Democracy Lab

The Height of Hubris

Why an Erdogan victory in Turkey's presidential election is likely to trigger the biggest opposition backlash yet. The first in our series of Lab Reports on Turkey.

Turkish citizens are preparing to vote in an epochal Aug. 10 election that could see Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan assume the presidency -- a hitherto largely ceremonial office that he and his supporters now aim to transform into a new power center. (If he doesn't win outright with at least 50 percent of the vote, he'll face his next challenger in a runoff on Aug. 24.) Erdogan is betting that a victory at the polls will ensure his dominance over his country's political scene for years to come. The government and sympathetic media are already touting the likelihood of a landslide victory for the prime minister, clearly keen to ensure just such an outcome.

Democracy Lab's In-Depth Reports on Turkey

  • LAB REPORT 1: The Height of Hubris, by Cenk Sidar
  • LAB REPORT 2: Turkey's Economy: Now for the Hard Part, by Murat Ucer
  • LAB REPORT 3: Either With Us or Against Us, by Vanessa H. Larson

Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian behavior in recent years already has many Turks concerned about the fate of their hard-won democratic achievements. Lately, Erdogan has shown little interest in preserving a system based on checks and balances and the separation of powers. The prime minister's harsh crackdown on his political opponents and his combative rhetoric strongly suggest that he would like to see Turkey become a decidedly illiberal democracy, one in which he and his party can use the mandate of the ballot box to rule as they please, with little or no consideration of dissenting views. So it's easy to understand why Erdogan's critics are viewing this election as a virtual referendum on the future of Turkey's democratic institutions.

They are right to worry. Even so, Turkey's democracy is proving more resilient than many of its defenders give it credit for, and there is good reason to believe that genuine democracy will prevail regardless of the outcome of this election. As the past year's nationwide protests have shown, a large number of Turks are determined to reject Erdogan's autocratic ambitions. Their supporters in the media, civil society, the justice system, and the bureaucracy are coming together, laying the groundwork for a democratic bloc that is determined to prevent a majoritarian takeover by Erdogan and his allies.

That effort will have consequences, for the presidential vote is merely the prelude to an equally important parliamentary election scheduled for June next year -- one that will offer a long-awaited opportunity for Erdogan's critics to give concrete political form to their dissatisfaction (which is likely to have intensified by then, given Turkey's dimming economic prospects). The opposition will do everything that it can -- within the democratic framework -- to block Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) from gaining the parliamentary majority that he needs in order to realize his plan for vastly expanding the executive powers of the presidency.

As a result, even if Erdogan wins a landslide victory in the presidential election, the resistance to him is only likely to deepen. His two main rivals at the polls offer clearly competing visions of Turkey's future. Elder statesman Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu is the former head of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the joint candidate of the two main opposition parties. Selahattin Demirtas, 41, was formerly the co-leader of Turkey's major pro-Kurdish party and now co-chairs an alliance of left-leaning parties.

As leading Turkish political strategist Necati Ozkan stated in a recent commentary, the three candidates represent the main visions for Turkey. Erdogan's polarizing and authoritarian political style, Ozkan notes, offers Turkey a Vladimir Putin-style approach to governance in which elections merely serve to legitimize strong, one-man rule. Ihsanoglu represents a model where the presidency stands above the fray of party politics, acting as an important check on the power of other elements within the country's democratic system. Demirtas, as a representative of Turkey's sizable Kurdish minority, necessarily favors a federalist system with more rights for the Kurdish population. Demirtas, however, has also been very successful in reaching a wider audience during his political campaign by focusing on civil liberties, democracy, and the rule of law. Neither of these two men is likely to win the presidency. Yet the political alternatives they stand for are likely to assume considerable importance in the months to come.

This year's presidential election marks the first time that Turks are directly electing their president in a popular vote. (Previously the president was selected by parliament.) Erdogan has long pushed for direct election of the president as part of his broader plan to refashion Turkey's political institutions. He wants to do away with the checks and balances of the current democratic system and to replace them with a parliamentary system with broad presidential authority. He has made no secret about his scorn for the current limits on executive power. In December 2012, he described the separation of powers as his government's main obstacle to effective action.

