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Is Turkey now a dictatorship? | The World Weekly

In crisis, there is opportunity. On the night of July 15, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was almost blown out of the air as he flew into Istanbul to try to foil a military coup. The plotters had seized control of state media outlets, fired at civilians and bombarded the parliamentary complex in Ankara. His 13-year reign at the top of Turkish politics was close to ending in humiliating circumstances. Yet four months Mr. Erdogan is more powerful than ever before. Turkey may not be a dictatorship yet, but the direction of travel is clear.

Mr. Erdogan has trampled on anything and everything that could prove a nuisance. The latest victim is the liberal, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), whose co-leaders were detained along with 10 other officials on November 4. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said they had refused to give testimony in a case relating to “terrorist propaganda” and that “politics cannot be a shield for committing crimes”, but the EU and US expressed their grave concern. The HDP had faced hostility from the president and his supporters - some of whom firebombed its offices - ever since entering Parliament for the first time in 2015. With the arrests, it has effectively been closed down. “This is a midnight coup d’etat, the November 4 coup,” tweeted Meral Danis Bestas, one of the detainees.

This crackdown extends into every corner of public life. Over 37,000 people have been arrested and more than 110,000 others dismissed from the security forces, the civil service and schools since July 16. Already cowed, the media is now muzzled, though isolated pockets of resistance such as Hurriyet newspaper remain. Last week the editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, another liberal standard-bearer, was arrested along with a dozen of his journalists; his predecessor, Can Dundar, lives in self-imposed exile after facing what amounted to a show trial earlier this year. The Committee to Protect Journalists told The World Weekly that its research shows Turkey has become one of the world’s worst journalist jailers in 2016. The pro-Kurdish press has suffered more than most.

After years of waiting on the threshold of the EU, desperate to get through the door, Turkey's hopes of entering are shot. Mr. Erdogan rules by emergency decree, will soon have the executive presidency he has long craved and openly talks of bringing back the death penalty - a red line for Brussels. "We are gravely concerned about the degradation of the rule of law and democracy unfolding in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt,” said Johannes Hahn, the man in charge of the EU’s neighbourly relations, as he unveiled the annual report on Ankara's memberhip prospects this week. "In its own interest, Turkey urgently needs to stop moving away from the EU."

Although the pace of change has quicked, this transformation can be traced back almost 10 years. Nate Schenkkan, a specialist at Freedom House, an American NGO whose annual index reveals the extent of Turkey's backsliding, pinpoints 2006/7 as a turning point when Mr. Erdogan began to grow paranoid about dissent. Mid-2013, when the Gezi Park protests and the coup against Egypt's Mohamed Morsi took place in quick succession, was another watershed moment. “I’ve been saying since well before the coup, months before the coup, that what we’re seeing is the consolidation of one-man rule,” Mr. Schenkkan told The World Weekly. "Since the coup we’ve seen what might have happened in two years take place in three months... It cannot be exaggerated how bad the situation is.”

What leaves many outside observers scratching their heads is the strong, often adulatory, support Mr. Erdogan still enjoys. On July 15 the tide turned when tens of thousands of Turks (including his opponents) poured onto the streets to face down the rebel soldiers. “Turkey is not a country which is ruled by dictatorship,” Ahmet Furkan Özyakar, a PhD candidate who holds a government scholarship, told TWW. “Turkey [has] just changed its political approach and harshened its political landscape. That should be respected by Western countries.”

Strongmen are back in fashion the world over, but Mr. Erdogan's popularity is underpinned by factors specific to Turkey. The population is divided between a secular, liberal, urban elite, on the one hand, and pious, socially conservative communities in rural Anatolia, on the other. The latter applaud his attempt to dismantle Ataturk's secular state and erect an Islamist, illiberal political system in its place. On top of all this, Mr. Erdogan, like Donald Trump, is gifted at both influencing and gauging public opinion, though this task is easier when the media is in lockdown and the Republican People’s Party, the official opposition, verges on incompetence.

Has the West turned a blind eye? This was the charge levelled by human rights groups when the EU agreed to shower Turkey with money and political gifts in return for help stemming the migration crisis in March. Mr. Schenkkan tempers this, arguing that “what’s happened in Turkey has always been about Turkey and its people first and foremost”, but adds that the EU and US were too credulous for too long about Mr. Erdogan's intentions. “By the time they started speaking, even softly, it was too late.”

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