Turkey on the edge of autocracy

Erdogan’s anti-Israel rhetoric cannot be seen in isolation from his oppressive policies at home and his pursuit of Islamist allies abroad.

Erdogan wins with wife 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Erdogan wins with wife 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The only good thing to be said of the pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party’s victory in Turkey’s parliamentary elections Sunday is that it was not complete. The AKP, headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, did not manage to clinch two-thirds of the seats in the parliament, which would have empowered it to revamp Turkey’s constitution singlehandedly in a decidedly pro-Islamist manner and create a presidential style of government that would enable to Erdogan to remain in power beyond his three terms as prime minister.
Nor did the AKP receive the requisite 330 seats in the 550- seat parliament that would have enabled it to call a referendum for the above mentioned reforms.
Theoretically, this could open the path for a consensusdriven constitutional process, diminishing Turkey’s polarization between Islamist and secularist camps while sparking both internal and public debate regarding the AKP’s authoritarianism. More likely, however, the AKP will forgo compromise and opt to close deals with a few willing parliamentarians from other parties to obtain the five additional votes needed for submitting an AKP-authored constitution to a referendum. Judging from its success in the parliamentary elections, the AKP would likely win that referendum.
The AKP will undoubtedly be emboldened by its steady rise in popularity – from 34 percent of the vote in 2002 to 46.58% in 2007 and about 50% in Sunday’s elections – on a platform that includes religious conservatism at home and the strengthening of ties with Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah abroad. Quirks of the Turkish election process, not a fall in popularity, explain the AKP loss of seats in parliament from 363 in 2002 and 341 in 2007 to 326 today.
Erdogan’s excellent political instincts prompted him to steer his country away from European Union membership and all the tough economic and social reforms it demands, toward a more traditionalist, anti-liberal policy that appealed to religious Turks. Their rapid demographic growth compared to their secular counterparts, combined with a strong Islamist trend sweeping the region, have assured the AKP of a steadily expanding support base. After its landslide victory in the 2007 elections, the AKP gained confidence, gradually shedding its subtle, incremental push for an increasingly Islamist agenda under the guise of a “center-right” reform party platform.
TODAY TURKEY is on the verge of autocracy. The country has the highest number of imprisoned journalists (57) in the world – more than Russia, China or Iran – according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Government-led efforts to intimidate the media have intensified – in particular against the once combative Dogan media group, whose newspapers have been cowed into subservience by a combination of politically motivated tax audits and fines amounting to more than the worth of its media holdings.
The Ergenekon case, which began in 2007 as an investigation into an elaborate coup attempt planned by ultranationalist secular military officers, has since been exploited in a McCarthy-like witch hunt launched by the Islamist government against the secular establishment, which, it should be acknowledged, abused its power during the years it was in power. Over the past four years AKP-controlled police have taken more than 400 people into custody, including university presidents, journalists and women’s rights activists, without evidence of criminal activity. Some AKP opponents have been held for years without charge.
And rampant wiretapping has scared even the average Turk into refraining from discussing the case over the phone or via e-mail to avoid being accused of involvement.
Unsurprisingly, Turkey’s increasingly anti-democratic, pro-Islamist policies, both domestically and internationally, have included expressions of anti-Semitism and baseless attacks on Israel. In better days Turkey’s secular elites rightly valued close relations with the Jewish state as a positive sign of Turkey’s liberalism and freedom in a region dominated by reactionary, autocratic regimes. Now with reactionary changes sweeping Turkey, relations with Israel have suffered. Erdogan has not even bothered to hide his anti- Semitic views. When The Economist – which can hardly be suspected of undue sympathy for Israel – openly called on Turks to vote against the AKP, Erdogan, who had used anti- Israel rhetoric throughout his campaign to garner electoral support, lashed out at the British publication to the effect that “the international media, being backed by Israel, wouldn’t be happy with the continuation of the AKP.”
Erdogan’s anti-Israel rhetoric cannot be seen in isolation from his oppressive policies at home and his pursuit of Islamist allies abroad. It is almost axiomatic that Turkey’s relations with the Middle East’s only democracy suffer as Erdogan moves his country away from democracy toward an Islamic-inspired autocracy.