Democracy Lab

Turkey's Enemy Within

How Prime Minister Erdogan is dismantling democracy.

For the past month, Turkey has been in turmoil over a corruption scandal that threatens to compromise Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's premiership. It's now clear that the implications of the scandal go far beyond the reach of corruption. Onlookers are worried that Erdogan's actions threaten the very essence of Turkish democracy.

The scandal centers on a series of bribes and gold transfers allegedly paid to high-ranking members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), four ministers, and even Erdogan's son in relation to various real estate deals around Turkey. On Dec. 17, police detained over 50 suspects, who have also been implicated in money laundering to help Iran evade sanctions. (In the photo above, anti-government protesters hold a sign that reads, "Catch the thief!")

While the corruption scandal is shocking in itself, the reaction of the Erdogan government is, to many in Turkey, even more worrisome. Erdogan appears to have made up his mind to further undermine the separation of powers, weaken democratic institutions, and eliminate checks and balances, despite sharp criticism from the international community and the European Union, in what is being called a "slow-motion coup." Ironically, the government has argued that its drastic response was meant to target members and affiliates of the Gulen movement (an Islamic group with growing influence within Turkey), who have allegedly been organizing to unseat the democratically elected government. Excuses notwithstanding, the corruption scandal and the government's response to it have already weakened democratic accountability in Turkey, and deepened dividing lines among an already polarized populace. Once lauded for its democratic strength, or at least its willingness to move up the democratic ladder, Turkey threatens to become just like many others in its neighborhood: a hybrid regime ruled by a strong man who does not even try to give his rule the pretense of a democracy.

At first, Erdogan was slow to react -- and once he did it was clear that he was using the scandal to consolidate his own power while taking a swipe at his critics. It took him nine full days to ask for the resignations of the three ministers implicated in the scandal; when he finally did, it was quickly followed by a cabinet overhaul in which he replaced 10 minsters with party members and allies. The Erdogan government has also responded to the investigation by purging more than 1,000 police officers -- including dozens of bureau chiefs in key positions in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and other cities -- who were involved in the investigation and are suspected members of the Gulen movement. The government also went after the state's own investigative bodies, firing the chief prosecutor (Zekeriya Oz) -- whom Erdogan spent several weeks attacking -- and several high-ranking bureaucrats in the Corruption Investigation Unit of the Ministry of the Treasury. Muammer Akkas, the prosecutor who ordered the unsuccessful interrogation of Erdogan's son during the second round of arrests, has been removed from the case, prompting him to issue a press release condemning political interference in the judicial process. A similar witch hunt within the ruling AKP itself led to the resignation of several high-ranking members who dared to criticize the way Erdogan handled the scandal.

From the start, Erdogan's strategy has been to violate the separation powers and interfere where a prime minister should not. Sadly, this does not come as much of a surprise. The prime minister himself has frequently attacked the judiciary and has threatened to curtail judicial independence whenever court decisions opposed him on issues ranging from privatization deals to constitutional law. Even before the corruption scandal, Erdogan questioned the logic of the separation of powers and asked the judiciary to act in cohesion with the executive and legislative powers. The government has proposed new legislation that imposes further limits on any remaining judicial independence. The bill increases the power of the Erdogan-controlled Ministry of Justice at the expense of independent justices in the Higher Council of Judges and Prosecutors.

The government has also taken steps to limit public access to information on the investigation. The Istanbul police headquarters is now closed to journalists, restricting press access to information from inside sources. Police officers are now required to notify Ankara before launching any criminal inquiry, further violating the separation of judicial and executive powers. The government also passed a series of laws increasing Internet censorship, which has already led to the shutdown of at least one opposition news portal, and on Jan. 20, the court officially issued a ban on press coverage of the case.

