Despite the fact that in the more than a decade of Erdoğan’s leadership, the government has undertaken a limited democratization process through amendments to the Constitution and steps to eliminate the military tutelage over the civil authority, the era since the Gezi Park protests — a peaceful sit-in in defense of a city park that became a nationwide protest movement — marked a transition to an authoritarian rule when compared to the early years of Erdoğan’s administration.
The major turning point that transformed Erdoğan into a more authoritarian leader was the massive corruption scandal that became public on Dec. 17, 2013. In response to the graft probe, Erdoğan chose to defend those Cabinet ministers and their sons who were implicated in the investigation and employs hate speech directed at certain parts of society, discriminating between “us” and the “others.” Previously, Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) were seen as the main source of hope for the creation of a new and more democratic constitution that would meet society’s demands for democratic change.
In a harsh reaction to the investigation, Erdoğan immediately purged police and prosecutors and then engaged in steps to ensure a tighter government hold on the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), paving the way for the destruction of the principle of the separation of powers, as well as allowing the government to appoint judges and prosecutors to keep the judiciary under the control of the executive branch to thwart the graft probe.
The graft crisis shook the government and Erdoğan hit back by accusing the faith-based Hizmet movement inspired by Turkish and Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen of plotting against his rule using leaked audio recordings that claim that Erdoğan and his son Bilal were also part of the corruption scandal.
Stepping up his drive against the followers of Gülen, Erdoğan, who denies any wrongdoing, has instigated hatred in society by labeling some prosecutors and police chiefs as members of a “parallel state,” as well as declaring that he would “enter the lairs” of his enemies who have accused him of corruption, adding, “They will pay for this.”
In a move that further damaged the freedom of expression in Turkey, the government blocked access to the micro-blogging platform Twitter and to the video-sharing website YouTube just hours after an audio recording of a high-level security meeting was leaked online. While in the short-term these bans may be beneficial to Erdoğan and helpful to the realization of his political plans, in the long-run it is certain that this kind of step will cause significant damage to the democratic principles and the state of law in society, and strengthen authoritarian tendencies in governance.
Wielding tremendous power in the political arena and even more confident after the latest local election results favored the AK Party, Erdoğan views the ballot box as the only currency required to realize his political program, as his recent speech in which he labeled opponents an “alliance of evil” indicated.
The political turbulence also has negative effects on economic indicators. Unnerved by the tension in Turkey, investors have hesitated to make new investments in Turkey, driving the Turkish lira to a record low in January. Although the lira returned to normal levels following the elections, it is agreed that the Turkish economy is now more fragile and less attractive to international investors.
The defendants in the Ergenekon coup case were released pending trial amid talk of a retrial and despite the fact that the İstanbul 13th High Criminal Court in its reasoned opinion stated that Ergenekon is a terrorist organization that had plotted against the governments of former Prime Ministers Bülent Ecevit and Abdullah Gül and the incumbent Erdoğan.
The case played a crucial role in curtailing the military’s aspirations to redesign the political sphere through military coups. The release of the defendants was seen as another significant rollback of democratic principles and a calculated attempt to seek an alliance with the army in order to destroy the Hizmet movement in a stunning reversal of Erdoğan’s policy regarding the army. He had at one time accused the military of attempting to topple his legitimate government.
Most recently, Erdoğan launched a hostile initiative to have foreign countries shut down Turkish schools located abroad that are affiliated with the Hizmet movement. While the network of more than 2,000 schools and other educational establishments in more than 120 countries has been praised as a source of pride for Turkey, Erdoğan’s personal war on the movement seems to have led him to be willing to damage Turkey’s national interests both at home and overseas.
Erdoğan’s intolerance of voices of dissident and differences of all kinds suggests an authoritarian style of rule, perhaps even at the cost of destroying all state mechanisms that might deter him from his path, and demonstrates a clear contradiction between Turkey’s long-term domestic and foreign aspirations and interests. The discourse that Erdoğan uses against a certain segment of society also serves to plant seeds of hate, increasing intolerance among people and the encroachment on the media is being interpreted as a violation of the freedom of the press, a blow to the expression of different ideas in society.
Once aligning Turkey with the European Union and democratization efforts, Erdoğan has now strayed from the EU path and given up on the commitment to European values by calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin to let Turkey join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as an alternative to the EU process while in St. Petersburg.
Further demonstrating Erdoğan’s emulation of Russia’s iron-fisted and authoritarian administration, the prime minister refrained from making any official visit to Europe for five years. Erdoğan told Putin in an implicit reference to Turkey’s long EU membership process, “Include us in the SCO and relieve us from this pain.”
Confirming Turkey’s movement away from the EU, Erdoğan’s chief economic adviser Yiğit Bulut recently claimed that Turkey will no longer need Europe, stating the “new West” solely comprises the US and adding: “I’ll state it in clear terms: In the new equation, the new West for Turkey means only the US. We no longer need Europe and its material and moral affiliates which may become a burden to us.”
While the notorious Iran-linked terrorist organization Tawhid-Salam is labeled as the stealthiest and the most dangerous terrorist organization that Turkey has ever faced by some specialists, a three-year investigation of the Iran-backed organization has been foiled and ridiculed by some government officials, putting Turkey’s security at risk. The government’s close ties with Iran and ignoring the investigation have also raised concerns about Turkey leaning toward undemocratic regimes instead of the West.
