Erdogan and the struggle for democracy in Turkey

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan react during an election rally in Istanbul

Photo credit: Reuters

On Saturday, Turkey will take to the polls under the most precarious of circumstances. Since the attempted coup in July 2016, Turkey has been under a state of emergency. The state of emergency has allowed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the government to bypass parliament in passing new laws and gives them ability to suspend rights and freedoms. 

The far-reaching powers of the state have left the media – one of the pillars of any thriving democracy – in perpetual tatters. Over 175,000 websites have been banned and some 800 Twitter accounts blocked. As it stands, more journalists are currently in jail than in any other country on earth.  Amnesty International called it the death of journalism. Human Rights Watch said Turkey had “sharpened” its “assault” on journalism.  Reporters Without Borders said the “unimaginable is becoming the norm”. 

So what is going on?

The Turkish government says that the attempted coup compelled the administration to confront the internal forces undermining the ruling AKP party’s rule.  Under emergency rule, no less than 160,000 people have been detained (some have since been released) and as many have been sacked from their jobs. Part of this exercise has been the weaning out of foreign influence in Turkish affairs. 

Scores of media outlets have been shut and journalists and activists have been detained as Erdogan looks to root out supporters of Fethullah Gulen- the former government ally and now US-based cleric – said to have been behind the attempt to take over the country. There is no doubt that Erdogan is battling a deep state – one dominated by Gulenists and secularists, and that his foreign policy – as a powerful Sunni Muslim country – offends and irritates the western world. 

But while Erdogan’s opposition would admit that Turkey is facing internal rebellion, his critics claim that he has lost the plot; the attempted coup of 2016 merely became a ruse to exercise over-reach to decimate his opponents. 

An attempted coup may be credible cause to install heightened security, but the detention and arrest of countless journalists over spurious charges, and the shutting down of media houses has left even Erdogan’s most ardent backers with questions: Is this a government interested in re-establishing security or instituting a single narrative? Is there a difference between spies using journalism as a cover and journalists merely talking to the other side as per the demands of their job? Crucially, will the accused receive a fair hearing?

Journalists involved with media linked to Gulen or columnists or writers who have merely interviewed so-called terrorists (like the Kurdistan Workers Party), have been arrested on terror charges and charged with being spies. Journalists involved with Zaman, a media house partial to Gulen, have been held. Prosecutors are pursuing life imprisonment for nine of its former columnists. 

For most western experts and observers, the quashing of dissent and the silencing of Turkish civil society undermines the gains made in instilling a democratic culture in the country and pushes it back towards authoritarianism and dictatorship. For those who still believe in Erdogan’s quest as a unifying Muslim leader of a socially conservative but neo-liberal Islamic democracy, Erdogan’s actions are a precautionary measure to save Turkish democracy. What cannot be dismissed so easily however is that Erdogan has consistently met each wave of criticism with securing a victory in every election, be it parliamentary or presidential, on a populist mandate.

The muzzling of the media in Turkey and the intimidation of journalists and activists certainly predates Erdogan. Either way, the actions against the press and civil servants has only left Turkey further divided. That all of this takes places as Erdogan faces one of his toughest challenges at the polls is no coincidence. 

Economic growth might still be on the rise, but the earnings of ordinary people, that which has traditionally spearheaded Erdogan’s popularity, has significantly reduced. The weakening of the Turkish currency, through the withdrawal and slowing of foreign direct investment, also illustrates the attempts by the markets to discourage support for Erdogan. That the majority of Turks may value the stability offered by Erdogan over reduced civil rights might hold true, but much of this is predicated on a strong, bustling economy. 

The madness of the surrounding territories further energizes support for Erdogan’s strength, and ability to mock or stand up to European racism or Israeli war crimes. In a neighbourhood where Arab and African leaders are oft- silent and indecisive at crimes committed against Muslims around the world, for instance, Erdogan brings respectability and leadership. 

But again, one has to wonder if there exists anything beyond rhetoric. For instance, Erdogan might spout venom at Israel, as one of the few powerful leaders in the region to confront Netanyahu, but Turkey, as the first Muslim country ever to recognize Israel, remains one of its biggest trading partners. In fact, trade between the two countries has thrived over the past decade. There is little to suggest that anything matters more than the bottom line. 

As it stands, Erdogan continues to enjoy immense support from a large segment of Turkish society. However, his inability to operate or navigate the Turkish polity without extended powers means that even with this grassroots support, he will continue to be seen as an antagonist to democratic values.

Azad Essa is a journalist based in New York City.