Dimensions of the Authoritarian Drift in Turkey

04/24/2015 12:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015

Turkey's journey of democratization toward EU membership stalled and made a U-turn during the third term of its ruling party AKP. Turkey's democratizing reforms have been both a state policy and a popular path throughout 90s and were accelerated under then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2003. The reversal of this journey started also under Erdogan, at the dawn of his third term in power in 2011 when he began an authoritarian drift.

In its 2014 country report, Human Rights Watch wrote that Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has demonstrated a growing intolerance of political opposition, public unrest, and critical media. The World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders in 2014 lists Turkey at 154, a ranking worse than Cambodia and Venezuela. Following the arrests of journalists, screenwriters and television producers on December 14, 2014, a New York Times editorial called President Erdogan "an authoritarian leader" whose efforts amount to "paranoid bullying." The Turkish government's "sweeping efforts to stifle freedom of expression, slander novelists and neutralize the judiciary are destroying Turkey's democracy," the editorial wrote.

The authoritarian drift has become so clear that there is now a debate among Turkey's western observers on what to call the country's regime: An illiberal democracy, patriomonialism or competent authoritarianism. Here are the broad dimensions of authoritarianism during the third term of AKP:

1. Independent Media's "Very Existence is a Crime" - The foundation of any free society is a free press. So when a top Erdogan aide told a journalist from one of the few remaining independent newspapers Bugun Daily that his "very existence is a crime," he was simply clarifying the AKP leadership's attitude toward a free press. Today, most media bosses have been forced to self-censorship through carrots -- government contracts, government-backed credits, placement of public advertisements -- or threats of sticks: sanctions, inspections and selective tax enforcements.

Reporters and editors are routinely pressured by AKP commissioners who monitor all stories and editorials. In one such leaked conversation, Milliyet daily owner is reduced to tears after Erdogan's rebuke for publishing information without Erdogan's approval.

The few remaining independent media voices are under constant pressure. Hidayet Karaca, director of STV media group and Ekrem Dumanli of Zaman daily, were detained in December 2014 based on trumped up charges. Dr. Karaca has now been in jail for more than three months awaiting trial. Prominent journalist and author Mehmet Baransu, a vocal critic of Erdogan, was arrested for allegedly publishing leaked government documents related to an attempted military coup. Columnist and TV host Sedef Kabas was detained for her tweets critical of the judiciary's failure to pursue public corruption cases.

Access to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have all been blocked at different times making Turkey one of the few nations, such as North Korea, China and Iran to block access to social media.

2. Lost Judicial Independence - The AKP has controlled the executive and legislative branches since 2003. In December 2013, after a year-long corruption probe become public and prosecutors found shoeboxes filled with cash in the homes of AKP elite, the government started muzzling the judiciary. Intimidation, shuffling, expulsion and demotions of investigators and prosecutors were used to ensure no member of judiciary or police force dare investigate AKP.

In October 2014, AKP campaigned for election of friendly members of the judiciary to higher courts and to the Higher Council of Judges and Prosecutors. This council has the authority to appoint, investigate and discipline judges and prosecutors. Since this election, a number of judges and prosecutors in prominent cases have been abruptly reassigned.

The AKP leadership also used its control of the executive and legislative branches to pass two key pieces of legislation to modify Turkey's judicial system and make political prosecution easier. The first was the replacement of courts of peace with fewer justices of peace. In this system, much fewer justices are made the sole determiner of arrest warrants and their appeals. This allocation allowed AKP to exert more control over the critical judicial positions via its minister of justice. In the second step, AKP lowered the bar for arrest warrants from concrete evidence to "reasonable doubt." So nobody was surprised when critical journalists were arrested immediately after Erdogan signed this law into effect in December 2014.

3. Intelligence State - Turkey is moving toward a Syria-type state wherein the intelligence service acts like the ruling party's agency to monitor and repress democratic dissent. Through law no. 6532, the Turkish intelligence agency (MIT) has been given a "blank check" to carry out any activity "while punishing those who seek to expose its wrongdoing" according to Human Rights Watch. The law sets prison sentences for journalists who publish or broadcast leaked information or documents, even if there is legitimate public interest.

The law also enables the intelligence agency to collect private data from public institutions, banks, companies, and other legal entities without court order. Failure to provide this information is interpreted as resisting the government and subjects the citizens to prosecution. MIT personnel are immune from prosecution as a prosecutor cannot file charges against them, even for serious crimes such as torture, without the approval of MIT director, who is only responsible to the prime minister.

The AKP has also passed the so-called "internal security" law that broadens police powers and allows the use of live rounds against protestors, the detention of people for up to 48 hours without judicial authorization and allows governors to order arrests without approval by a judge or prosecutor. Protesters risk prison sentences of up to four years for covering their faces while protesting.