Such thinking is part and parcel of Erdogan's concept of electoral democracy. He is a strong believer in unfettered majoritarian rule; the candidate who receives the most votes should be allowed to govern essentially at will. The distinctly illiberal aspect of this worldview has become increasingly apparent over time -- and especially since the start of the Gezi Park protests a little more than a year ago. The protests, which began in opposition to an unpopular Istanbul urban development project, soon widened to encompass a wide range of discontent with Erdogan's administration. Rather than acknowledging the demonstrators' concerns, the government responded with a violent crackdown. At various turns, Erdogan has denounced the protests as a foreign plot, banned social media and imposed censorship on the press, and ordered financial investigations against those who have sponsored the demonstrations.

Last year, leaked tapes showed Erdogan making direct calls to media group owners to give instructions and complain about negative publicity. After a major corruption scandal involving senior government officials surfaced last December, government officials failed to address the allegations and even covered up the ongoing parliamentary investigation of the three ministers who resigned after revelations about their alleged malfeasance. All of this has eroded Turkish citizens' trust in their institutions, including the court system and the news media, which are increasingly viewed as subject to the prime minister's whims.

Laws recently passed by parliament, which is dominated by the AKP, are part of the same trend. The laws, which tighten government control over the judiciary and the Internet while expanding the remit of the intelligence agencies, are all clearly designed to strengthen the AKP's grip on various aspects of daily life. In addition to these bureaucratic measures, however, Erdogan has also inflicted serious damage to Turkish democracy with his use of discriminatory rhetoric. In order to consolidate his voter base, he willingly inflames religious, sectarian, and ethnic divides. ("I was called a Georgian," Erdogan noted in an interview earlier this month. "I apologize for this, but they even said [something] worse: They called me an Armenian.") This is a particularly dangerous game at a moment when the Middle East is already gripped by sectarian conflict. 

So far, of course, Erdogan has succeeded in riding the support of his core constituency -- conservative Sunni Muslims -- to the heights of political power. Yet he now faces several big obstacles on the road ahead. The first is short term. After August, the president-elect will find himself governing within a system that still places serious constraints on the power of presidency: It is the prime minister, not the president, who bears responsibility for the implementation of policy. Erdogan and his party were able to marshal enough support to push through direct election of the president through parliament back in 2007, but they did not manage to change the current powers of the presidency.

If Erdogan decides to transform the presidency from the figurehead position it is now, he may run up against the constitution, which prohibits the president from interfering in the purview of the prime minister. The system as it currently exists requires a certain degree of harmony between the president and government since the president has the authority to approve or reject the laws passed by the parliament. If they disagree, political deadlock may result. Erdogan may be able to get around this, to some extent, through his choice of an interim prime minister to replace him when he leaves office. But there are some indications that his selection for the post may create dissatisfaction within his party and outside. (So far no one outside the ruling circle seems to have any idea who will replace Erdogan as the prime minister.)

By far the biggest roadblock on Erdogan's path toward the accumulation of greater power, however, is the parliamentary election next summer. In order to give the new presidential office the broad powers he wants, Erdogan will need to change the constitution -- and that requires a clear majority for his coalition in parliament. The governing coalition will be able to amend the constitution outright if it has two-thirds of the seats in parliament (367); a three-fifths majority (330) will be enough to pass amendments that must then be approved in a national referendum. In Turkey's last parliamentary election in 2011, the AKP fell just short of the two-thirds threshold. But this time, post-Gezi Park, Erdogan and his allies will be facing the legacy of an unprecedented year-long wave of national discontent. Turkish civil society has been galvanized by Erdogan's power grab, and the effects are likely to have a discernible effect on the elections.

Erdogan is very clear about his ambitions. He recently said that a "president elected by the people and not by parliament ... is a turning point for democracy," while a "popular election will invest the presidency with strong legitimacy and real meaning." That is why the opposition will have a perfect opportunity to challenge this popularity and legitimacy in next June's vote -- and "opposition" refers here not just to the formal political opposition but also to the broad array of critical media voices, civil society groups, and others who have contributed to Turkey's political debates of late. A weak showing for the AKP in the parliamentary elections will almost certainly interrupt Turkey's progress down the authoritarian path that Erdogan has prescribed for it.

