There Are No Checks and Balances in Turkey, There's Only Erdogan, Israeli Expert Explains

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.Credit: Burhan Ozbilici/AP
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

As an Israeli Turkish studies scholar, you have the added advantage of having been born and raised in Turkey, and you’ve also retained your Turkish citizenship.

I grew up in Istanbul, and immigrated to Israel when I was 22 – because of Zionism. When I arrived here, I studied Hebrew in an ulpan, and then attended Tel Aviv University. As a boy, I went to a Jewish school, and later I studied political science at Istanbul University. I have friends who are Muslim Turks, Armenians, Greeks, Kurds. I’m in close touch with the Jewish community in Turkey and I go there, to visit and lecture, at least seven or eight times a year.

Let’s talk a little about the Turkey of your childhood, compared to the country as it is today.

The main difference is that there were no [digital] social networks in the Turkey of that time, so people weren’t exposed to the true reality. Today, the dirty laundry is exposed. When I talk to my parents, they always say, “It wasn’t like that in the Turkey we grew up in,” and I tell them that it’s not so, that they simply didn’t get to hear other opinions. There was one television channel, belonging to the state; a heavily censored press; textbooks with very clear messages. My parents simply believed that this was the reality – but in secular Turkey, too, there were people who suffered greatly. At that time, [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s people, the conservatives, were incarcerated, and today they’re the ones who have incarcerated the secular people. In any case, the point is that in Turkey there isn’t really a culture of pluralism or coexistence.

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Only oppressor and oppressed.

Whoever’s behind the steering wheel tries to run over the other. Why was Erdogan imprisoned? Because he quoted poetry. [In 1997, while mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan publicly recited a poem of arguably Islamist content; he was tried and convicted of religious incitement, and in 1999, served 120 days in prison.] The military government simply framed him. When he got out of jail, he wanted to take revenge on the Turkish army. So he forged an alliance with [the now-exiled religious leader] Fethullah Gulen and they threw the senior members of the military regime into jail. There’s always someone in jail. One time it’s the religious, another time the secular, one time it’s a supporter of Erdogan, the next time an opponent of Erdogan.

What you’re describing is a governmental culture: prison as a tool to consolidate power.

It’s even more than that, it’s a preventive attack. Whoever is in power feels that if he doesn’t imprison his opponents today, they might imprison him tomorrow.

Erdogan didn't declare war on the army. He did something smarter: He weakened the army through Turkey’s national security council.

I hear in your words empathy, not to say sympathy, for President Erdogan.

Let’s look at this phenomenon without emotions, like a case for analysis in a political science class. I say to you unequivocally: Today’s Turkey isn’t really different from the Turkey of the 1970s and 1980s. The thing is that those who are suffering today in Turkey – the secular liberals – are closer to our lifestyle, so we identify with them. Turkey was never a Swedish-style democracy. Compared to Iran, it’s a democracy; compared to Sweden, it’s perhaps not a democracy. There’s a constitution; elections are held.

Though it’s not clear if their results correspond to the reality. Do you think there is election fraud, by the way?

The impression I get from my friends and from the social networks is that there is. But again, that’s not unique to this period. We just hear about it more. When I was growing up in Turkey, Ataturk [Mustafa Kemal, the republic’s founder] was a demigod. I’m certain that if he were suddenly to appear in 2018 Turkey, he too would face opposition.

You were in the Turkish public-school system after the military coup. What values were promoted there?

I was born in 1984, four years after the coup. We were brought up to believe that the Turkish army was everything. There was a course in school called “security studies.” It was a compulsory Education Ministry course in every school, including Jewish and Armenian educational institutions. The course was taught by a uniformed teacher. Soldiers would come to deliver the lectures.

What did they teach you?

Why we must love military service, why men have to do army service, how women should behave – the way they did during the Turkish War of Independence, by manufacturing ammunition and bringing it to the front, by sacrificing themselves.

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan are seen through Turkish flags as they await Erdogan's arrival in Berlin near the Adlon Hotel in Berlin, Germany, September 27, 2018. Credit: \ FABRIZIO BENSCH/ REUTERS

The most important thing we were taught is that the army is a mechanism of checks and balances in a democracy. Until I immigrated to Israel, I thought that was a standard mechanism in democratic countries. It was only here that I saw that the chief of staff was subordinate to the prime minister, to the defense minister. In Turkey we felt that the army was protecting us against the government; that if the government made mistakes, the army would be able to correct them. The Turkish citizen simply did not ask questions when the army intervened in politics. That seemed correct and clear to us.

If so, how did the Turkish public take Erdogan’s war against the army?

Erdogan did not declare war on the army out loud. He did something smarter: He weakened the army through the MGK, Turkey’s national security council. It’s actually a type of security cabinet whose chairman is the state president, and its participants are the prime minister, most of the cabinet ministers and also army personnel. The thing is, that, when there was a democratic vote – in quotation marks – in the council, the opinion of the army would get majority acceptance.

What’s known as a “deep state.”

All of the army’s decisions would be accepted there automatically and presented as government decisions. So, instead of fighting the army directly, Erdogan simply changed the composition of the council to give the civilians a majority.

With his ostensible motive being to make Turkey part of the European Union. In fact, at the start of his term, his agenda looked pro-Western.

Opposition parties are legitimizing Erdogan by playing according to the rules.

To the average citizen, it was if he had been a member of [the ultra-Orthodox Israeli party] Shas, and then he grew disillusioned with the party, and established something like a [secular] Likud of his own – as if he realized that Turkey’s interests lay in the West and not the East.

