Is Turkey truly a role model for the Arab Spring or is it actually a secular democracy in its autumn years?
Wednesday 8 June 2011
In the midst of the Arab Spring, Turkey is being looked to as a role model for post-revolutionary Arab states: a large, mostly Muslim country that has moved from military domination to civilian rule, led by a popular democratically elected government. Surely, conventional thinking goes, the so-called ‘Turkish model’ is a template for countries like Tunisia, Egypt and a post-Gaddafi Libya or a post-Saleh Yemen.
But as people in many Arab countries look forward to a new democratic dawn, many Turks are wondering if their secular democracy is not moving into its autumn years.
In recent months, as Tunisians and Egyptians celebrated the overthrow of their authoritarian regimes, Turks watched as police rounded up journalists, bloggers and military officers. As Arab revolutionaries coordinated anti-government protests over the internet, the Turkish government announced new internet regulations that critics say will increase censorship and restrict freedom of expression.
Many secular Turks worry that opposition to years of authoritarian rule in the Arab world is running parallel to rising authoritarianism at home. And they fear what will be next if Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wins the upcoming general election on June 12, as is widely expected.
Since coming to power in 2002, Erdoğan has sought to curtail the power of the meddlesome military – long the guardian of Turkish secularism – and the country’s militantly secular judges. A former radical Islamist who was once jailed for inciting religious hatred and whose party was previously banned, Erdoğan has reincarnated himself and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), publicly espousing a moderate, democratic brand of political Islam. As such, he has framed his efforts to trim the influence of the secular military as a step toward full-blooded Western-style democracy rather than a step away from secularism.
Outside Turkey, Erdoğan, in his new incarnation, has been widely applauded. A constitutional reform package that was approved in a referendum last September won praise from Western officials and the European Union, which Turkey is trying to join (though obstacles on both sides have recently cast shadows over the membership process). The reforms, which Erdoğan will seek to implement should he win the 12 June election, allow for previously untouchable army officers to be tried in civilian courts – in line with EU norms – and put an end to the legal immunity of top military officials implicated in a 1980 coup. It also increases the number of judges on the Constitutional Court – Turkey’s highest – and on the powerful Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors.
Inside Turkey, Erdoğan, who grew up in a poor Istanbul neighbourhood, became a semi-professional football player and went on to serve as mayor of the city in the 1990s, remains popular in low-income urban areas and in the country’s conservative rural Anatolian heartland. He is credited with bringing jobs and economic growth, taming formerly rampant inflation and doing more than any previous leader to move Turkey along the road to EU membership.
But in fast-modernising areas of major cities and coastal towns, many secular Turks question his aims.
They see the army, which has had a hand in the overthrow of four governments in the last 50 years, not as a threat to democracy per se but rather as the guardian of Turkey’s secular political order, a role it has played since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, himself a senior army commander, established the modern republic in 1923 following the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
For them, Erdoğan’s efforts to curtail the military’s power risks opening the door to Islamisation. And they worry that the independence of the courts, which have strictly upheld the secular Constitution, will be undermined by the increase in the number of judges, more of whom will be appointed by the president and parliament, currently under the control of Erdoğan’s AKP.
Opinion polls suggest the AKP will easily win the 12 June election, picking up around 45% of the votes, a similar percentage to in the last election in 2007. The main opposition centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) with its new leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, meanwhile, is on track to garner around 30% of votes, 10 percentage points more than in 2007. Despite that, the AKP stands a chance to increase its strength considerably and win an absolute majority in the 550-seat parliament if the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) drops below the 10% threshold needed to enter the chamber. Hit by a series of sex scandals – made public in videotapes distributed over the internet that have so far led to the resignation of four party members – the MHP currently looks likely to win 13% of votes, opinion polls suggest.
If the MHP fails to maintain sufficient support to enter parliament come election day, the AKP will all but certainly pick up enough seats to push its constitutional reform package – and many other laws – through parliament unchallenged. That has put secularists on edge in light of the events that have followed the constitutional referendum.
In February and again in April, dozens of military officers – among them 30 serving generals – were arrested for allegedly plotting a coup in the so-called Balyoz (Sledgehammer) case. And, over the same period, journalists were detained and blogs closed down for allegedly supporting another group of similarly likeminded coup-mongers in a separate case known as Ergenekon. Critics, among them law professors, political analysts and rights groups, say that the evidence in both cases looks flimsy and, in some instances, may have even been fabricated. Some have likened the investigations to a witch-hunt against opponents of the AKP.
“The Ergenekon investigation became a political witch-hunt tinged with obtuse paranoia in which a single, centrally coordinated – and manifestly fictional – clandestine organisation was accused of responsibility for every act of political violence in Turkey in the last 25 years,” writes Istanbul-based political analyst Gareth Jenkins. “Those who questioned the prosecutors’ claims – and the numerous breaches of due process, including the apparent fabrication of evidence – were subjected to public smear campaigns; in several cases they were arrested and charged with being members of Ergenekon themselves.”
