Discussions of democracy in the Middle East were the fad among many commentators at the onset of the Arab Spring, only to give way to more measured analyses calling for stability as Islamists filled the power vacuum.
Before Turkey’s ruling Islamist AKP party came to power by winning elections in 2002, the country was under the rule of the more secular nationalist Republican People’s Party, which Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded in 1924. While appearing to be an Islamist who showed tolerance for democracy in his early years of rule, the AKP’s leader, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, slowly Islamized society and became more authoritative.
Now it seems that Erdogan is having difficulty staying disciplined and is moving to take control of the state at a pace that recalls similar actions by former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.
Unlike the AKP, Morsi moved too fast too soon, seizing power through a constitutional declaration and pushing through his favored version of a constitution. He dismissed senior military officials soon after coming to power, in contrast to the AKP, which did this incrementally over time.
In May last year, massive protests against the AKP erupted in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, revealing that a significant portion of the country’s population opposed the government’s increasing aggressiveness in forcing its views on the public.
Ergodan reacted by doubling down, lashing out at his critics and cracking down on protesters and the press.
In the 2014 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, Turkey now ranks 154 out of 180 countries in the world. It falls behind countries such as Jordan (141), Russia (148) and Iraq (153).
As of mid-December, Erdogan’s latest anti-democratic fight came about when he judged that the AKP, as well as large parts of the bureaucracy, had been penetrated by the Hizmet movement of his previous Islamist ally, US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. This internal feud left Erdogan vulnerable, with police and prosecutors – who the prime minister claimed were allies of Gulen – pursuing Erdogan’s supporters on suspicion of corruption.
Erdogan has reacted just as he did with the protests, using aggressive rhetoric and his presidential powers to try and eliminate any opposition inside and outside the government.
“Erdogan is losing some of his caution as his struggle to stay in power becomes fiercer,” Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), told The Jerusalem Post.
“Nowadays he faces the accusation of corruption, which he used against the former Kemalist leadership,” Inbar said, adding that the “challenge to his dominance in Turkish politics is greater than ever.”
In his counterpunch against Gulen, the straw that may finally break the camel’s back when it comes to what remains of the Turkish democratic experiment is Erdogan’s recent effort to gain control of the judiciary – which led to an actual brawl in Turkey’s parliament.
The judicial reforms that passed in a 2010 referendum on constitutional changes received much international applause at the time, as they shifted the power of the judiciary to the civilian courts and curbed the military ones.
The changes gave parliament, which is dominated by the AKP, the ability to appoint more judges.
The reforms removed immunity for those involved in Turkey’s 1980 military coup, a sign that the country was taking the rule of law seriously and delegitimizing future coup attempts.
However, secularists contended that the reforms were also designed to cover up a “court-packing” scheme, in which Erdogan and the AKP would simply replace judges with loyal Islamists who would endorse an aggressive Islamization of the state.
At the time, the EU and the US rejected these accusations, noting that the reforms would only ensure greater judicial independence.
But if the accusations of court-packing were untrue or unproven at the time, most have interpreted Erdogan’s recent “follow-up” judicial reform as a naked power grab to eliminate the judiciary’s independence and its pursuit of his allies over the corruption issue, while also eliminating Gulen’s alleged power centers.
Critics – and this time, these include both domestic opposition and the EU, which defended the 2010 reforms – say the reforms will give the government control of judicial appointments.
They add that the reforms would give the justice minister the ability to launch investigations into the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecution (HSYK), such that the HSYK would no longer really be independent or free of political retaliation.
Compounding these accusations is the timing. Erdogan is advancing these reforms after firing scores of police and prosecutors who were pursuing his allies for corruption – at the very time that the judiciary and the police were investigating these cases.
Erdogan has framed these actions as necessary to root out an unspecified foreign conspiracy against Turkey and as part of the 2010 judicial reforms supported by the public.
But most say that the EU’s switching from a supporter of judicial reform to a critic exposes Erdogan’s unprincipled wielding of power.
The idea of democracy in the Middle East (besides in Israel) has taken serious blows in recent years, and Turkey may have been transformed from the model of the ideal Muslim democracy to yet another failed experiment.