Erdogan's government has repeatedly used intimidation and threats to silence journalists, and this case is no exception. For the second consecutive year, Turkey has the highest number of jailed journalists in the world, surpassing Russia, China, and even Iran, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Dozens of prominent journalists, such as Hasan Cemal and Can Dundar of Milliyet, and Yavuz Baydar of Sabah, have been fired for openly criticizing Erdogan. It is no surprise, then, that local press coverage of the corruption case remains limited, aside from reporting in a few independent media outlets run by fired journalists. Internationally, media outlets have been increasingly critical of Erdogan's authoritarian governance and iron-fisted, one-man rule.

The Dec. 17 corruption scandal, with the government's unabashed undermining of democratic institutions and disregard for the rule of law, marks the beginning of a new era in Turkey. The Erdogan government's reaction to the scandal has brought Turkey closer to the club of authoritarian countries including Russia, China, and Iran, and further away from the EU. Ironically, in its earlier years, the Erdogan government did more than any other government before it to push for Turkish membership in EU, and actually succeeded in starting accession negotiations for an eventual membership in 2005. During this time, Erdogan openly supported Turkey's EU bid, and exploited it in his struggle against the country's once all-powerful military. Since then, however, the relationship between EU and Turkey has turned increasingly sour, especially following Erdogan's authoritarian power grabs following 2010 constitutional referendum. The tension between the two peaked after the brutal police suppression of the Gezi Park protests in May and June 2013.

Diplomatic and policy circles have long suspected that Erdogan was looking for an opportunity to officially break from the EU. Just last week, his chief advisor, Yigit Bulut, suggested that Turkey break away from what he called the doomed and ill-fated EU project. In a strange reference to the three world empires in George Orwell's 1984, he argued that the new Turkey will rise as one of three world powers, rivaling the United States and China, and accused the EU's domestic agents of preventing the Turkish public from realizing the need to terminate Turkey's links with Europe. Indeed, following this same anti-EU line of thinking, Erdogan has openly asked Russian President Putin to accept Turkey as a member of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (a loose economic cooperation partnership including China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), so that Turkey would no longer need to worry about winning EU membership. In fact, he has explicitly stated that he has not yet made the EU split official only because Turkey continues to reap certain benefits from the relationship.

The United States and the EU have long attempted to cast Turkey as a Middle Eastern success story proving that Western-style democracy, complete with checks and balances, could flourish in the region. These efforts have clearly failed. The idea that Turkey could provide a successful example for post-conflict Arab Spring states, or for other transitioning countries in central Asia and Caucasia, is now a distant dream. Instead, Turkey now resembles Egypt under Mubarak or Morsi, not the EU member state many had hoped it would be. Turkey under Erdogan now continues to alienate itself from the secular and educated middle-class segments of the wider Middle Eastern public, whether by providing a die-hard defense of Morsi's government in 2013 by supporting fundamentalist rebel groups in Syria, or by orchestrating revenge prosecutions of liberal business groups. Turkey's international standing is in question.

Moving forward, the odds are in Erdogan's favor. Despite international debate on the issue, there is no strong, organized opposition within Turkey that is capable of responding to Erdogan's clear overreach. The popular mass protests of the Gezi Park movement of last summer failed to channel into any political current. Likewise, the Kemalist CHP and pro-Kurdish BDP parties have failed to form a coalition or a gentleman's agreement for the upcoming elections, and there are no indications that a new opposition party will form any time soon. In the best-case scenario, the growing opposition within the AKP could break away to form alliances with like-minded politicians from other parties. Turkey's modern political history, unfortunately, offers little evidence that politicians or parties are capable of such compromise.

For now, public confidence in democratic institutions, the security forces, and the judiciary, are at record lows. Turkish democracy is on the brink. The only hope is that a new and forceful opposition is forming somewhere behind the scenes. Failing that, however, the future looks grim.

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Speak Up, Mr. President

A memo to Barack Obama on how to talk about the Middle East policy no one thinks he actually has.

Memorandum to the President

Subject: Your Middle East Policy, Ignore the Critics.