At the same time, if the AKP fails to gain enough votes to establish a government, the prime minister and president will represent divergent political interests -- even though both will have been elected by direct vote. This is a recipe for chaos. The question of which party, and which vision, truly represents the national interest will present a fundamental dilemma. Though optimists might invoke the relatively benign experience of cohabitation in France, the model has only limited applicability to present-day Turkey. Erdogan's version of majoritarian governance lacks the checks and balances that could be relied upon to support the survival of French democratic institutions.

All these personal and institutional circumstances are likely to promote instability. Yet the most decisive factor will probably be the economy. There has been a strong correlation between the AKP's popular support and the country's economic growth rates after 2007. Lately, however, that growth has been slowing perceptibly. The economy is unsustainably dependent on capital inflows. Rising inflation, high government spending, and overall debt levels also pose risks.

Turkey's foundational values are being sorely tested. Erdogan's misuse of his executive power, the judicial system, and the bureaucracy has stoked the fears of secularists and Islamists alike. Even if Erdogan wins the presidency this Sunday, his effort to expand the powers of the office will fuel a backlash that could potentially cost his party its dominant role. In any event, Turkey faces profound uncertainty for the next few years to come. The country's democrats can only hope that the two elections, presidential and parliamentary, will ultimately result in a return to the country's liberal ideals. Turks have grown accustomed to strong democratic institutions, independent media, and a strong, pluralistic civil society. They deserve nothing less.

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Graphic Designer: Chloe Chik

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Democracy Lab

A Tale of Two Decrees

Tunisia's media sector still has a long way to go before it can serve as a bulwark of democracy. The third in our series of Lab Reports on Tunisia.

Tunisia's journalists have gone through a lot in the past few years. Until the fall of 2010 they still lived in "one of the worst media environments in the Arab world," according to Freedom House. Under the dictatorship of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, journalists were arrested, beaten, or fired from their jobs for the slightest of transgressions. The state kept reporters under close surveillance and did its best to prevent them from leaving the country (although dozens managed to escape into exile nonetheless). A central censorship board tightly controlled all political news. Criticism of the president was not tolerated.

Democracy Lab's In-Depth Reports on Tunisia

  • LAB REPORT 1: Embracing Enemies in Tunisia, by Oussama Romdhani
  • LAB REPORT 2: Put Tunisians Back to Work, by Emmanuel Martin and Dalibor Rohac
  • LAB REPORT 3: A Tale of Two Decrees, by Fadil Aliriza

The start of the Tunisian uprising brought dramatic change. The collapse of Ben Ali's regime in early 2011 threw Tunisia's traditional police state off balance, and a cacophony of competing interests opened up in the media sector. Jailed journalists, activists, and bloggers were released. New press codes promised free access to information. Tunisian journalists of all stripes, particularly those from state institutions, received training from international bodies to support the development of an independent fourth estate.

Yet despite all that has happened, Tunisia's media sector, like the country's state institutions, remains largely unreformed. "After the revolution I felt comfortable covering any subject," says Asma Sahboun, a reporter at Chorouk, Tunisia's highest-circulation daily newspaper. "But now we're scared that it will go back to what it was like before. I'm scared, because the structure of the media fundamentally hasn't changed."

The problems of the media are best understood against the background of the reforms undertaken by Tunisia's second post-revolutionary government. One of the first results of the uprising was the disbanding of the High Communication Council, the government body that had been tasked with censoring the press under Ben Ali, in March 2011. Then-Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi replaced it with the National Committee for Information and Communication Reform, which quickly drew up two decrees that established the framework for all future media sector reform.

The first decree, number 115, clearly established the principle of press freedom. Yet three years later, it continues to co-exist uneasily with Tunisia's unreformed penal code, which even today allows journalists to be arrested, fined, and jailed on charges such as "defamation," "offenses against state agents," and "harming public order." There have been many calls for reform of the penal code, even from government ministers. Human rights activists have been particularly vocal about the need to overhaul laws used to silence journalists. But this sensitive task remains captive to the broader movement to reform the justice system, which has stalled.

