrooming of transnational terrorist networks; (ii) loss of life and economic ruin in affected countries; and (iii) imposition of war bills on the western public whose perceived insecurities have only increased.

Hence, it is both necessary and rational for the western electorate to stop legitimising and financing the fallacies about a unipolar world system, which have only led to higher levels of economic and existential insecurity. Instead, we should force our governments and institutions to engage in a genuine debate, domestically and internationally, on how to move to a multi-polar world system in which the people – not foreign states with their own interests and agendas – are empowered to counteract authoritarian tendencies and practices within their own countries.

The new regime requires stricter rules against unilateral interventions, a stronger mandate for the UN, and a more effective human rights regime that is not hollowed out by regional/cultural exceptionalism. In a nutshell, we need a transformation similar in scale to the post-war experience of international institution building. We must push for this reckoning not only to show solidarity with fighters against the dictatorial regime in Turkey, but also to increase the chance of a democratic, secular, gender-equal and fair system in Turkey and elsewhere.


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