Listening to your critics, Mr. President, you'd think that America had no Middle East policy. You'd think that U.S. interests in the region were in ruins, and that your administration had abdicated its moral and strategic responsibilities by following inchoate, directionless, and risk-averse decisions that have dragged U.S. credibility to an all-time low

While what's happening in the region is not primarily America's fault, you certainly do bear some responsibility for the unhappy state of the Middle East. You intervene in Libya, but not in Syria; support an Arab Spring in Egypt, but not in Bahrain; draw red lines on the use of chemical weapons, but defer to Congress when it comes to the use of military force. Inconsistent policies in Egypt have managed to offend just about every political group in the country. And you accuse opponents of a very tentative deal with Iran of warmongering when they dare to pressure a Tehran they understandably don't trust by using the very sanctions that brought the mullahs to the table in the first place.

Your rhetoric has often exceeded your capacity and intentions, and there are inconsistencies and contradictions in your approach to the Middle East that have never been adequately explained. Indeed, implementation of your decisions has been poor, but articulation of what it is you think is important, and what is not, has been even worse.

In reality, though, your critics are wrong. Maybe not entirely so, but they're definitely overstating. You are doing the best you can at this point. You do have a Middle East policy, I believe, or at least a series of priorities and plans that you are working to execute. And they are focused around one central element: that there are no easy solutions -- possibly not hard ones, either -- to the problems in the region. . 

I'm not a fan of speeches as substitutes for clearly articulated and implemented policy. But you or Secretary of State John Kerry ought to consider giving a speech that lays out expressly what you've achieved in the Middle East, what your priorities are, and why America isn't actually failing in a region of the world so vital to its interests.

You certainly don't need any ego boosts. But as you write the speech I suggest, here are the reasons that the course you're following is, on balance, the right one.

You Realize that You Can't Fix the Middle East. You are dealing with an angry, broken, and dysfunctional region in the midst of profound change, most of which is headed in the wrong direction. Power in the Arab world is dissolving and decentralizing. There's no serious commitment to real reform. Grievances between Shia and Sunni, driven more by who's in and out of power than by religious tensions, are intensifying. And Islamists of varying persuasion -- some funded by U.S. allies, others by al Qaeda derivatives -- are taking advantage of the situation.

As for the so-called Arab Spring, the Roman historian Tacitus was right: The first day after the death of a bad emperor is always the best day. Right now, with the possible exception of Tunisia, that's the story of the would-be revolutions we saw in 2011.

What impact can the United States possibly make in this mess? With 140,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, trillions of dollars spent, and a decade of effort expended, the politics of those two countries have not been fundamentally altered -- certainly not in a way that would justify the price America has paid. Why, then, would anyone believe that you could end the war in Syria or stare down an Egyptian military that believes it's in a fight for its life, as well as for the identity of its country? Your critics refuse to accept the reality that America's values, interests, and policies -- cutting of aid to Egypt, arming the Syrian opposition, striking President Bashar al-Assad -- cannot be harmonized in some sort of neat package that will fix things in the region.

You've Stayed Out of Syria. That your critics -- a strange combination of liberal interventionists and neoconservatives -- accuse you of being responsible for the civil war in Syria, specifically for missing the so-called great opportunity that supposedly existed in 2011 to aid an budding group of rebels opposed to Assad, is either willfully manufactured politics, a misreading of the situation on the ground, or a gross misunderstanding of where the American public is and what America's priorities should be. 

There was never an opportunity; at best, there was a calculated risk -- and even then, you have to wonder what it would have taken from the United States to get the rebels to actually make an impact against the regime. And you had other priorities to deal with: You didn't want to involve the United States in a proxy war with Iran over Syria because you perceived rightly that a nuclear deal was the more important objective.

Syria is a disaster, both morally and strategically. The idea that you could have fashioned -- or could still fashion -- a policy that would have improved things in the country with a significant economic investment and military intervention is an illusion. You could not have helped the rebels topple Assad, or convinced him to leave power, or prevented the rise of radical jihadists.

