As Turkey’s “annus horribilis” nears an end, it is time for reflection. What has happened since the allegations of corruption on Dec. 17 and 25 erupted has been a revelation, a “wake-up” moment and a case study on the corrosion that power on a massive scale causes.
The reactions to the Gezi (Park protest) events had already signaled a state of paranoia, in the way that cultural resistance had been interpreted by then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. His strategy to combat the people’s reactions inevitably drove the polarization that already existed to its limit. This strategy’s success was at the cost of social cohesion; whatever remained of it was ebbing rapidly away.
The graft probes surfacing and enveloping parts of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government were piled on top of the revelations, pushing Erdoğan further to the edge. A year ago, seeing not many obstacles before him, he was determined to thrust his plan for an autocratic government model on the country. After all, he had the party, a crucial part of the electorate, and almost the entire state apparatus, he believed, under control.
In order to increase his control to its maximum level, he had gone to great lengths, using the economic resources of the state, creating a system of dependency for domestic economic actors, inviting, as it were, all those who wanted to take part in quick profits into his fold, in return for absolute loyalty — and “omerta.” All he desired was to reach the stage of being the sole decision maker, unchallenged, unaccountable, untouchable. He was getting close, testing his powers in various sectors, particularly those he saw as uncontrollable: the media, the judiciary and parts of the society which remained distrustful of him. He felt confident. He was keen on keeping his domestic and international options to do what he wanted open.
Then, from mid-December, things changed. In a sense, the two graft probes, and what they told the world, had shone some light on what his leadership insidiously aimed to achieve. If what Gezi represented was a cultural resistance, this issue with the graft probes was a moral one, telling the citizenry that it was high time the powers that be were held accountable; that, to quote Shakespeare, “there was something rotten in the state of Turkey.”
If the tragic bombing in Uludere and the drama-filled Gezi events were the first tests of what Erdoğan had in mind about democracy as a goal, Dec. 17 and 25 turned into the final, decisive test. They caught him off-guard, leading to an endless series of desperate reflexive actions. There he was, getting closer inch by inch to autocratic rule, having almost grabbed the entire power structure, and nothing would be allowed the stop the pace.
As a result, we have had an annus horribilis marked by a “Nero effect.” With the government’s act of despair, we witnessed all the gains this society had demanded and deserved being demolished, all the steps forward — triggered by the referendum in 2010 — reversed. It began on Dec. 18, when the AKP changed course; a new constitution was debated, abandoning all the progress made to turn Turkey into a more democratic country. From then on, everything was to be burned, more or less as Nero had desired once upon a time.
The annus horribilis has meant a country described as the “lonely man of Europe” is adrift and unpredictable, seemingly aimless. It means a constant erosion of the rule of law. Human rights violations have returned to the fore in their previous guises, as Turkey’s long-oppressed social groups start to lose their patience for having their rights recognized. In Erdoğan’s need to produce new domestic enemies — after the Armenians, Greeks, Jews, leftists, Syriacs, Kurds — the Gülen movement was chosen as the new archenemy to divert the attention from abuses of power.
Erdoğan’s increasingly desperate quest for autocracy led him also to seek alliances with the authoritarian “old establishment,” which after years of being pushed into the periphery, now feels confident to regain the political territory it had lost. Now, the year ends with a power play whose stakes are much riskier and unforeseeable.
The tiny flicker of hope lies within the AKP itself. The excessive and fait accompli presidential palace seems to have had a stronger impact than two graft probes on the party’s conservative segments, so it all depends on the ruling party to realize and deal with the burden internally.
Am I hopeful? Not that much.