Türkiye: A Spin Dictatorship

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    Western institutions lack the tools to deter or punish Turkey’s breaches of European values.

                                                                                                          by Robert Ellis

In 1997, Fareed Zakaria wrote of the rise of illiberal democracythat is, that democracy was flourishing, but its mainstay, constitutional liberalism, was not. Two years ago, Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman wrote of its present form, which they termed “spin dictatorship.”

In essence, this was an advance from dictatorship based on fear as practiced by Stalin, Hitler, and Franco. In a “spin dictatorship,” authoritarian leaders use communication technology to gain and secure power while maintaining a facade of democratic legitimacy.

“A spin dictator calls elections and referenda and, winning huge winnings, claims a mandate to adjust political and legal institutions. He enacts constitutional changes, packs courts and regulatory bodies with loyalists, and gerrymanders voting districts to build a cushion of institutional support.”

The same could apply to Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, was a disciple of Islamist Necmettin Erbakan and his National View, who was toppled in the 1997 “post-modern” coup by the military. Erdogan learned his lesson and, in 2001, formed the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which was rebranded as Western, reformist, moderate, and neo-liberal.

The following year, the AKP came to power with a little over a third of the vote, but Erdogan had already made it plain five years earlier: “Democracy is not our aim. It is the vehicle.”

The pitch worked. Five years later, U.S. secretary of state Condoleeza Rice gushed that the AKP was “a government dedicated to pulling Turkey west toward Europe.” A year later, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt, another apologist, declared, “the AKP government is made up of profound European reformers.”

On his visit to Turkey in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama also spoke of a “model partnership” between a predominantly Christian and a predominantly Muslim nation.

In 2005, the EU began accession talks with Turkey, but a year later, the talks floundered over the Cyprus issue. However, as far as Turkey was concerned, the maneuver had succeeded, as the AKP government could use EU conditionality to defang the military.

Nevertheless, as late as 2012, a gaggle of sixteen EU foreign ministers, in an op-ed, found Turkey to be “an inspirational example of a secular and democratic country.” At the same time, Turkish political scientist Nuray Mert came with a dissenting view.

In continuance of Fareed Zakaria’s essay, she challenged the promotion of Turkey as a model country. Instead, she concluded: “The political values that the present government cherishes are very much like the absolutism of Putin’s Russia, as well as the model of economic growth at the expense of democratic rights and freedoms in China.”

Her views provoked an angry response from Erdogan, who publicly made fun of her name, “mert,” which means “brave.” Instead, he called her “namert,” which means “cowardly.”  She was also fired as a columnist for a Turkish daily, her TV show was canceled, and she feared for her personal safety.

Compared to what has happened since then, this is water off a duck’s back. After the coup attempt in July 2016, which was blamed on the Gülen movement led by Turkish imam Fethullah Gülen, over 600,000 have been investigated, half of whom have been detained and 96,000 jailed. Already two months earlier, the movement was designated a terrorist organization, FETÖ.

Accordingly, the need for new prisons has given an impetus to Turkey’s thriving construction sector. According to the TDP, 131 new prisons were constructed between July 2016 and March 2021, and the construction of 100 more is being considered. Turkey is also the world’s most prolific jailer of journalists, and a report by the Council of Europe for 2022 states that the country accounts for a third of all inmates incarcerated in member states.

Over 130,000 public employees have been dismissed, including 4,156 judges and prosecutors and 24,706 members of the armed forces. As a result, the Turkish Air Force suffers from a serious shortage of pilots, and retired pilots have been forced back into service.

Having celebrated the first centenary of the Turkish Republic on October 29, President Erdogan has declared the second century to be “the century of Türkiye.” Still, his efforts are undermined by the exodus of qualified personnel from Turkey.

For example, a record number of doctors planned to move abroad in 2023. As a result, retired doctors between the ages of sixty-five and seventy-two are being recalled to fill the gaps.

Already in 2017, there was a massive increase in the number of Turks leaving Turkey, most of them young trained professionals, and this is the hope of up to 90 percent of the graduates of Turkey’s top high schools. Other surveys confirm this trend.