Not satisfied with the lack of political control over the police force, AKP is conducting an overhaul by shutting down police academies that have so far produced highly skilled officers for generations. Police schools at high-school level are being closed. Two thirds of current top-level police chiefs have been retired. The process of hiring new recruits leans heavily to hiring AKP sympathizers by using personal interviews.

4. Intimidated Private Enterprise: Taxes, Fines, Discrimination - Businesses that don't show political allegiance to AKP suffer discrimination, slapped with phony tax investigations, penalties, fines and nefarious taxes. The loyalists on the other hand enjoy contracts and benefits from the public coffers. Renewal of permits requires bribes, commissions or middle-man companies and political submission.

In 2009, Dogan Media Group was fined $2.5 billion for tax evasion after a row between the group's owner and Erdogan. In the aftermath of Gezi Park protests of June 2013, Erdogan accused Koc Holding, the country's largest conglomerate, of participating in a conspiracy against his government because Koc's Divan Hotel allowed wounded protestors to seek refuge in their premises. During the late summer and fall of 2013, the offices of leading companies that belonged to Koc Holding were raided. More recently, Banking Regulation Agency BDDK took control of Bank Asya, a contribution-based financial institution whose founders include U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, on flimsy grounds. This set a dangerous precedent that undermines the confidence in Turkey's financial sector and overall economy.

In March 2014, in an unprecedented action, the government has passed a law to abolish private preparatory courses and free private tutoring centers that prepare students for exams. The law essentially made teaching math and science for test preparation purposes a crime.

This witch-hunt even extended to Kimse Yok Mu, the humanitarian relief agency founded by Gulen sympathizers that has helped millions of disaster victims and refugees over the years. The agency has built hospitals, medical centers, K-12 schools and orphanages throughout Africa, distributed aid worth over $30 million to Syrian refugees in Turkey, drilled more than 1,500 water wells in 17 countries and performed over 25,000 cataract operations in nine countries. Despite earning consultative status at United Nation's ECOSOC, Kimse Yok Mu suffered cancellation of permits to collect donations, frozen bank accounts, and is now being investigated under a "terror probe".

5. Brutal Denial of Peaceful Assembly - Three people died and 8,000 were injured during the 2013 crackdown on peaceful protestors in Istanbul's Gezi Park and in other cities. Amnesty International called the government's reaction brutal denial of the right to peaceful assembly. Thousands of protestors were detained, arrested, beaten and harassed, including journalists reporting on the demonstrations and doctors trying to help injured protestors. This incident has since discouraged all organized protests.

6. Profiling and Discrimination - AKP spokesperson Huseyin Celik admitted in a press conference that although AKP promised to stop profiling citizens, "some old-fashioned habits of far-reaching monitoring and profiling hardly fade away" in the government's Intelligence Service MIT. Newspaper reports published evidence of Ministry of Education's profiling students and teachers affiliated with various social groups. Recently, the resigned director of TUBITAK, the Turkish equivalent of US National Science Foundation, said that 700 scientists were fired from the organization after being profiled

7. Hate Speech, Smear Campaigns, Legal Harassment - As prime minister, Erdogan used language such as "traitors, assassins, blood sucking vampires" in public rallies against his own citizens. The media outlets owned by Erdogan allies published flat out slanderous lies against Gulen claiming a conspiracy with CIA, Mossad and so-called "interest lobby". Erdogan has also openly declared a witch-hunt and issued an arrest warrant against Gulen for expressing his democratic right to speak out against public corruption and government authoritarianism.

AKP's strategy is to brand as a traitor anyone who expresses even democratic opposition, using overt measures or a media smear campaign. Comments by Erdogan -- such as "I was called a Georgian... even worse: They called me an Armenian" or declaring that women are unequal to men or that people who are "childless" cannot empathize with those who do have children-- are preying on specific segments of the society, including the childless, women, Alevis and Armenians.

Election victory is invoked repeatedly by Erdogan and AKP leadership to justify their anti-constitutional, anti-democratic and authoritarian actions, conveniently forgetting that many historical and contemporary autocrats have been "winning elections" in their respective countries. This demonizing hate speech and political repression is fostering a new culture of intolerance and polarization within Turkey and distancing the country from its democratic allies in NATO and EU.

Some columnists have suggested that given the authoritarian trend, the June 2015 elections could be country's last free elections. The lesson from Turkey's 12 years under AKP rule is very clear: Neither institutions nor laws make a country democratic. Only a prevalent democratic culture among citizens can uphold the core values of a democracy.