Returning to consider Turkish affairs after some months spent focusing elsewhere has been sobering and disheartening. The early months of 2011 were always going to be important, setting the tone both for a general election that will be held in June 2011, as well as, crucially, for the drafting of a new constitution thereafter. Without undue optimism, one might have hoped for at least a modest quickening of the country’s democratic pulse as major political decisions began to loom on the horizon.
By contrast, however, what appears to be transpiring is a further choking off of democracy in the country. The AKP government, and the prime minister Mr Erdoğan in particular, have grown increasingly brazen in their efforts to silence or sidestep those who might obstruct them. This bullying tendency has always formed part of Mr Erdoğan’s political personality, but one gets the sense that he has been giving it a gradually freer rein since his victory in last September’s constitutional referendum. In recent weeks, new depths were plumbed with a series of arrests of journalists as part of the sprawling Ergenekon trial, which has become an increasingly transparent exercise in silencing critics of the government and its allies.
The government, of course, asserts that these arrests were part of an independent legal process diligently following the evidence where it leads, rather than a matter of the AKP seeking to have its bidding done by proxies. But even if one were to accept this quaint picture of due process and the separation of powers, the idea that it ties the government’s hands is absurd. If Mr Erdoğan wanted to send a strong signal to the courts and to society at large about the fundamental importance of press freedom in a democracy, a few table-thumping speeches along those lines would have done the trick. Needless to say, there have been no such speeches. It is safe to conclude that Mr Erdoğan has been content for strong signals of a very different nature to ripple outwards from these most recent arrests.
It is not just critics within the country who are the object of Mr Erdoğan’s growing impatience. Relations with the European Union, which for a number of reasons have been in a troubled state of suspended animation for some time, now threaten to worsen quite significantly. On the European side, two factors predominate. First, Turkey is even less of a priority than previously for an EU that’s trying—and thus far signally failing—to contain a mounting sovereign-debt crisis in the euro zone. Second, there are signs that with the accession-talks merry-go-round now firmly stalled, European incentives to talk up Turkey’s democratic credentials may be waning.
Having given sustenance to the AKP for far too long by acquiescing in the nonsense that the only meaningful threat to Turkish democracy stems from the military, it seems that the EU may gradually be realising that it needs to call an undemocratic spade an undemocratic spade, whatever its provenance. The resolution concerning Turkey that was passed last week by the European Parliament (not an institution without democratic ambiguities of its own, it should be acknowledged) was refreshingly direct in some of its criticisms of Turkey.
In particular, the parliament waded straight into the debate over the recent Ergenekon arrests, going beyond general points of abstract principle to express specific concern with Turkey’s conduct in relation to named individuals:
“[The parliament] is concerned about the deterioration in freedom of the press, about certain acts of censorship and about growing self-censorship within the Turkish media, including on the internet; calls on the Turkish Government to uphold the principles of press freedom; stresses that an independent press is crucial for a democratic society and points, in this context, to the essential role of the judiciary in protecting and enhancing press freedom, thereby guaranteeing public space for free debate and contributing to the proper functioning of the system of checks and balances; underscores the need for adoption of a new media law addressing, inter alia, the issues of independence, ownership and administrative control; decides to closely follow the cases of Nedim Şener, Ahmet Şık and other journalists facing police or judicial harassment.”
Mr Erdoğan was, predictably, incensed by the parliament’s resolution. It lacked balance, he said. Ever the diplomat, he went on to suggest that its authors were unbalanced too. But the dangerous pass to which Turkey-EU relations have come were revealed when Mr Erdoğan added the following: “If they do not want Turkey in, they should say this openly … and then we will mind our own business and will not bother them.”
It is true that little the prime minister says should be taken at face value. He is a remarkably adept politician whose ability to respond to the often conflicting desires of the Turkish electorate has seen him build a strikingly broad and durable coalition of supporters. Playing on rising anti-EU feeling among Turks may well make for smart politics in the run-up to June’s election, particularly if Mr Erdoğan is to succeed in pushing support for the hardline nationalists of the MHP party below 10 per cent. Under Turkey’s dismal electoral rules (which predate the AKP), this would deny the MHP parliamentary representation and give the AKP a grossly disproportionate share of the seats in the next parliament. When the MHP failed to enter parliament in 2002, the AKP was able to convert its 34 per cent of the vote into 66 per cent of parliamentary seats.
In 2002, however, the AKP was a new political force which risked a backlash from Turkey’s establishment. It went out of its way to counter concerns about its religious roots by pushing forward with political and economic reforms. But that was then. Today, the AKP no longer needs to burnish its European credentials as a means of forestalling a backlash from the establishment, because in the meantime it has consolidated its own position as Turkey’s new establishment. It is not unrivalled in this role, but it is clearly dominant. Both in successive electoral contests and in murkier episodes such as the failed judicial attempt to close the party in 2008 or the conduct of the Ergenekon and similar cases, the AKP has repeatedly secured the upper hand over those who would challenge it.
Moreover, the AKP has managed to do all of this in the name of democratisation. With Machiavellian aplomb, the party has turned democracy’s weak roots in Turkey to its advantage by loudly defining the concept on terms that work in its favour. In essence, this amounts to a crude majoritarianism which holds that an elected leader can and should do as he sees fit. The stronger his mandate, the less tolerable are constraints of any sort on his power, whether these stem from the military, the judiciary, the media, international organisations, or anywhere else. As the Financial Times noted in a recent editorial, the AKP government’s executive powers are now “increasingly untrammelled.”
It is against this backdrop that Turkey will head to the polls in three months’ time. Testing times lie ahead.