Shortly after the 2016 coup attempt, veteran Turkish columnist Semih Idiz summed the situation up in “The dumbing down of Turkey,” i.e., that Erdogan maintains his hold on power by appealing to the lowest common denominator. As Turkish economist Emre Deliveli once remarked in his blog, “There are several million people in Turkey who would believe the world was flat if Gazbogan [Erdogan] told them so.”

This is also why former central bank governor Durmuş Yilmaz, in “How Turkey Dumbed Itself Down,” blasted the president’s handling of the economy. The reinstatement of Mehmet Ali Simsek as finance minister and the appointment of Hafize Gaye Erkan, the first woman, as central bank governor, is a desperate attempt to reverse this process.

That is the reason the Council of Ministers in October 2016 denied Turkish universities the right to appoint their own rectors and instead authorized the president to do so by statutory decree. And also why Erdogan was so unsettled by the Gezi Park protests in 2013, only a year after he declared it was the government’s plan to raise “a pious generation.”

President Erdogan will also find a comprehensive report on religious attitudes in Turkey published by the Economic Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) disappointing. Among other findings, it confirms that the higher the education respondents have, the less important they find religion. Also, the youngest age group, ages eighteen to twenty-four, is least likely to find religion very important.

Another blow is a meager percentage of Turks (6.47 percent) rely on the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) for their news, which, with its 90,000 mosques and 141,149 personnel, commands a disproportionate share of Turkey’s budget.

Erdogan considers the shift to a presidential system in 2017, which replaced parliament with an executive presidency, “as pivotal in strengthening Türkiye’s democratic institutions.” It should also be noted that in 2023, the number of bills passed by presidential decrees was six times more than those passed by parliamentary motions.

President Erdogan is also committed to revising the 1982 constitution, passed after the military coup in 1980, which stipulates that no one shall be allowed to exploit religion for the purpose of personal or political influence. Instead, he intends to replace it with one that is “civil, liberal, and inclusive.”

Given the crackdown on dissent, which has taken a number of forms, including insulting the president and a disinformation law, it is difficult to envisage what Erdogan means by “liberal.” It certainly does not include latitude for what the LGBT movement stands for.

A recent incident encapsulates the atmosphere of repression in Turkey. A teacher in Antalya was detained and fired from her job because of a critical speech she made on Republic Day: “They (the AKP) are trying to take advantage of all the blessings of the Republic and destroy it. On the one hand, there are those who sacrificed their lives to have the Republic written into the constitution a hundred years ago, and on the other hand, those who are trying to destroy it today and trying to make everyone believe in the fairytale of the Century of Türkiye.”

As far as foreign policy is concerned, the AKP’s parameters were defined in a keynote speech made at the Istanbul Forum in 2012 by ideologue Ibrahim Kalin, who later became Erdogan’s chief advisor and spokesperson. In June, Kalin was appointed head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, MIT.

As Kalin explained, the European model of secular democracy, politics, and pluralism seems to have little traction in the Arab and larger Muslim world. These views were reiterated at the Doha Forum nearly two years ago, where Kalin called for a new global security architecture in keeping with the views expressed by Russia and China.

Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Russia’s ties with Iran at a meeting in Moscow with Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi. This, in turn, can lead to a new interstate treaty. The fact that North Korea has supplied Russia with ballistic missiles for use in Ukraine does not augur well.

Turkey’s Erdogan has also taken a clear stand in support of Hamas, designating them “mujahideen,” a liberation group, rather than a terror organization. After air strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen, Erdogan has accused the United States and UK of trying to turn the Red Sea into “a sea of blood.

The fact that Turkey is acting as a support hub for Houthi rebels, as well as the proliferation of Iranian-owned companies in Turkey, is another cause for concern.

Guriev and Treisman write that today’s spin dictators participate in Western institutions in order to extract benefits. This is what Turkey does with the EU and NATO. They also write that Western multilateral organizations assume shared ideals and mutual trust but lack tools to deter or punish incremental misbehavior.

A European judicial platform recently called for restoring the rule of law in Turkey, but it is doubtful whether Turkey will comply. Now, it is up to NATO, the EU, and the Council of Europe to draw the necessary conclusions.

Robert Ellis is a Turkey analyst and commentator. He is also an international advisor at RIEAS (Research Institute for European and American Studies) in Athens.

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