Boiling Point: Turkey’s Evaporating Democracy

There is an old saying about how to cook a frog. If you drop it into a pot of boiling water, it will leap out immediately. However, place it in cold water and proceed to gradually increase the temperature, and the frog will fail to realize, until it is far too late.

The Turkish people know what it is like to be dropped into a pot of boiling water. Since the country’s founding, authoritarian influences like the military have succeeded, on multiple occasions, in overthrowing democratically elected governments. This happened in the fifties, seventies, eighties, and came within a hair’s breadth of happening in 2003; the ominously-named ‘Operation Sledgehammer’, a coup meant to remove the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The army has traditionally seen itself as the protector of national interest, and has sought to legitimize its involvement in political affairs by forwarding this claim. However, the failure of the 2003 plot lead to a crack down on the military’s anti-democratic procedures. Over 300 military officers were put on trial as a result of the plot and the civilian government gained significant oversight over military affairs. Over ten years, the AKP managed to erode the army’s interventionism.

Turkish police prepare to confront protesters in Cizre, Southern Turkey

However, when it comes to authoritarianism, there is more than one way to skin the cat. Increasingly clearly, the AKP’s clutch on power, particularly that of President Erdoğan, has grown progressively tighter. The party has turned to other methods than the military has used to grip onto control. Each measure is incremental, so people don’t notice the water slowly heating.

Freedom for the press is vital to any democracy. In Turkey, it has existed since the 1920s. However, restrictions on press freedoms in Turkey in the last few years have become increasingly obvious. The AKP party has used its power to either close down or restaff the country’s major news outlets on television and in print. The government has used the Türksat satellite company to take down TV stations that offer criticism of the government, on both sides of the political spectrum. The left-wing, pro-Kurdish IMC TV was denied a satellite contract at the end of February, as was the right-wing Turkish nationalist station, Bengü Türk TV, at around the same time. Censorship is by no means restricted to television. The print media in Turkey has been subjected to a full-scale assault by the government – in some cases literally. On March 4th – a Friday – the headquarters of the newspaper Zaman were stormed by armed police using rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon. This action cleared the way for the management to be replaced by court-appointed trustees. Saturday morning’s mournful headline ‘The Constitution Is Dead’ stood in stark contrast to Sunday’s cheerful front page, featuring a smiling Erdoğan and a piece about a reception at the Presidential Palace. Zaman has the country’s biggest circulation, and the seizure of the Cihan news agency a few days later has ensured that the overwhelming majority of Turkey’s newspaper-readers look solely at pro-government articles. The only remaining independent news sources are online. Over 40% of Turks have no internet access, meaning that a very significant percentage of the electorate will never see sources that criticise the government.

The absence of independent media scrutiny allows the government to undertake questionable actions. The laws concerning private criticism of the government have been tightened recently, with little push-back from the weakened media. The most obvious case of these strict laws is the example of Bilgin Çiftçi, a doctor who posted a meme comparing President Erdoğan’s appearance to Gollum, the character from the Lord of the Rings. Çiftçi was fired and placed on trial for the charge of ‘insulting the President’. This gained international attention after the court demanded that ‘Tolkien experts’ determine whether Gollum could be regarded as a ‘good’ character, as claimed by the defence. While this led to amusement on the late-night show circuit, the dark reason for the ridiculous defence was explained by Çiftçi’s lawyer. Hicran Danisman said she ‘got nowhere’ with a defence based on freedom of speech. Such a fundamental right is now denied in Turkey to even the mildest critical voices.

President Erdoğan has placed himself at the centre of Turkey’s national unity

The AKP has also used the threat of terrorism to introduce further authoritarian practices. Turkey borders territory in Iraq and Syria controlled by the Islamic State (IS) group, and militant Kurdish groups operate within Turkey itself. A spate of bombings throughout the country (June 2015 in Diyarbakir; July in Suruç; July 2015 and March 2016 in Ankara; January and March 2016 in Istanbul) have created an atmosphere of paranoia in Turkey. Some have been claimed by IS, some by radical Kurdish groups like the ‘Kurdistan Freedom Falcons’ (TAK) – all are perceived by Turks as attacks by outsiders on them. The threat of terrorism is one that has held the country hostage.

As terrorism stokes nationalist tensions, the AKP has staked out its role as the defender of national unity. Erdoğan’s recent speeches have emphasised national integrity and solidarity, placing his leadership at the centre of the Republic’s unity. He has also vowed to ‘defeat terrorism’ and to ‘bring the terrorists to their knees’, defining ‘terrorists’ in terms as vague as they are broad. Along with rhetoric linking pro-Kurdish political parties such as the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) with the PKK, this legitimises further repression of opposition to the AKP, under the guise of anti-terrorism.

Under such conditions, it is becoming hard to argue that Turkey is now a democracy. The AKP has until 2019 before major elections are due, which gives plenty of time for further crackdowns and restrictions on opposition activities. Already it is virtually illegal to criticise the President or the government, either in public or private media, and it is routine for the government to brand opposition politicians terrorist supporters and ban their campaigns. Erdogan has gone as far as to brand HDP statements as “provocation” and “treason”. The water is boiling but it may be too late for the frog to leap to safety. By the next elections in 2019, it may well be all but impossible to run any meaningful campaign against the AKP, and Turkey will join its fellow Turkic countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan: a strong-man dictatorship with only the veneer of a democratic process.

For more information, check out the following sources.

  • Lewis, Bernard “The Emergence of Modern Turkey”, Oxford University Press 2002

  • Ahmad, Feroz “The Making of Modern Turkey”, Routledge 1993

  • Yücel, Clémence Scalbert; “Common Ground or Battlefield? Deconstructing the Politics of Recognition in Turkey” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 22(1) 2016

  • Dogi, Ihsan; “Democratic Transition in Turkey 1980-83: The Impact of European Diplomacy”, Middle Eastern Studies 32(2) 1996

  • Jones, Erik; “Turkey Reconsidered” Survival 54(6) 2012

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