In a risky effort to topple Syria’s authoritarian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey allegedly developed a relationship with al-Qaeda-affiliated elements in Syria, leaving Turkey to face harsh criticism from the US. In a statement, the US Department of the Treasury accused Turkey of acting as a transit point for funds to support the terrorist organization, as well as turning a blind eye to radical fighters passing through Turkey into Syria.
Once the US changed its foreign policy drive on Syria, dropping the option of a military intervention on the Assad regime from the agenda and thereby leaving Turkey standing alone on the issue, the issue of an al-Qaeda threat and Turkey’s alleged support provided to the al-Qaeda elements have come under the spotlight, especially after revelations by a senior Turkish diplomat that a bomb attack in the southern Turkish town of Reyhanlı was committed by the group.
The diplomat, Tacan İldem, cited the Reyhanlı attack in May 2013 in which 53 people were killed and scores more were wounded as one of the al-Qaeda attacks targeting Turkey, during a speech at a session of the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on March 27. The remark runs counter to government statements that groups affiliated with the Assad regime were behind it. The Foreign Ministry later insisted that there is no change in its official line and that the attack was carried out by elements linked to the Assad regime.
Another headache for Ankara emerged when American journalist Seymour Hersh voiced an even scarier scenario regarding a chemical weapons attack in Syria in 2013. Despite the fact that both the White House and the Turkish government have dismissed Hersh’s assertion that the Turkish government was behind the sarin gas attack in Ghouta, outside Damascus, last summer in cooperation with terrorist groups, the accusation could put Turkey in a difficult position in the international arena.
Turkey’s Syria policy, which is based on putting a plan to oust the Assad regime at the top of its foreign policy priorities and includes the hazardous path of supporting all anti-regime groups, apparently including radical ones, to achieve that objective, has run into further trouble with an alleged recent statement by the al-Qaeda splinter Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) threatening an attack on the historic Süleyman Şah tomb that is considered Turkish territory though it is located within Syria.
Other analysts also share similar concerns regarding a division between Erdoğan’s apparent path and Turkey’s interests. Suat Kınıklıoğlu, an analyst and a former AK Party deputy, says the government was not able to correctly assess the situation in Syria, adding: “They could not see that Russia and Iran would have such influence on the Syrian issue. Turkey stood alone after the US abandoned the intervention option against Syria. Now, the problem has turned out to be one of the important foreign policy issues for Turkey. It puts Turkey at risk in the international sphere.”
Regarding the alleged Turkey-al-Qaeda connection, Kınıklıoğlu warns that a country such as Turkey, which has long suffered from the threat of terrorism, must not give support to that kind of fundamentalist group, whatever the political motivation was behind it. Kınıklıoğlu said, “It is clear now that these radical organizations have been threatening Turkey.”
Noting that Turkey’s foreign policy in general is experiencing an identity crisis, Kınıklıoğlu said that the government should consider a balance when determining its foreign policy priorities with countries such as Iran and should not forget that it is part of the NATO umbrella, a Western alliance.
“Turkey should align its interests with the Western alliance and calculate the harm and benefit balance. When we look over today’s politics, I am afraid of a perception change against Turkey in the eyes of the world,” Kınıklıoğlu added.
Professor Doğu Ergil, a distinguished political scientist, points out that Erdoğan’s tactic of using rhetoric that targets and triggers the people’s painful subconscious memories of Western occupation is designed to quiet the allegations of corruption against him. Thus, under the guise of a “foreign attack” on Turkey, Erdoğan is able to subdue the questions about his political momentum. This stance feeds anti-Western sentiment in Turkey.
According to Ergil, Erdoğan feels pushed into a corner both abroad and in Turkey, leading him to be more aggressive in his speech and stance against any dissident voices. “Following the Constitutional Court’s decision to lift the ban on social media networks, Erdoğan lashed out at the ruling, saying that he does not respect it, while his AK Party is not even allowing the summary of proceedings about the four ex-ministers to be read in Parliament, indicating that the accusations of graft about him and his inner circle may have a genuine basis.”
Ergil is also critical of Erdoğan dominating foreign policy, stressing that individual priorities were introduced instead developing policy according to state interests. In a striking example, he draws attention to the contradictions in foreign relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. “In the early years of his rule, Erdoğan was not so eager to establish political and economic ties with the Kurdish region. But today, under Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s leadership, they have made an agreement to construct an oil pipeline and transfer oil through Turkish soil, in a way excluding the Iraqi central government. Now, Turkey’s relations with the central Iraqi government are terrible because of the oil deal with the Kurds in northern Iraq and the US is pushing Turkey to make amends with the Baghdad administration and not damage regional balances further through a move that could encourage the Kurds to seek independence,” Ergil said.
Ertuğrul Günay, former AK Party minister of culture and tourism, also points out the changed perception of Turkey and the Erdoğan government abroad. Both were once admired and considered to be on the path to democratic values, yet according to Günay, people in Turkey and around the world now feel frustrated with Erdoğan and his policies.
“Releasing the Ergenekon case defendants, stonewalling the corruption probe, halting access to information on the matter through an Internet ban are not points that the free world can accept. It is the price that Erdoğan has made Turkey pay for the benefit of his own interests,” Günay added.