With conflicting laws on the books, it has been easy for the state to deal with its critics as it always has: with repression. The government's tendency to ignore the rights enshrined in decree 115 has only intensified since the formation early this year of Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa's nonpartisan government. Since then, police forces have cracked down on dissenting journalists, arresting and beating those who cover events that show the security forces in an unfavorable light. One journalist who was charged with defamation under the Ben Ali regime and whose case was dropped following the 2011 revolution is now being charged again for the same crime. To be sure, serious efforts to reform the sector are under way. But the advocates of press freedom face an uphill battle in a country whose citizens are experiencing democracy fatigue, and where state institutions still await substantive reform. (In the photo above, a Tunisian journalist looks through a TV frame during a sit-in to protest aggression against TV reporters in April 2012.)

The second decree, number 116, created a new independent body called the High Independent Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA). Apart from regulating all broadcast news and entertainment, HAICA is charged with "guaranteeing the freedom of expression" and the "establishment of a pluralistic, honest media landscape," according to the new constitution. HAICA has interpreted that to include preventing special interests from exercising undue influence. It's a role that's phenomenally important in a country where over 99 percent of citizens own a television set. Tunisians trust the national TV station for news about Tunisia above any other media source, and, according to a BBC Media Action survey of the country's broadcasting environment, some 80 percent of the population catch national TV's nightly news bulletin at least once a week. HAICA's mission to regulate and reform TV and radio would be difficult enough, given the long-standing tradition of state control. Now the job is additionally complicated by private media barons who are vying to expand their influence over politics, the economy, and the media in the run-up to elections that are likely to be held this year.

"Unfortunately there are a lot of journalists and media bosses that have misunderstood the freedom of expression," says Hichem Snoussi, one of HAICA's nine members. He can be forgiven for choosing his words carefully: He's alluding to the wide range of misdeeds habitually committed by Tunisia's post-revolutionary media, including outright slander, propaganda in favor of particular political groups, and exploitative intrusion into the privacy of private citizens.

Since its creation, HAICA has worked hard to preserve its independence and its potentially far-reaching powers. Debate flared earlier this year, when members of the constituent assembly attempted to use the new constitution to relegate HAICA to an advisory role. Thanks to some energetic, last-minute lobbying, HAICA managed to block passage of these articles; in the end the drafters of the constitution approved relatively neutral language on the body's role. There is still a chance, however, that HAICA might be captured by other interests or is already being swayed by other interests. "The texts are still too blurry to guarantee the full independence of HAICA," says Eve Sabbagh, the country director of the non-profit media development organization BBC Media Action, "but we have to recognize this is a huge achievement."

More recently, HAICA's new cahier de charge, its draft legal framework, has threatened to upset the status quo. The weight of this document is unclear, since no one really knows just how independent HAICA is, or how authoritative its decisions are -- but the cahier pulls no punches. It offers specific rules on everything from licensing, intellectual property, and financial transparency, to content control on issues like discrimination, defamation, and hate speech.

After announcing this protocol, HAICA was attacked by nearly all sides. Its opponents -- the owners of big private TV stations -- dislike its anti-monopoly stipulations, its ban on the ownership of TV stations by political parties, and its requirement that TV stations publicly declare their funding and ownership, according to Snoussi.

Businessman Nabil Karoui, the owner and director of Nessma TV, says he has been blasting away at Snoussi and his colleagues for other reasons. He complains that the members of the commission don't understand the business that they're trying to regulate -- exemplified by the cahier's strict limits on advertising, which, he says, threaten profitability. He claims he has already lost 70 percent in advertising dollars over the last three years. "They think we are all Murdochs, but we are all so miserable," Karoui says. Karoui hasn't been afraid to push back. At one point he told fans of a popular Turkish soap opera that HAICA's restrictions might lead Nessma to pull the show.

Yet it's hard to dismiss the suspicion that Karoui's indignation is also due in part to his close relationship to one of Tunisia's leading political parties. According to Nadia Haddawi, a journalist at the citizen journalism blog Nawaat, Nessma TV is closely allied with former Prime Minister Essebsi, who now leads Nida Tounes, the most popular secular party and a bastion of old regime figures. (Karoui denies this, saying he is now friendly with the leaders of both major parties, Essebsi and Rached Ghannouchi of the former governing Islamist party Ennahda. Karoui takes credit for bringing those leaders together last year to end months of deadlock: "I organized... six or seven meetings and you see the results: Tunisia is good. It's not as bad as Egypt or Libya because of that.")

