The demise of Turkish democracy

Date posted: March 7, 2014

Events in Turkey since Dec. 17, 2013, are not a mere bump in the road but constitute a major setback for Turkish democracy.

A total of 84 American foreign policy experts have written a bipartisan letter to US President Barack Obama, expressing concern that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s autocratic actions and demagoguery are not only subverting Turkey’s political institutions and values but also endangering the US-Turkey relationship.

The European Parliament (EP) has also expressed deep concern at recent developments, and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle’s spokesperson, Peter Stano, has stated that the European Commission’s (EC) assessment will be reflected in their next report after the summer. Moreover, Liberal MEP Andrew Duff has said that the European Union is now closer to the point of suspending talks.

The US State Department noted in its Human Rights Report for 2013 that the Turkish government’s reactions to the anti-corruption investigation launched on Dec. 17 have been aimed more at discrediting and stifling the investigation than conducting an impartial enquiry.

This, no doubt, hangs together with the fact that many suspects are connected with the top echelon of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government but also because the latest revelations target Prime Minister Erdoğan and his family.

The 24 suspects, including the sons of two ministers, the general manager of a state bank and an Iranian businessman, who were arrested in connection with the first round of investigations, have now been released, and the Iranian businessman’s assets have been unfrozen. The same has happened to the assets of seven businessmen who would have been detained in the second investigation on Dec. 25, 2013, if it had not been blocked.

This lenient treatment is a marked contrast to the lengthy periods of pre-trial detention experienced by other suspects; for example, journalist Mustafa Balbay, who sat in prison for four years before being sentenced to almost 35 years’ imprisonment in the Ergenekon case, or another journalist, Tuncay Özkan, who was detained for almost five years before receiving an aggravated life sentence (22 years and six months) in the same case.

Crackdown on Gülen movement

According to a presentation made at a meeting of the National Security Council (MGK) on Feb. 26 of this year, a third of the police force and judiciary are made up of followers of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s erstwhile ally, the Turkish imam Fethullah Gülen, who has lived in Pennsylvania since 1999. Higher up the scale, at the level of police chief, the Council of State, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), it is believed to be about two-thirds.

At the meeting, which was chaired by President Abdullah Gül, it was decided to cleanse the state of what Erdoğan has called “a virus” held responsible for extensive wiretapping that has revealed to Turkey and the rest of the world a network of corruption, bribery, tender-rigging and media interference at the heart of the country’s government.

Previously, some 7,500 police officers and 400 prosecutors have been reassigned, effectively putting an end not only to the first two investigations but also a third in İzmir, involving former Minister for Transport and Communications, Binali Yıldırım, who is running for mayor in the local elections on March 30.


Nevertheless, a tweeter called Haramzadeler (“sons of thieves”) has created havoc in Turkey, where there are believed to be 13 million Twitter subscribers. His (their) tweets send links to various websites, for example, YouTube, Vimeo, SoundCloud and Dropbox, where you can hear recordings supposedly of the prime minister giving instructions to media bosses, accepting two villas in return for easing zone restrictions and the involvement of Communications Minister Yıldırım in rigging a tender for a media group.

The great granddaddy of them all came on Feb. 24, when Haramzadeler posted an alleged recording of five phone calls made between Prime Minister Erdoğan and his son Bilal on Dec. 17 (when the graft probe was launched) and Dec. 18, 2013. In the first two recordings, Erdoğan tells Bilal to remove and “dissolve” all the cash he has in the house, and in the fourth Bilal admits they still have 30 million euros they could not yet dissolve. Like a scene from “Breaking Bad,” Bilal complains how hard it is because it takes up too much space. Finally, the next morning Bilal reassures his father it is all “zeroed.”

The prime minister immediately condemned the recordings as “a vile attack” and “an immoral montage.” The pro-government media have claimed that the recordings were doctored, and Islamist TV channel Kanal 7 said that two American audio studios had proved they were edited. However, this has been denied by both firms, one of which stated that Kanal 7’s claim was “an obvious attempt at deception.”

