Not long ago, Turkey was considered a model of constitutional democracy in the Middle East. For this reason, President Obama chose Turkey as his first majority-Muslim destination. But this 90-year old democracy is now facing a major crisis. Four corruption investigations that touched the sons of three ministers and the prime minister have sparked massive government reaction, led to the collapse of rule of law and significantly undermined the foundations of Turkish democracy.
Here’s how the shining light of democracy in the Middle East began to fade: On Dec. 17, after a 14-month investigation, Turkish prosecutors and police detained several high-profile, politically-connected individuals after alleged attempts by the interior ministry to interfere with the investigation. Millions in cash were recovered from shoeboxes and bookshelves, along with electronic steel vaults, images, videos, telephone conversations and payment records that implicated these individuals.
In two related investigations, the director of state-owned HalkBank and four ministers are suspected of receiving bribes from an Iranian businessman who has been allegedly aiding Iran bypass international financial sanctions. A third investigation includes evidence of rigging state construction tenders and granting permits for protected historic areas. The fourth investigation, which involves a charity led by the prime minister’s son, was stalled after the lead prosecutor was removed. Since the investigations began, three ministers and five parliamentarians from the ruling AK Party (AKP) have resigned.
That the AKP’s third term is mired in systemic corruption is discouraging for Turkey’s democracy. Even more worrisome, though, is the fact that corruption has led to an authoritarian trend in which those who refuse political obedience are profiled and discriminated against.
Instead of allowing the legal investigation to proceed unimpeded, the government chose to remove Istanbul’s police chief and replace him with a bureaucrat with no relevant experience. It pacified the prosecutor, discredited him with a media smear campaign and then removed him from the case. The interior ministry removed hundreds of police investigators from their posts and required the replacing investigators to inform their politically appointed superiors of any future investigations. Media’s access to the police is also restricted. Online media coverage of legal investigations are threatened with a bill that places websites, blogs and social media under political censorship.
Prime Minister Erdogan has blamed the current investigations as part of an international political conspiracy by the U.S. ambassador, influential preacher Fethullah Gulen, Wall Street Journal, BBC and the “interest lobby.”
Targeting Gulen’s sympathizers, also known as “camia” or “Hizmet,” is not just convenient; it is strategic. Media elements affiliated with the Hizmet movement speak directly to AKP’s voter base and unlike the civil society groups that AKP managed to endear through various mechanisms, Hizmet movement has maintained its independence. Therefore there is really nothing that stops Hizmet participants from presenting the inconvenient truths about AKP’s elite leadership.
The AKP already has tight control of both the executive and legislative branches. The opposition parties are unable to pass legislation, oppose AKP’s legislation or start a parliamentary investigation against any member of the executive branch. And now, since the corruption investigations, there is a full-scale effort to tame the judiciary.
AKP advisers and parliamentarians have issued tweets and other forms of messages threatening the prosecutors involved in corruption investigations with deadly consequences. A prosecutor in the city of Izmir who was pursuing a graft probe involving a relative of AKP’s mayoral candidate declared that he was threatened by the undersecretary of the justice ministry to halt the investigation or “face the results.”
AKP is also gearing up to pass a legislation that will dramatically increase the powers of the justice minister in the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors, empowering the justice minister to approve or reject investigations of members of the judiciary. This legislation, if enacted, would completely remove the independence of the judiciary and bring it under political control. It has already received strong criticism from the European Union.
All this already undermines the basic democratic tenet of separation of powers. But it gets worse.
Never in Turkish history has a single person or party achieved this level of media subservience. Today, AKP leadership controls Turkish media through an approach of carrots and sticks. Several media groups receive preferential treatment in exchange for AKP-friendly editorial policies. Some of these media organizations were acquired by AKP-friendly businesses through questionable funds and processes. Opposition CHP leader brought the question of whether Prime Minister was personally involved in the transfer of Sabah media group to a friendly business to Turkish parliament.
Media not friendly to AKP, on the other hand, are threatened with intimidation, inspections and fines. These media group owners face similar threats to their other businesses. Columnists have been fired for criticizing the AKP leadership — some of whom described the ongoing owner-censorship publicly.
Another dimension of AKP’s increasingly authoritarian trend is the use of the National Intelligence Service (MIT) to spy on and profile citizens and civil servants. Last June, Turkish newspapers, such as the liberal Taraf daily, revealed draft legislation that would give unprecedented powers to the National Intelligence Service (MIT). While this legislation was not brought to the parliament, reports were published about MIT signing protocols with Ministry of Education and Turkish Airlines to spy on and profile citizens.
On December 4, AKP deputy chairman Huseyin Celik admitted to such profiling and claimed, in an almost comedic fashion, that this was an old habit of MIT that the AKP-appointed intelligence chief was unable to stem. This is unfortunate because for decades, citizens who did not embrace the Kemalist ideology had been profiled and discriminated against and some of the current AKP leaders personally suffered from this policy in the past.
Within the last year, the AKP elite has either implemented or attempted many other undemocratic policies and actions. These include harsh reaction to the peaceful protestors at Gezi Park, attempts to regulate student homes and introducing draft legislation banning prep courses that prepare students for nationwide college placement tests, making it illegal to run math and science tutoring centers.
AKP’s 2011 election manifesto prominently featured a new, civilian-based constitution. The half-hearted effort to draft a new constitution was abandoned after it became clear that the inclusion of a powerful office of presidency was infeasible. Operating under a constitution drafted under the 1980 military junta while the junta members face civilian courts is ironic.
In the face of systemic corruption allegations and mounting evidence, the strategy chosen by AKP elite appears to be to subjugate the judiciary to political control, and hence stifle current corruption investigations and block future ones. In an attempt to justify this blatant assault on the independence of the judiciary, and other authoritarian measures, Gulen-inspired Hizmet movement is used as a scapegoat.
Against mounting criticism of their authoritarian measures, AKP elite’s often-repeated argument that they represent the will of the people is fragile. Free and fair elections require public access to information and the lack of unfair advantage by those in power. In Turkey, public access to information is restricted by media control and censorship. And businesses that are given government contracts are required to return the favor by donating to AKP-designated charities and assist AKP election campaign financially — thus giving AKP an unfair advantage. The intimidation of the judiciary and the constant shuffling of police prosecutors make it nearly impossible to investigate any corruption case that involves members of the AKP leadership or their relatives.
The current trend is toward the hegemony of the executive branch of the government and the situation is regarded as a move away from EU democratic states and toward the authoritarian regimes of the region.
Under normal circumstances, the 58 percent of Turkish population who supported the democratic constitutional amendments of 2010 would punish this trend at the ballot box. In a recent poll conducted face-to-face with 1,545 adults by MetroPOLL Strategic and Social Research Center, 60 percent of those surveyed agreed that the prosecutors were right to proceed with the corruption investigations, versus only 26.5 percent who did not. 90 percent of those surveyed said that they would not support the ruling party if its leaders turned a blind eye to corruption.
These are clear indications that Turkish people, when informed accurately, would send a clear message to their government regarding corruption and authoritarianism. But, with the ongoing intimidation of the judiciary and media censorship, will they get an accurate picture of their government’s performance? Will Turkey be able to overcome this conundrum? If history is any indication, we can keep our faith in the democratic wisdom of Turkish voters.