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Turkey had its general elections on June 7. No party garnered sufficient seats in the parliament to set up a single-party government. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power for the last 13 years, lost its majority. After the election, Turkey faced two options: Either to set up a coalition government of at least two parties or to hold new elections, probably this November. Efforts for a coalition government failed, and it is now certain that the country will renew general elections in early November.
Turkey has received intensive international media coverage in recent years. The majority of these pieces have presented Turkey as a country run by an authoritarian leader, Tayyip Erdoğan, and claimed that under Erdoğan democratic rights have eroded and radical Islamic circles have gained the upper hand.
I don’t believe these claims are accurate. Westerners who are deeply biased against Erdoğan tend to get their information from his sworn enemies. They would benefit from a better understanding of the features of our country’s political landscape, with its “deep state” problem and its system of bureaucratic tutelage.
For decades, Turkey’s real power has been in the hands of the bureaucratic state that was established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The army is its core, but it extends into the judiciary, the universities, and the media. The secular Kemalist elites had earlier understood that they would never be able to win democratic elections in Turkey because, according to them, the people are largely illiterate and always choose the wrong leaders and parties when given the chance. That is why they created the bureaucratic tutelage system, to keep the levers of government power away from democratically elected officials.
Before the AKP assumed power in 2002, Turkey appeared to have a democratic system; there was more than one political party and regular elections were quite fair. Political power, however, was divided into two parts. A small portion was controlled by democratically elected government officials, and a larger portion was in the hands of the bureaucratic state. That division of power led to consistent tensions between democratically elected governments and the bureaucratic state.
When elected officials attempted to step outside of the circle of power into which they had been squeezed, the military bureaucracy and its allies intervened. The media declared war against democratic leaders and accused them of incompetence, corruption, nepotism, and betrayal of secular Kemalist values. The judiciary also stepped in and processed cases that aimed to close down political parties. Our Western friends may not know that Turkey was the world champion in shutting down political parties until recent years — frankly, until elected AKP officials changed the relevant law. Even as late as 2008, the AKP had to face a case in the Constitutional Court that tried to close it down — even as it was in power and held a great majority in the parliament.
That system was quite undemocratic and needed to be reformed. The AKP was supported in its reform efforts by liberal and democratic intellectual circles and made huge progress over time. A 2010 constitutional referendum allowed the people to change the structure of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors. The reform of those two organs was important because they had for decades been bastions of the bureaucratic tutelage system.
Then something interesting, even unbelievable, happened. Unbeknownst to the public, the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors was captured by a religious sect, the Gülen movement (GM). That sect has been working for almost half a century to place its cadres in state institutions. It was also an ally of the Erdoğan government and of civil democrats in the fight against the Kemalist bureaucracy. It later became clear that the Gülenists aimed not to promote democracy but to renew bureaucratic tutelage in order to maintain a hold on real political power.
That maneuver inevitably instigated a political battle. The so-called religious sect took action against not only against the government but also against journalists and civil groups that criticized the sect. A journalist, Ahmet Şık, was jailed for his unpublished book, The Army of Imam, in which he had criticized GM. Another journalist, Nedim Şener, also faced imprisonment because he criticized the group and accused police officials affiliated with GM for taking part in the 2007 killing of Hrant Dink, a leading Armenian journalist.
GM also demanded control of the National Intelligence Service and rejected government policy that aimed to solve the Kurdish problem through negotiations rather than fighting. In order to impose its policy on the elected government, it arrested more than 10,000 Kurdish politicians on trivial accusations. The fight between a democratically elected government and GM is still going on. Rather than just a conflict between political factions, this is a battle over democratic rules, principles, and authority. More can and should be said about GM. Despite its claims to defend democratic values, GM is theocratic and totalitarian and its basic aim is to set up a religious state in Turkey and then spread throughout the world.
It cannot be claimed that Erdoğan’s governments have been blameless and have made no mistakes. Political party leaders are not saints. Their actions may be right or wrong, but unless their wrongs constitute open violations of human rights, directing public authority in the ways they choose is a legitimate process of a democratic society. Erdoğan’s governments have made many reforms that have transformed Turkey from a largely undemocratic country to a largely democratic one. Turkey today has a stronger democracy than it did only 10 or 15 years ago.
Still, Erdoğan’s governments have made some major mistakes. I exclude in this short consideration its foreign policy errors and various acts that seem to have disturbed Western powers, because those are separate issues. Focusing on domestic matters, I admit that the way Erdoğan speaks is irritating to me as a supporter of liberal democracy. His style is harsh and he seems keen to give the impression that his government wishes to intervene into the lifestyles of secular circles. One needs to distinguish, however, between political rhetoric and actions. Turkey does not have less individual freedom today than it did 10 years ago. Almost nothing has changed in the lives of the secular parts of the society.
As for freedom of the press, international observers sometimes list Turkey among the countries that imprison record numbers of journalists. It was once true that Turkey had more than 100 journalists in prison, but, as I noted, that was at a time when GM was a big contributor to the prison population for its own ideological reasons. After government attempts to solve the problem, the number of imprisoned journalists is now under 10. Not perfect, but an improvement. Additionally, accusations about imprisoned journalists do not always relate to freedom of expression or press freedom. Some are accused of kidnapping, bombing, helping terrorist organizations, and similar crimes. The situation of journalists in Turkey should therefore not be evaluated as a whole, but case by case.
In Turkey, the media have always had two ambitions: to control politics and to gain advantageous public bids from the government. Erdoğan’s governments rejected the first ambition by insisting that power comes from the people rather than from the media, an attitude that angered certain circles. As for the second ambition, media outlets — specifically, media bosses — in Turkey put pressure on the government to get public bids that give them the opportunity to make easy money. That has continued to be the case under Erdoğan, and Erdoğan unsurprisingly tries to promote the media bosses close to himself. That is not a new phenomenon, however, and not created by Erdoğan.
In the last 10 years, 20 new newspapers and 30 new television stations have started in the country. Erdoğan himself is accused of being a “dictator” every day in the media, and the outlets that make this accusation are still in the market. That alone shows that it is just an exaggeration to claim that there is no freedom of expression in Turkey. In any case, the media in Turkey is now more pluralistic and every main opinion may be voiced. (For a realistic evaluation of the situation of the media in Turkey, click here.)
The Erdoğan government has taken important steps to solve acute problems in Turkey and has done so in ways that have improved democracy. Among them is the Kurdish problem. Before 2002, the government denied the very existence of the Kurds. Erdoğan’s government changed this attitude and accepted the “reality of the Kurds.” Erdoğan also declared that political, peaceful means would be used to solve the Kurdish problem. Non-Muslims had suffered for decades in Turkey, and their destiny changed under Erdoğan’s governments. The confiscated properties of non-Muslim foundations are now being returned, and collapsed churches and synagogues are being restored. Many non-Muslims have not been shy in admitting that they are now experiencing a golden age in Turkey.
Lastly, I would like to say a few things about the attitude of Turkey’s classical liberals, because I am the founder and president of the country’s foremost liberal organization. Since the Association for Liberal Thinking came into existence in 1992, liberals have taken different political positions. The majority, however, did not adopt the position of judging the government as a whole. Instead, they have evaluated its policies and actions on a case-by-case basis, both praising and encouraging the government when it has done the right thing and criticizing and discouraging the government when it has made mistakes.
As for the fight between a democratically elected government and the so-called parallel state of the GM, liberals in ALT have, of course, sided with democratic legitimacy as a matter of principle. They have seen this as a fight that should be waged for a consolidated democracy and better protection for human rights.