The True Cost of Turkey´s Crisis

Credit: Reuters/Ints Kalnins

By: Pinar Tank, PRIO.

One of the foundational concepts of good democratic governance is that of a separation of powers. French Enlightenment philosopher Baron de Montesquieu´s argument for the separation of political power between the three branches – executive, legislative and judiciary – hinges on the notion that power should not be centralized in a single sovereign to prevent rulers from usurping complete control. To these three branches can be added the Fourth Estate, the media. Independent from the state, it serves as a watchdog over the three branches. Finally, there is what Yochai Benkler (2006) refers to as the “Networked Fourth Estate” which comprises the realm of the internet and social media.

The events of the past weeks in Turkey give reason for concern over the viability of a tripartite system of governance in Turkey

The events of the past weeks in Turkey give reason for concern over the viability of a tripartite system of governance in Turkey. As the two most powerful men in Turkish politics, Prime Minster Recep Tayyip  Erdoğan  and Islamic cleric at large Fetullah Gülen battle it out, it is Turkey´s institutions that are paying the price.  Erdoğan blames Gülen´s supporters for initiating corruption charges targeting his government. On 17 December, the police unceremoniously rounded up the sons of ministers in his government on suspicion of corruption. The ensuing fallout resulted in the forced resignations of four ministers in Erdoğan´s cabinet implicated in the scandal, including the EU minister, Egemen Bağış. In response, Erdoğan dismissed around 500 police chiefs, including the police chief of Istanbul. Although the judiciary performed its intended role in holding the government accountable, it is widely believed in Turkey that its actions were due to the politicization of the institution by Gülen supporters rather than its independence. Obviously, the politicization of the judiciary raises questions about its legitimacy and impedes its purpose in a checks and balances system. But this was the first public cry of ´foul play´ by the AKP. Gülen´s control of the judiciary served the AKP well when Erdoğan  and Gülen joined forces to bring Turkey´s military to heel through the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials. The acrimonious break-up between the two men has shaken Turkey´s institutions. Until recently, Turkey´s pride has been its long-standing, albeit sometimes shaky democracy. A NATO member since 1952, an EU candidate country and G-20 member since 1999, Turkey was considered a regional success. Under the first terms of the AKP, the party initiated reforms to improve its democracy and by extension, the lives of its citizens. This, in turn, attracted investors eager to benefit from the rise of a new star on the economic stage, as Turkey became the 17th largest economy in the world.  These successes under the leadership of the Islamist AKP branded Turkey as a model after the Arab Spring. Ironically, many argued against this idea on the basis that Turkey´s well-established democratic institutions set it apart from regional democratic-hopefuls. Today´s political picture is anything but exemplary.

Violent protests have rocked the country since the Gezi Park protests unexpectedly exploded in June 2013.

Violent protests have rocked the country since the Gezi Park protests unexpectedly exploded in June 2013. The majoritarian conservative rule of the AKP had been tolerated partly out of fear/utility – allegiance to the party had its rewards – and partly out of frustration for the lack of viable political alternatives. However, the heavy handed police response to the Gezi activists was the proverbial straw that broke the camel´s back, exploding the pressure cooker of societal discontent. The Turkish medias self-censorship during the riots made their role as the Fourth Estate, charged with watching over the government and defending the public interest, an object of widespread ridicule. It was the social media – particularly Twitter that was the source of reliable information. Turkey, with over 11 million users, has the largest twitter penetration globally (followed by the Netherlands and Japan) according to a recent survey by eMarketer. The inability of the government to stop the spread of information on the protests led Prime Minister Erdoğan to refer to Twitter, quite simply, as “a menace”. The new internet bill signed into law by President Abdullah Gül on 28 February will monitor the “menace” to ensure, in Erdoğan ´s words “…precautions against immorality, blackmail and threats.” In fact, the bill allows Turkey´s Presidency of Telecommunication (TIB) to block any website within four hours if it deems the site to contain privacy violations. Included in this category would be allegations of corruption or wrongdoing – not least, by public officials. As an example, it would in effect make it difficult, if not impossible, for websites to report on the present corruption scandals. The TIB chief, Cemaleddin Celik, has an expedient CV, having worked both for Turkish national intelligence and in Erdoğan´s office (though presumably not at the same time). These are ominous developments, in a country that already has shut down 30 000 websites and ranks 154th out of 179 countries on the Reporters without Borders Freedom Index, placing it below Russia and Burma and just three steps over Egypt. Turkey leads the list in imprisoning journalists. Control over the judiciary was an even greater imperative for the Prime Minister. Montesquieu himself saw the judiciary as the most important of powers… and the most dangerous. On 15 February, Parliament approved a bill that will give the government influence over the appointment of judges and prosecutors; the justice ministry will now have greater control over the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), a (formerly) independent body responsible for appointing members of the judiciary. Furthermore, probes against judges or prosecutors can only occur with the consent of the justice minister as the head of HSYK. Despite protests, President Gül approved the bill on the 26th of February. With the legislative and the judiciary under AKP control, it would be up to the executive branch to serve as a check on absolute rule. However, Turkey´s President Abdullah Gül has been noticeably quiet throughout the turmoil of the past few months, raising questions about where his allegiances lay – with Erdoğan or Gülen. There were those that hoped Gül would us his veto power as President to declare the bills unconstitutional. However, he signed both bills (albeit with some vaguely stated reservations on the internet bill) earning him the nickname “the Notary of Cankaya,” (the latter referring to the Ankara neighborhood that houses the presidential palace). His approval of the controversial bills has also led analysts to declare Gül as Erdoğan ´s man. However, with a local election coming up in March, a Presidential election in August and national elections due next year, Gül was in a difficult position. To veto the bill would antagonize Erdoğan ´s still sizeable voter mass and give the impression of splits in the party before the local elections. Also, beyond making a symbolic statement to a voter demographic he is ill equipped ideologically to win (secularists and liberals), his move would have come at a cost to future political ambitions. Gülen´s sympathisers, powerful though they may be in the arteries of the political system, are not organized as a viable political party. Yet. The month of February ended with a phone tapping scandal. Tapes were released in which the Prime Minister, on the 17th of December as the police´s corruption sweeps were ongoing, allegedly instructs his son to hide millions of euros held by the family. The tapes have been watched by indignant Turks over two million times on the youtube site where they were posted. However, beyond the daily soap opera of political life, Turkey is facing a more sinister threat – the hollowing out of its institutions with absolute power in the hands of one ruler.  Particularly when that ruler sees himself as beyond reproach. In referring to the “plot” led by Gülen movement sympathizers, Erdoğan retaliates: “But they forgot one thing. The people also have a part, and if they have a plot then God has one too,” implying that Erdoğan, as God´s shadow on earth, remain in power.