Erdoğan’s propagandist think tanks

Abdullah Bozkurt
Abdullah Bozkurt


Date posted: December 17, 2013

ABDULLAH BOZKURT

Powerful Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s definition of democracy, which is limited to the ballot box, resembles marriage vows in which couples are asked to speak up or forever hold their peace.

This simple, or rather simplistic, definition of democracy has often been invoked by Erdoğan in public rallies in a deplorable attempt to silence the voice of active citizenship in civil society organizations, be it faith-based movements, nongovernmental organizations or advocacy/interest seeking pressure groups.

Since presenting this obscured vision of democracy where stakeholders are sidelined and marginalized, each and every step of the government’s decision-making process is very problematic, especially to foreign observers of Turkey, and a few privileged, government-financed think tanks scramble to flesh out Erdoğan’s undemocratic stand with what they pretend are sound political theories. These think tanks rush to justify what Erdoğan does or says, hoping that reactions will be somewhat muted in the face of obscured political theories. Their staff often shows up on public broadcasts or pro-government media to communicate their messages in exchange for lucrative fees for their services rendered to the governing party.

Perhaps the Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) tops the list in terms of how the line between independent thinking/analytical research and government advocacy has been blurred to the point of almost being indistinguishable. The fact that a SETA survey last year placed Erdoğan as the most revered personality among Turkish youth, scoring more than five times what Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the republic, had received in the poll, tells the tale. We used to see such institutions in communist systems where the political connections of establishment scholars to political authorities were mainly used to shape policy discussion. Scholars at these institutions are tasked with the mandate of articulating what the political authority does or says, mostly in defensive posturing and under the guise of academic freedom. Therefore, it is not surprising to see SETA and a few others acting as a “revolving door” for government scholars to jump into official and unofficial positions within the government.

Recently we started to hear talking heads from SETA saying that Hizmet (Gülen) volunteers should stop being critical of the government or else just form a political party, hinting that criticism of the government is confined only to opposition parties. The fact that Hizmet had long ago decided to not associate itself with a single political party does not mean that it will not engage in politics as a civic group that exerts pressure on any sitting government based on advocacy issues, just like any other non-political group in Turkey. As if the members of the Hizmet movement are not active and tax-paying citizens in this country who should enjoy constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of speech, these Erdoğan apologists challenge any civic group critical of issues in Turkey to confront the government by establishing a political party.

The same logical fallacy applies in Erdoğan’s mind to the role of free press in Turkey. He does not seem to grasp the nature and role of the independent, free and pluralist media as a public watchdog institution that serves the public’s benefit by contributing to the discourse of public discussion on national issues. Instead of taking into account what people think and how it gets reported in the media, Erdoğan challenges the media critical of his government on a given issue to compete on a political landscape by setting up its own political party. In the past, he used the same rhetoric on the judiciary, some of whose judgments did not please him, or against business interest groups, including the nation’s most powerful and largest trade associations, when they failed to endorse the government’s viewpoint.

Therefore, Erdoğan’s government coming after the strongest civic group, the Hizmet movement, in Turkey is not an isolated incident but rather fits a pattern of how Erdoğan defines democracy and how he handles nongovernmental organizations in the country. The purpose here is perhaps to send strong tremors through all civic groups in Turkey and put them on notice on the eve of elections. If Erdoğan can help marginalize or neutralize the members of Hizmet, he thinks others will automatically fold against the background of the scorched-earth policy that the Erdoğan government employs. In the meantime, the government promotes its own alternative civic groups, most of which are weak and at the mercy of the government, and funds media groups indirectly through business owners close to Erdoğan.

This is a very troubling picture considering that the public monitoring by most government agencies is quite weak and in some cases practically nonexistent in Turkey. By holding the view that democracy is just limited to political behavior every four years, the Erdoğan government is trying to silence public debate on democratic deficits such as freedom of the press woes, and weak accountability and transparency. It also shies away from addressing deficiencies in the rights of vulnerable groups like Alevis, Kurds and non-Muslim minorities. Unfortunately, this bleak picture has become a more serious threat in Turkey, where the media has been subjected to heavy political pressure in recent times.

What this leads to is that a feeling of disenfranchisement from political decision-making has grown substantially among Turkish citizens, while the parliamentary dimension of discussion is relegated to a rubberstamp function only. As a result, the gap between citizens’ expectations and Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government’s capacity to solve problems is widening significantly. The government actively discourages the development of civil society organizations and does not want to see an increasing role of participation by citizens in political decision-making. Hence, the feeling of disillusion and exclusion has been exacerbated among Turks today.

This is a very dangerous development in Turkey. If Erdoğan and his people around him tend to consider democracy exclusively as an instrument for winning or protecting power while limiting the right to free speech only to organized political parties, then the prospect of achieving a mature democracy under the AK Party in Turkey is an illusion. Given the weak status of public oversight and monitoring agencies, coupled with the absence of strong checks and balances in the system, the government’s crackdown on civil society organizations through legal, financial and political pressure will create another “break in democratic traditions” in this country, just like military coups have done on four occasions in republican history.

It feels like Erdoğan’s government is swimming against the currents in today’s world where states are increasingly looking for ways to engage with civil society groups, closely consulting with them or even delegating some tasks to them. More states consider a strong civil society a measure of the health of a mature democracy because it unleashes the energy and vibrancy of collective and individual contribution to smooth governance in the country. Especially with the development of new technologies on the Internet, it is much easier for a greater number of people to engage in national debate, have their voices reach the national government or even an international audience.

No matter how hard Erdoğan’s government and propagandist think tanks try to cast a long shadow on critical media and civic groups in Turkey, including Hizmet members, by using derogatory terms like parallel structures and unaccountable non-political actors, they fail to gain traction with national and international audiences. When they fail to build trust and credibility on that campaign, the only tool they are left with at their disposal is to use threats. That is why partisan SETA head Taha Özhan, speaking like a government commissioner, made threats against Hizmet members on live TV recently, saying the wrath of the state may come down on them.

Source: Today's Zaman , December 16, 2013


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