Ahsan Sayed

Turkey’s slide into authoritarianism appeared to continue last week when a court ruling banned Twitter. The verdict was handed down in response to three separate complaints filed against the social media site. One of the petitioners wanted explicit photographs of her removed from the site. Another wanted to close a fake account opened in their name. And a third, a politician and mayoral candidate for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), was apparently displeased by insulting tweets directed against him. Regardless of whatever official reason is cited for the ban, it’s difficult to see this outside the context of the political unrest that has rocked the government of Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP, especially so after Erdogan personally threatened to take down social media sites that have been the source of so many damaging leaks against him and his administration. Furthermore, the ban was only possible after a harsh new internet bill that was passed by AKP parliament and signed into law in February.

The ban is well timed. Municipal elections, a referendum which Erdogan hopes will vindicate him, are to take place on March 30. The elections will be a litmus test for the prime minister ahead of his plans to become Turkey’s first elected President. In light of the political turmoil that started with the Gezi park protests last year, Erdogan needs the March votes to reaffirm his legitimacy as the people’s duly elected leader. But that legitimacy has already been tarnished beyond repair. Even if the AKP has a strong showing in the upcoming polls, a result which will certainly embolden the prime minster and allow him to stay in power, Turkey’s political climate has been dangerously polarized by unrest. The democratic gains that Erdogan himself made over the past decade have been rolled back into what looks increasingly like tyranny of the majority.

The most recent turmoil in Turkey is the result of a drawn out political war between former allies, the ruling AK Party, led by Erdogan, and a religious movement, called Hizmet, but more commonly known as the Gulen movement, named after its founder, Imam Fethullah Gulen. The prominence and reach of the movement’s influence is difficult to gauge. But most observers agree that Hizmet holds considerable sway over the judicial system and government bureaucracy— an arrangement Ergdogan calls the “parallel state.” The AKP relied on the Gulenists to dethrone Turkey’s military and jail hundreds of key figures of the secular Kemalist establishment by alleging, ironically, a vast conspiracy within the military and intelligentsia to overthrow the AKP government.  But now the relationship has soured.

In mid-December prosecutors tied to the Gulen movement raided the houses of a prominent businessman and the sons of three Turkish ministers. According to leaked prosecution documents, the police reportedly found millions of dollars stashed away in these homes. Further leaks to social media include incriminating wiretap audio tapes which may point to deep-seated corruption in the AKP regime.  The three ministers resigned. But Erdogan, never one to be on the defensive, fired back and reassigned thousands of police officers and the lead prosecutor behind the corruption investigation, to hobble the inquiry.  Nevertheless, the leaks to social media continued. The most damaging audio tape came just last month. It purportedly shows Erdogan talking to his son Bilal, asking him to move large sums of cash out of their house. This new tape, like those before it, spread like wildfire on the internet. Thus, it becomes difficult to believe the government’s claims about the Twitter ban.

In the battle between the AKP and the Gulen movement, the former seems to have the upper hand. Recently, the parliament passed a law that banned private college preparatory schools, which are Hizmet’s biggest source of revenue and recruits.  Furthermore, by all accounts, the ruling party is set to win in the coming polls, despite the damaging corruption scandal. It leads the opposition by healthy margins in opinion polls. Hizmet, despite its supposed deep reach within the state apparatus, does not have a popular base comparable to the AKP. If the AKP can hold onto the mayoralty of Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey’s two biggest cities, it will win nationally at the polls. Such an outcome will certainly embolden Erdogan and give him reason to continue as the country’s premier.

The war between the Gulen movement and Erdogan leaves many disenchanted Turks out on the sidelines. The Gezi Park protests were the first clear signs that a segment of Turkish society felt alienated under AKP rule.  More importantly, the protests and the subsequent government crackdowns have highlighted the deep fractures within Turkish society. Such a political polarization was on display in mid-March when rival funerals drew thousands of supporters from opposite poles of the political spectrum. Secular, anti-government protestors marched in major Turkish cities after fifteen year old Berkin Elvan, who was hurt during protests against the government nine months ago, succumbed to his injuries. For the pro-government conservative camp the death of Burak Can Karamanolu, allegedly shot by a fringe left-wing group, became a symbol of decades of repression of Turkey’s religious majority.

The heavily politicized funerals are emblematic of the factitious nature of Turkish politics. Those who crowded Taksim square last May protesting corruption, the cozy relationship between the government and large businesses, jailing of journalists, new restrictions on alcohol, and overall increasing authoritarianism of the Prime Minister have no stake in the feud between the Gulenists and Erdogan. In fact, the protests against Erdogan have led to little in the way of meaningful political capital for other parties. The opposition has been unable to capture the energy of the Gezi Park protests and the political opportunities of the corruption cases in order to mount an effective front against the AKP.

Erdogan continues to insist the corruption case is nothing but political rankling by the Gulenists. His characteristic blustering rhetoric is just as dismissive of these serious allegations as they were of the Gezi Park protests and even the death of young Berkin Elvan. The likely win on the at the end of March will only embolden an already divisive figure. Erdogan can continue to rule with his electoral majorities but many Turks have lost faith in him. While it is true that few have done more for Turkish democracy than Erdogan, it is also Erdogan who is chiefly responsible for undoing his own accomplishments. He has gutted state institutions and undermined the independence of the judiciary in an effort to quell the influence of the Gulen movement. The subsequent fall out from this feud has been the erosion of Turkish institutions and its democracy. If Erdogan continues to rule, it will be to the detriment of Turkey.

Image via Tech Crunch
Ahsan Sayed is a recent graduate of the Macaulay Honors College at the City College of New York.