Having already tamed the country’s largest media conglomerate, Doğan, with draconian fines for alleged tax fraud, the arrest of journalists, bloggers and the closure of an internet portal, Oda tv, which was critical of the AKP, are increasingly being seen as attempts to silence dissent and muzzle free speech.
With more than 50 journalists taken into custody in recent months, Turkey has imprisoned more journalists than any other country, ahead of China and Iran, according to the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.
“Journalists and editors remained targets for prosecution. Legitimate news reporting on trials was deemed ‘attempting to influence a judicial process’ (and) reporting on criminal investigations was judged as ‘violating the secrecy of a criminal investigation’,” Human Rights Watch noted in its most recent World Report.
Members of the European Parliament pressed the issue in April when Erdoğan visited Brussels. Specifically, he defended the arrest of several journalists, a raid on the offices of leftist-liberal daily Radikal and the seizure of a book (banned by the government but widely circulated over the internet), all linked to the Ergenekon affair.
The book, titled The Imam’s Army and written by arrested investigative journalist Ahmet Şık, could be explosive, Erdoğan appeared to suggest: “It is a crime to use a bomb but it is also a crime to use materials from which a bomb is made. If informed that all materials needed to construct a bomb have been placed in a certain location, wouldn’t the security forces collect these materials?”
The government’s attacks on press freedom, combined with Erdoğan’s increasing hostility to Israel and warming relations with Iran, have undoubtedly tarnished relations between the NATO ally and Europe and the United States. Turkey’s chances of joining the EU anytime soon are looking increasingly slim and are likely to only get slimmer if the Erdoğan government continues down its current path.
Confiscating books, closing websites and blocking internet content is not new in Turkey: the government barred access to YouTube in 2008 over a video that was deemed to be insulting to Ataturk, a criminal offense under Turkish law. It lifted the ban two years later when the content was removed.
Previously, US officials had complained about the “absurd” trial of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk for writing about the death of up to one million Armenians in 1915, a deeply neuralgic issue in Turkey. “It will take much work to convince the Turks that freedom should cover the right to criticise and open guarantees to protect that right,” wrote former US Ambassador Ross Wilson of the Pamuk affair in a 2005 cable made public last year by WikiLeaks.
In the latest – though not entirely surprising – twist, the Turkish government has refocused its attention on the internet, announcing plans to implement new regulations that will effectively give it even more control over what content Turkish surfers can see. Under a regulation entitled “Procedures and Principles Regarding the Safe Use of the Internet” that is due to go into effect on 22 August, internet users will be given four filtering options to choose from: “family,” “child,” “domestic” and “standard”, each of which will give them access to a certain set of websites. The government claims that it is taking the step in order to protect children from pornography and uphold “family values” but it has not made clear which websites will be blocked and the most open “standard” package is still expected to maintain the restrictions Turkey already imposes.
“There is no time in Turkey when we do not face new censures and pressures. There are many barriers put in front of the right of people to be informed in Turkey,” the main opposition CHP said in an online statement, comparing the internet restrictions to the censoring and imprisonment of journalists. “You close websites, we will open them,” the party said, promising the change if it wins the forthcoming election.
In 2009, the government stopped releasing figures on the number of blocked sites (most of which are restricted arbitrarily by government officials without court orders), but it is now believed to be in excess of 8,000. Most of them contain pornographic material, though websites linked to Kurdish rights groups, blogs critical of the government and even some foreign media sites are also blocked.
“Depending on the government, depending on the ministers, you can be put on the blacklist,” says Nadire Mater, the head of the Turkish human-rights website Bianet. “This is not a democracy.”
Under the new measures, attempting to access restricted sites – using proxy servers abroad, for example, as many Turks previously did to watch YouTube – could lead to arrest and hefty fines. Erdoğan’s government has tried to persuade Turks that the filtering system is similar to that offered in some European countries, while failing to point out that no Western democracy bans websites to the extent that Turkey already does.
Internet campaigners and human rights groups say the move will put Turkey on a par with China and is inconsistent with the provisions on freedom of expression in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which Turkey has signed. “We will be behind censorship software just like in China. We will not have the chance to stay out of it,” warns Serdar Kuzuloğlu, an IT reporter for the Radikal daily.
The planned restrictions on the internet drew tens of thousands of people onto the streets of Turkish cities in protest on May 15. They carried banners warning that the new regulations portend the “death of the internet” in Turkey. Many may well worry that they are also witnessing the death throes of their secular democracy.
©Andrew Eatwell. All rights reserved. Published here with the author’s consent.