Your critics blast you primarily for not following their advice. But it's a good thing you're not.   At least on Syria, your critics have failed to come up with a carefully thought-through policy as to exactly how U.S. military power would end the conflict and ensure that the United States doesn't get stuck with the check. Simply put, there are no opportunities in Syria -- only traps, minefields, and potential disasters. 

What you are doing -- trying to contain matters by supporting Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq and pushing humanitarian assistance with an option to ply a political track with the Russians in Geneva (if you can) -- isn't perfect, but it's the best you can and should do. While your policy might be amoral, it isn't immoral. The United States has its own needs and requirements that take precedence and that simply do not square with a major commitment to or in Syria.

You Are Protecting U.S. Interests. Your critics seem to overlook the fact that, when it comes to protecting U.S. core interests through actions toward and in the Middle East, you are actually doing pretty well. And when I say core interests, I mean the kinds of things that affect the security and economic well being of the American people and those enterprises where we risk American lives and resources.

There are several pieces of evidence that you are doing the right thing by these interests. First, your policies and those of your predecessor in the area of counterterrorism have kept America safe since 9/11. There have been costs: your policy on drones and the NSA dragnet, to name just two. But you have delivered on the central tenet of any foreign policy: protecting the homeland.

Second, you are withdrawing from the two longest wars in U.S. history where the standard for victory was never "can we win" but "when can we leave."  And whatever responsibility you bear for the current situation in Iraq, your predecessor who launched this discretionary war bears so much more. Indeed, the sad reality of these wars is that, from the beginning, it was always clear that what happened after America left would be much more determinative than anything we could accomplish while we were there.

Third, you are the beneficiary and are helping to promote a revolution in North American energy that will help wean the United States off of its dependence on hydrocarbons from the Arab world. Oil will continue to trade in a single market, and energy security of Middle East oil will always be a challenge, so we will never be truly immune from disruptions and shocks. And there are environmental costs to new techniques, such as fracking, off-shore drilling, and Key StoneXL. But encouraging and nurturing greater use of shale-oil gas, renewables, and other resources is critically important. It will give the United States additional leverage and security even while we will remain dependent on hydrocarbons for years to come.

Fourth, you have embarked on a critically important objective of trying to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. There are risks to this policy -- both on the political and strategic sides. But they probably pale in comparison to the risks and uncertainties of war. As a practical matter, Iran is already a nuclear-threshold state, and it has objectives in the region that are at odds with ours and those of our allies, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia. You've taken the right, calculated risk in trying diplomacy. It may pay off; it may not. So don't trivialize your critics' concerns or the legitimate worries of those in Congress who don't trust the mullahs. And don't get so invested in your own interim agreement that you can't abide criticism from key allies who have legitimate worries about your policies.

Your Secretary of State is Your Best Talking Point. Finally, in John Kerry, the Energizer Bunny of U.S. diplomacy, you have chosen to employ a real asset. I worked for half a dozen of his predecessors; this guy is really good and really busy. And unlike you (and me), he may actually believe in what he's doing in the Middle East. His rhetoric is at times a bit over the top. But he's in the middle of the mix on just about everything: the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Iran, Syria. These are all long shots. But they demonstrate that the United States is hardly absent from the Middle East or abdicating on our responsibilities. You need to push the hell out of what he's doing -- keeping in mind, with humility, that it's all a work in progress.

Mr. President, the fact is that you are holding U.S. policy together in a region that is coming apart. If you want to be loved (see: your Cairo speech in 2009) find another part of the world. For a wide range of reasons, you may never even be admired in the region. But that's not your fault.

The best advice right now?  Keep at it. Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said that Abraham Lincoln died a sad man because he couldn't have everything. And Lincoln was undeniably our greatest president. In the Middle East, you can't have everything either. But keep focusing on what you can achieve, and don't chase after what you can't. There are no real solutions here, only best-possible outcomes. You can help to shape those in a way that will minimize the damage to U.S. interests -- and maybe, just maybe, do a thing or two in the process to help the Middle East, too.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images