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Can Turkey handle free and fair elections?

The AKP government has been fervently pushing through legislation ahead of crucial local elections in March 2014 with the air of a heavily wounded giant whose actions are not the result of intelligent calculation or rationality so much as an instinct for survival.

A demonstrator in Turkey protests against government censorship. Demonstrators in Turkey protest against government censorship. Demotix/Tumay Berkin. All rights reserved.

Since the initiation of the graft probe on December 17, 2013 that forced four ministers to resign and PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reshuffle his cabinet, the AKP government has been fervently pushing through laws that have been provoking widespread reactions not only in Turkey but also in Europe and the US. Taken onto the agenda with unprecedented haste, these changes give sweeping additional powers to government, expanding executive control over key institutions ahead of the crucial elections in 2014.

First is the Internet law. AKP members have never hidden their distaste for the Internet, labelling it a menace and a source of moral depravity. Thus despite strong internal and external criticism, on February 5 the AKP-majority parliament passed a bill that designates the Turkish Telecommunications Authority (TIB), an executive board under direct command of the PM, as the sole authority to decide what constitutes a breach of privacy online and impose an immediate URL-based block on access as entirely its own prerogative, without the need of a complaint or even a court order. President Abdullah Gül approved the bill on February 18 and thereafter the Internet providers are required to store, and grant access to the TIB if it so wishes, users’ personal Internet data for up to two years.

According to the new law, the TIB staff enjoy de facto immunity from possible legal redress as well, for the court needs the PM’s authorization to investigate them. It is not surprising that the law was passed at an incredible pace right after the records of phone conversations about the shady deals between the government and prominent businessmen and media bosses were leaked on the Internet. In a series of possibly incriminating conversations gathered by court orders, PM Erdogan commanded one media boss to take an opposition party leader off air while he was making a speech in parliament about the graft probes and not to cover the public appearances made by an opposition candidate for Mayor of Istanbul. In another conversation, businessmen discuss how to gather $100M each to fulfil the PM’s order to purchase a bankrupt media group the government will put up for tender. 

There is also the infamous law about the once-independent Higher Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), which appoints senior members of the judiciary. Having been passed on February 15 amid violent clashes in parliament, the law promptly dismisses the entire staff of the Council and brings it under the Ministry of Justices' control. Besides allowing the Minister to directly appoint its new members and his undersecretary as elected chairman, the law also authorizes the minister to initiate disciplinary proceedings against HSYK members. Once again, there are strong indications that the law is designed to block further investigations into corrupt activities and neutralize those who carried them out in the first place.

Since the unveiling of the scandal on December 17, pro-government circles have consistently labelled the investigations as part of an attempted “judicial coup” designed to undermine the party in the face of coming elections in 2014. PM Erdogan vowed to unleash a war against what he called a “parallel state” cocooned within the higher ranks of the judiciary and declared that he would try the HSYK if he could. Considering that all the prosecutors who used to lead these investigations (along with the thousands of police officers under their orders) have already been replaced and many suspects arrested in relation to the allegations released by newcomers, the Turkish opposition’s claims that the law is designed to cover the scandal up and tighten the AKP’s grip on the judiciary independence do not seem farfetched, to say the least.

Most recently the government also submitted a draft law designed to expand the powers of the National Intelligence Agency (MIT), turning it into an intelligence coordination body that will work directly under the PM. The draft law proposes to grant the MIT unrestricted access to records of state institutions and private companies without a court order. Once passed, the law will expand the legal immunity enjoyed by the MIT head to all intelligence personnel and activities, obliging prosecutors to ask the agency’s permission in order to be able to investigate them.

