How Erdoğan went from “live and let live” to paternalism

IMG_1432When Prime Minister Erdoğan was elected in 2003 he gained support from liberal and non-religious voters through his pro-reform agenda. In the past decade, this reformist agenda has progressively been watered down by the government. Nowadays, autocratic methods are more of a rule rather than an exception. In the words of Amanda Paul, Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre, “despite the many positive steps he has taken during his term in office, with his increasing retreat from the path of democracy and growing disregard for freedoms and the rule of law, Erdoğan may well have pressed the self-destruct button on his own legacy.”

Protests in Gezi Park in the summer of 2013 draw international attention towards the opposition to the AKP government. In the wake of the protests, direct and indirect media censorship increased. The practice of firing journalists for speaking out during the Gezi Park events has continued after the recent revelations of corruption scandals involving politicians of the AKP and their families.

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From left to right: Sir Graham Watson MEP, Serdar Yesilyurt, Dr. Hans-Georg Fleck

In the past year, events in Turkey have taken a severe turn for the worse. The corruption scandal revealed on December 17, and the allegations of money laundering by people at the highest levels of the government, have not triggered the reaction that would be expected in a democratic country. As Serdar Yesilyurt, Executive Director of the TUSKON EU Representation, explained: “instead of having the alleged corrupt government and AKP members stepping down, the government has fired or relocated thousands of policemen and hundreds of prosecutors throughout the country.” But, the threat both to the rule of law and media freedom in Turkey goes even further. Two laws have been passed since December 17 and were signed by President Abdullah Gül. On the one hand, amendments to the Internet regulation law proposed by the government would make it possible for officials to block websites without court orders. The government is also threatening the separation of powers by re-structuring the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), and thus putting the judiciary, including criminal investigations, under direct control of the Ministry of Justice.

All panelists at FNF’s High Noon Lunchtime debate “Türkiye: Back to old days? The current state of EU-Turkey relations.” agreed that it is especially worrying that instead of conducting an independent investigation, Prime Minister Erdoğan chose to accuse an alleged “parallel state” of organizing a “coup” against the Turkish government with the help of external actors and internal traitors – indirectly referring to the Gülen movement and other critical voices. Serdar Yesilyurt reminded how the Prime Minister’s rhetoric of denouncing a conspiracy against the Turkish government is accompanied by a rhetorical reference to him protecting the Turkish people, not only from external and internal traitors, but also from themselves. Erdoğan has developed a tendency to explain his actions by linking them to morality and how he is protecting the Turkish people. His paternalistic attitude is best shown in his defense of the changes to the internet law. Not only did Erdoğan claim the law advanced Turkish democracy, he went further, stating it protected society from the “porn lobby” and “parallel state.”

IMG_1447Dr. Hans-Georg Fleck, Resident representative of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Turkey, presented a slightly different view of the present situation and prospects for the future of Turkey. He reminded that, on the one hand, Turkey has made great progress since its recognition as candidate for full membership to the EU in 1999. He welcomed the long-awaited acknowledgement of this progress by the EU and its member states. On the other hand, progress in the past decade is being overshadowed by the current government action, which is giving the opponents of Turkey’s accession to the EU the necessary arguments against the negotiations. On a more optimistic tone, Sir Graham Watson MEP, President of the ALDE Party, assesses the visit of Prime Minister Erdoğan in Brussels as well as President Hollande’s trip to Turkey as positive. Though the threats to the rule of law and freedom of the media posed by the Turkish government should be addressed, Sir Graham is confident about the Turkish society’s capacity to tackle the authoritarian tendencies of the government. In his view, the EU and Turkey still have many areas of cooperation, such as their common neighborhood, especially Syria, as well as their partnership in NATO and the G20.

Serdar Yesilyurt agreed with Sir Graham and called upon the EU to develop a clever strategy involving a clear stance against threats to basic freedoms and the separation of power, while cooperating on economic, military and foreign policy issues and carry on with the accession process. In his words “troubled times cannot be turned into an anti-Turkey bashing.” On the contrary, he called for European support: “let Turkey not loose Turkey!.

Julie Cantalou