Various specialists have confirmed that the recordings are genuine, and Guarded Risk, a US data security and forensic consultant, has in a preliminary audio forensic concluded that although there are multiple recordings placed in one mp3 file, they cannot be proven false. Erdoğan has admitted that his encrypted phones were tapped, which makes it likely that the leaked wiretaps come from files compiled by prosecutors dismissed in the Great Purge.

Haramzadeler, joined by another tweeter called Başçalan (“chief thief”), has since come out with other revelations, including donations to the Youth and Education Services Foundation (TÜRGEV), where Bilal Erdoğan is an executive board member, which allegedly acts as a slush fund for “donations” by businessmen in return for public tenders, and also an attempt by Erdoğan to have his candidate elected as chairman of a football club.

Incidentally, Prime Minister Erdoğan has a curious definition of corruption. In his view, corruption means the embezzlement of public funds, which means that the allegations against his former ministers and the general manager of Halkbank are unfounded. Accordingly, the $4.5 million found in shoeboxes at the latter’s home was “charity money” and therefore should be returned.

This no doubt hangs together with the views of Erdoğan’s Islamic counsel, professor emeritus of Islamic law Hayrettin Karaman, who advises that there is no problem in encouraging people who win contracts from the state to make donations to charitable foundations, for example, TÜRGEV.

New legislation

Particularly in view of the local elections at the end of this month, which will act as a benchmark for the AKP government’s performance, the Turkish government is making a frantic effort to plug all the leaks. Apart from the mass reassignment of police officers and prosecutors, the first step has been amendments to the Internet law, which Dr. Yaman Akdeniz, a cyber rights expert, has called “an Orwellian nightmare” and “the first steps towards the creation of surveillance society in Turkey.”

Around 40,000 websites have already been blocked in Turkey, and the amended law, ostensibly to protect young people and prevent the violation of privacy, can lead to many more. President Gül, who had earlier deplored the decline of media freedom in Turkey, approved the new law but sent it back to Parliament to make two amendments: A decision by the Telecommunications Board (TİB) to block a website is now subject to court review within 24 hours, and a court order will be necessary to obtain Internet traffic data.

Another piece of legislation that has caused an outcry is the new law to restructure the HSYK. According to the law, which has been signed by President Gül, the Minister of Justice has the authority to reshape the composition of all three chambers and the Justice Academy. Although the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has filed an appeal with the Constitutional Court, new Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ, who is regarded as an Erdoğan stooge, has already appointed a new secretary-general and five of his deputies as well as members of the disciplinary board and a new head of the Justice Academy.

Another controversial aspect of the new law is that even if it is annulled by the Constitutional Court, HSYK members who have been removed from their positions will have no right to appeal to a court to demand the reinstatement of their jobs, as a number of police officers have done. There is also a provision that judges and prosecutors are required to have 20 years’ experience to be members of the board, a move intended to preclude supporters of the Gülen movement.

President Gül has been heavily criticized for not vetoing the law, as he himself has said it violates 15 articles of the Constitution, including Article 159, which states that the HSYK shall be established and shall exercise its functions in accordance with the principles of the independence of the courts. These principles have now been violated, and as deputy chairman of the CHP Faruk Loğoğlu has remarked, now the minister of justice has become chief qadi in a process transforming Turkey into a sultanate.

A new bill giving extensive powers to the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) and, in effect, making it Erdoğan’s Praetorian Guard, has been postponed until after the local elections.

The economy

In the meantime, Turkey’s economy continues to suffer. In January, the president of the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (TÜSIAD), Muharrem Yılmaz, warned: “A country where the rule of law is ignored, where the independence of regulatory institutions is tainted, where companies are pressured through tax penalties and other punishments, where rules on tenders are changed regularly, is not a fit country for foreign capital.”

The truest word spoken in Brussels on the occasion of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit, also in January, came from the EU Commission’s president, José Manuel Barroso, when he stated that 75 percent of the investment in Turkey comes from the EU. It is only when foreign investors start to vote with their feet that the Turkish government will sit up and take notice.

 *Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.

Source: Todays Zaman , March 6, 2014

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