At the same time, HAICA finds itself fending off attacks from allies of Ennahda as well. Lotfi Touati, the new chief producer of the Ennahda-friendly TV station Zitouna, says that HAICA is biased against his network. He cites a decision by HAICA to ban a radio show that condemned the Egyptian military's bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in the summer of 2013. Even though HAICA has also issued rulings against the secular Ettounsiya TV station, Touati dismisses them as trivial.

Ettounsiya, Tunisia's most popular private TV station, is a particularly interesting case. Although the channel's ownership is opaque, it is widely believed that a Tunisian business tycoon named Slim Riahi effectively controls the station. Though HAICA's Snoussi declined to comment directly on reports of Riahi's influence, he pointedly warned against the combination of politics, money, and media, noting that "we have seen the results with Berlusconi, with Murdoch."

Riahi remains a mysterious figure. Formerly a London-based businessman who made his fortune in Libya, he is known to have close ties to the Trabelsis, the family of Ben Ali's wife Leila. In 2011, Riahi started his own political party just in time for the first post-revolutionary elections, though it ended up winning few votes. Although Ettounsiya appears to be owned by a Delaware-registered group, something that Snoussi confirms, the network's corresponding Tunisian production company, Cactus Production, is based in Tunisia, meaning that it falls under HAICA's jurisdiction. (Riahi did not respond to requests for comment made through his associates.)

According to Sabbagh of BBC Media Action, media reform can only go so far until the government moves forward on the issue of transitional justice. The Tunisian government has yet to decide whether or not to forgive the officials who work with the old regime, she says.

She may be right. Until they begin that discussion, the line between propagandists and real journalists will remain blurry. If there are absolutely no consequences for propagandists masquerading as journalists, then there will be no incentive for the establishment of professional journalism.

Journalists working in Tunisia today had differing relationships with the Ben Ali regime. Some, like Lotfi Ben Nasr, the ex-director of the state TV station Tunisie 7 who now works as a reporter for national TV, worked to advance the regime's goals. Then there are those like Nawaat's Sami Ben Gharbia, who strongly supported the revolution. "We try to influence the influencers," says Ben Gharbia. "Average citizens will read tabloids and bullshit stories." He and many like him were persecuted or pushed into exile when their reporting disobeyed government censors -- but, as one might expect, they were the exceptions. Of the journalists working in Tunisia today, most of them have careers more closely resembling Ben Nasr's. And even though the nine members of HAICA are tough defenders of press freedom today, most of them had to make their own compromises as journalists during the days of the old regime.

While Ben Gharbia offers his support to HAICA in its fight with private TV stations and state institutions, he takes a radical line on the question of forgiveness. "I don't think it's possible to reform a sector that was corrupted, that was part of the propaganda machine and an arm of the Ben Ali regime by will or by pressure," he says. But he still has hope. "We need a new generation of journalists and activists. They're emerging and they'll be stronger in the future."

Given that Tunisia does not currently have a democratically elected government, and given the fierce debate over HAICA, this is a pivotal moment for the media sector. The enemies of reform -- the state, the media barons, and certain political parties -- all have an interest in preventing the media from serving an informed citizenry. Karoui, for his part, is confident that he and his allies will block implementation of the cahier in the courts. He may be right. He's even gained friends of the cause among the country's powerful labor unions, who have warmed to the role of arbiter between the state and the new elites.

"HAICA is a joke, my friend," Karoui told me. " HAICA is temporary." He's confident that the parliament that emerges from the next round of national elections will end up choosing an entirely new HAICA board. "We saw the danger. All the parties saw the danger as well." He says that he and his allies are drafting a new media law that will protect their interests.

A lot can still happen between now and then. The advocates of reform -- activists, bloggers, NGOs, an independent HAICA, and international partners -- may not succeed in preventing private media outlets from wielding inordinate power. At the very least, however, they might be able to carve out a space for a nonpartisan public media and private institutions that can provide a check on the power of the state. One can only hope they succeed. The freedom of speech, perhaps the revolution's most precious gain and a prerequisite for many other democratic reforms, is far from guaranteed in today's Tunisia. Preserving and expanding it will take a lot of hard work.

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Graphic Designer: Chloe Chik

Background images: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images