Turkey’s Enemy Within

How Prime Minister Erdogan is dismantling democracy.


For the past month, Turkey has been in turmoil over a corruption scandal that threatens to compromise Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s premiership. It’s now clear that the implications of the scandal go far beyond the reach of corruption. Onlookers are worried that Erdogan’s actions threaten the very essence of Turkish democracy.

The scandal centers on a series of bribes and gold transfers allegedly paid to high-ranking members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), four ministers, and even Erdogan’s son in relation to various real estate deals around Turkey. On Dec. 17, police detained over 50 suspects, who have also been implicated in money laundering to help Iran evade sanctions. (In the photo above, anti-government protesters hold a sign that reads, "Catch the thief!")

While the corruption scandal is shocking in itself, the reaction of the Erdogan government is, to many in Turkey, even more worrisome. Erdogan appears to have made up his mind to further undermine the separation of powers, weaken democratic institutions, and eliminate checks and balances, despite sharp criticism from the international community and the European Union, in what is being called a "slow-motion coup." Ironically, the government has argued that its drastic response was meant to target members and affiliates of the Gulen movement (an Islamic group with growing influence within Turkey), who have allegedly been organizing to unseat the democratically elected government. Excuses notwithstanding, the corruption scandal and the government’s response to it have already weakened democratic accountability in Turkey, and deepened dividing lines among an already polarized populace. Once lauded for its democratic strength, or at least its willingness to move up the democratic ladder, Turkey threatens to become just like many others in its neighborhood: a hybrid regime ruled by a strong man who does not even try to give his rule the pretense of a democracy.

At first, Erdogan was slow to react — and once he did it was clear that he was using the scandal to consolidate his own power while taking a swipe at his critics. It took him nine full days to ask for the resignations of the three ministers implicated in the scandal; when he finally did, it was quickly followed by a cabinet overhaul in which he replaced 10 minsters with party members and allies. The Erdogan government has also responded to the investigation by purging more than 1,000 police officers — including dozens of bureau chiefs in key positions in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and other cities — who were involved in the investigation and are suspected members of the Gulen movement. The government also went after the state’s own investigative bodies, firing the chief prosecutor (Zekeriya Oz) — whom Erdogan spent several weeks attacking — and several high-ranking bureaucrats in the Corruption Investigation Unit of the Ministry of the Treasury. Muammer Akkas, the prosecutor who ordered the unsuccessful interrogation of Erdogan’s son during the second round of arrests, has been removed from the case, prompting him to issue a press release condemning political interference in the judicial process. A similar witch hunt within the ruling AKP itself led to the resignation of several high-ranking members who dared to criticize the way Erdogan handled the scandal.

From the start, Erdogan’s strategy has been to violate the separation powers and interfere where a prime minister should not. Sadly, this does not come as much of a surprise. The prime minister himself has frequently attacked the judiciary and has threatened to curtail judicial independence whenever court decisions opposed him on issues ranging from privatization deals to constitutional law. Even before the corruption scandal, Erdogan questioned the logic of the separation of powers and asked the judiciary to act in cohesion with the executive and legislative powers. The government has proposed new legislation that imposes further limits on any remaining judicial independence. The bill increases the power of the Erdogan-controlled Ministry of Justice at the expense of independent justices in the Higher Council of Judges and Prosecutors.

The government has also taken steps to limit public access to information on the investigation. The Istanbul police headquarters is now closed to journalists, restricting press access to information from inside sources. Police officers are now required to notify Ankara before launching any criminal inquiry, further violating the separation of judicial and executive powers. The government also passed a series of laws increasing Internet censorship, which has already led to the shutdown of at least one opposition news portal, and on Jan. 20, the court officially issued a ban on press coverage of the case.

Erdogan’s government has repeatedly used intimidation and threats to silence journalists, and this case is no exception. For the second consecutive year, Turkey has the highest number of jailed journalists in the world, surpassing Russia, China, and even Iran, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Dozens of prominent journalists, such as Hasan Cemal and Can Dundar of Milliyet, and Yavuz Baydar of Sabah, have been fired for openly criticizing Erdogan. It is no surprise, then, that local press coverage of the corruption case remains limited, aside from reporting in a few independent media outlets run by fired journalists. Internationally, media outlets have been increasingly critical of Erdogan’s authoritarian governance and iron-fisted, one-man rule.

The Dec. 17 corruption scandal, with the government’s unabashed undermining of democratic institutions and disregard for the rule of law, marks the beginning of a new era in Turkey. The Erdogan government’s reaction to the scandal has brought Turkey closer to the club of authoritarian countries including Russia, China, and Iran, and further away from the EU. Ironically, in its earlier years, the Erdogan government did more than any other government before it to push for Turkish membership in EU, and actually succeeded in starting accession negotiations for an eventual membership in 2005. During this time, Erdogan openly supported Turkey’s EU bid, and exploited it in his struggle against the country’s once all-powerful military. Since then, however, the relationship between EU and Turkey has turned increasingly sour, especially following Erdogan’s authoritarian power grabs following 2010 constitutional referendum. The tension between the two peaked after the brutal police suppression of the Gezi Park protests in May and June 2013.

Diplomatic and policy circles have long suspected that Erdogan was looking for an opportunity to officially break from the EU. Just last week, his chief advisor, Yigit Bulut, suggested that Turkey break away from what he called the doomed and ill-fated EU project. In a strange reference to the three world empires in George Orwell’s 1984, he argued that the new Turkey will rise as one of three world powers, rivaling the United States and China, and accused the EU’s domestic agents of preventing the Turkish public from realizing the need to terminate Turkey’s links with Europe. Indeed, following this same anti-EU line of thinking, Erdogan has openly asked Russian President Putin to accept Turkey as a member of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (a loose economic cooperation partnership including China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), so that Turkey would no longer need to worry about winning EU membership. In fact, he has explicitly stated that he has not yet made the EU split official only because Turkey continues to reap certain benefits from the relationship.

The United States and the EU have long attempted to cast Turkey as a Middle Eastern success story proving that Western-style democracy, complete with checks and balances, could flourish in the region. These efforts have clearly failed. The idea that Turkey could provide a successful example for post-conflict Arab Spring states, or for other transitioning countries in central Asia and Caucasia, is now a distant dream. Instead, Turkey now resembles Egypt under Mubarak or Morsi, not the EU member state many had hoped it would be. Turkey under Erdogan now continues to alienate itself from the secular and educated middle-class segments of the wider Middle Eastern public, whether by providing a die-hard defense of Morsi’s government in 2013 by supporting fundamentalist rebel groups in Syria, or by orchestrating revenge prosecutions of liberal business groups. Turkey’s international standing is in question.

Moving forward, the odds are in Erdogan’s favor. Despite international debate on the issue, there is no strong, organized opposition within Turkey that is capable of responding to Erdogan’s clear overreach. The popular mass protests of the Gezi Park movement of last summer failed to channel into any political current. Likewise, the Kemalist CHP and pro-Kurdish BDP parties have failed to form a coalition or a gentleman’s agreement for the upcoming elections, and there are no indications that a new opposition party will form any time soon. In the best-case scenario, the growing opposition within the AKP could break away to form alliances with like-minded politicians from other parties. Turkey’s modern political history, unfortunately, offers little evidence that politicians or parties are capable of such compromise.

For now, public confidence in democratic institutions, the security forces, and the judiciary, are at record lows. Turkish democracy is on the brink. The only hope is that a new and forceful opposition is forming somewhere behind the scenes. Failing that, however, the future looks grim.

Firat Demir is an economics professor at the University of Oklahoma.