Also the journalists who publish documents deemed classified by the MIT will face a prison sentence up to 12 years. Similar to the other legislative changes, the MIT law appears to have been specifically designed as a remedy to recent instances where the Turkish executive authorities were caught on the wrong foot. A few weeks into the graft probe, Turkish media had revealed in a report dated months before the scandal, MIT had warned PM Erdogan about incriminating relationships between some of his ministers and shady businessmen. Also during the same period, a truck stopped by the police and suspected of transporting arms to Syria, turned out to be manned by three MIT members. Although the government used the “state secret” shield to conceal the cargo and thwart the investigation, the case of Turkey as a possible supplier of arms to Jihadist terrorist groups in Syria reached all the way up to the UN Security Council, causing further trouble for the government’s already failing foreign policy.

What all these legislations have in common is that they all seem to be designed to bolster executive oversight of key institutions and areas at the expense of basic principles of liberal democracy and constitutional rights. They aim to punish not only those in the judiciary who instigated or tacitly approved the corruption investigations in the first place, but also others in civil society and media who report, access or share the information about government misdemeanours, leaving little or no space for critical debate in the country. Bringing judiciary, media and private enterprises all under government surveillance, these changes securitize the ever-expanding spheres of life and grant executive authorities increasing control over them.

The latest court decision granting police in Ankara permission to conduct 15 days of “general searches” in order to “prevent crimes and protect national security, public safety, general health, general morals and people’s rights and freedoms” is a worrying reminder of where things may go. For the coming two weeks, the Turkish capital will be in an invisible state of emergency in which officers can search about 3 million individuals in Ankara at will, as well as their vehicles and private documents.

Turkey is heading fast towards local elections, which are going to be held on March 30, 2014. In a political atmosphere more polarized than ever before, the AKP and opposition parties agree that this will be the single most important election in Turkish history. Although no opposition party poses a serious alternative capable of satisfying all those who are dissatisfied by the AKP’s increasingly authoritarian rule, the loss of key districts such as Istanbul and Ankara, as Ahmet Insel recently observed, could mean the beginning of the end for the AKP. They also agree that the elections will be a litmus test for the government with respect to the corruption allegations, since “the people” will once and for all decide who is right.

The problem here is not just the unanimous subscription of all major political actors to an extreme form of populism whereby the “popular will” as expressed through elections is elevated to the status of a “divine judgement”, overriding all legal institutions, principles and proceedings in what is essentially a judicial investigation. The problem is also this: the criminal allegations directed at PM Erdogan and his close circle are so serious, and the latitude of the latest government moves expanding its control over ever-wider spheres of state and society are so worrisome that, at this point, crediting Turkey with being a country where the elections should progress as usual, yielding to results that undisputedly reflect the voters’ choice would be, at best, an act of extreme naiveté.

As it stands today, Erdogan and his staff show all the signs of a government that is in a dangerous state of panic and ready to take increasingly reckless steps just to eliminate the threats against their rule. As seemingly incriminating sound recordings of Erdogan and his family relating to corruption allegations are revealed on an almost daily basis, the AKP government more and more resembles a heavily wounded giant whose actions are not the result of intelligent calculation or any kind of rationality but of an instinct for survival. If leading AKP cadres fail to see reason (and see it pretty quickly) instead allowing the whole party to be consumed by this primitive instinct, there will be little left to prevent that giant from launching its last and most desperate attack if a “neutral outcome” to local elections appear to be posing a grave threat to its survival, i.e. if it seems like the party may lose either in Istanbul or Ankara. Many observers of Turkish politics already share this worry.

There is also a recent surge in civil initiatives that appoint volunteers to check the accuracy of the voters’ lists and observe voting posts in their own districts as a measure taken against possible attempts of fraud while counting and transferring ballot papers to local election offices. For the rest, there is not much else people can do but wait and see whether these initiatives will work. Nevertheless, this does not change the fact that the AKP government must be held responsible, if for nothing else, for creating such an intoxicating political atmosphere where such distressing scenarios cannot be dismissed as paranoid but have come to seem like serious possibilities.

About the author

Halil Gürhanli is a Research Fellow of Political Science and part-time lecturer teaching on populism, democratic theory and Turkish politics at the Department of Political and Economic Studies, University of Helsinki, Finland. Find him on twitter @halilgurhanli


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