With the emphasis on “as if.”

Yes. Because Erdogan has beat his political rivals anew every time, he doesn’t perceive them as a threat. He is occupied with the media, with the judicial system. The educational system was always in his power anyway. His true rival was always the army.

‘It’s all legal’

Let’s talk for a moment about his takeover of the media.

Erdogan did that together with Islamist businessmen. They simply started to buy the major media channels. It’s all legal. Think, let’s say, of businesspeople associated with Likud buying Haaretz.

Here people just start up a new paper.

It’s different. It’s not like launching [the free, pro-Netanyahu daily] Israel Hayom. They already had that. The wanted to change the game – for all intents and purposes, they wanted Haaretz.

To leave the brand and change the content.

Yes. And it was all done quietly. Let’s say you’re critical of the government. Suddenly your pieces no longer get published. You’re offered paid leave. Journalists are pushed into a situation where they themselves will say: I’m not staying here. That’s what happened to a lot of mainstream journalists. They left for small newspapers and became the torchbearers of secularism. Bottom line: Erdogan got control of the army, the media and the courts.

Still frame taken from video shows Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan speaking via a Facetime video connection to address the nation during an attempted coup, in Marmais, Turkey, on July 16, 2016. Credit: REUTERS

Let’s move to the night of the military coup in 2016. What went through your mind when you watched the images from Turkey?

When I heard that the Turkish army was blocking the bridge in Istanbul, I thought they must have received information about a terrorist attack, because before the coup, there were many such attacks. I never even thought it was a military coup. In hindsight – and it takes no great wisdom to say this in hindsight – I think Erdogan knew about the coup attempt in advance. He said he heard something from his uncle. Yeah, right. He had information from Turkish intelligence.

You’re claiming it was staged? We all remember how Erdogan sounded that night. He was hysterical. That was a game?

No. He really was hysterical, because it wasn’t completely under his control. I don’t think it was staged. But my theory is that he knew about the coup attempt and let it go ahead, because it allowed him to crush the head of the snake, so to speak. Erdogan had all the means to quell the coup, and that’s what we saw. More than 200 people were killed that night. Many are still in prison.

And after the coup, he had carte blanche to do whatever he wished.

He declared a state of emergency, which allowed him to sign off on edicts that not even the Constitutional Court can annul.

But that’s something I didn’t completely understand: Why did Erdogan need it? Even before, no one dared question his authority.

There is no leader capable of posing a threat to Erdogan. That might sound familiar to you.

Before the coup, Erdogan was president of the state. His powers were largely symbolic, like President Reuven Rivlin. In practice, Erdogan gave orders both to the cabinet and to the prime minister. But even so, if the prime minister had dared to counter him – which he never did – it could have been problematic for Erdogan. The state of emergency allowed him to lead the country without being accountable to anyone. Effectively, he took the keys from the prime minister, changed the parliamentary system to a presidential one, and then held another election.

The referendums, the elections – are they only intended to give the Turks the impression that they’re deciding, or are they aimed outward, at the international community?

Both. First of all, if he does something drastic, no one can accuse him of doing it on his own. He went to the people. And a majority, even if it’s 51 percent, is what he’s after. Erdogan isn’t looking for a national consensus, he’s looking for a majority. In a democracy, the democratic institutions are obliged to protect the minorities, too. In Turkey, no one cares what the minorities need. Only the majority government. There are no more checks and balances in Turkey, whether they are checks and balances like those of true democracies, such as the courts, or of Turkish democracy, meaning the army.

There is only Erdogan.

Right. So as not to be accused of being a dictator, he goes to an election or to a national referendum, and when he wins he can effectively say to the West: “You call me a dictator? People love me. The nation spoke at the voting booth.” There are all kinds of rumors – he did steal votes, he didn’t steal votes. People said that in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018. I don’t understand why the opposition parties are continuing to behave the way they do. Let’s say I’m a soccer player who scores goals only with my hand. Why do you continue to play with me? And if you are playing with me, why do you use only your feet? That’s what the opposition parties are doing. They are legitimizing Erdogan by playing according to the rules.

But that’s exactly the idea. To play at democracy. There are far more sophisticated mechanisms with which to rule the masses than to behave like a dictatorship. Maybe, as you argued earlier, the democratic conception of the Turkish people is essentially flawed.

That’s true. We don’t understand it, because we judge Turkey through Western eyes. We don’t understand that in the eyes of the average Turk – not the average American or the average reader of Haaretz – Turkey is a democracy. Accordingly, those who are fighting Erdogan are fighting with him in the same arena. The people who didn’t lose the hope of turning Turkey into a different place are trying to do it through the system. They haven’t yet chosen a different solution.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Diyanet President Ali Eras cover their faces during a prayer on occasion of the opening of the new mosque in Cologne, Germany, on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. Credit: Martin Meissner,AP

Such as what? To take to the streets? You know, they won’t dare go into the streets. If you look at the political map now, is there anyone who is actually standing up to him?

No. There is no leader capable of posing a threat to Erdogan. That might sound familiar to you.

What’s known as “he would turn over the keys if only there were someone to give them to.” So what will happen on the day after Erdogan?

That’s the question of questions. As of now, Erdogan is not giving any other leader a chance. A case in point is the man who was prime minister under him, Ahmet Davutoglu. He was very charismatic, knowledgeable, a polyglot. A genuinely brilliant person. Erdogan didn’t like the fact that people liked him and thought of him as a leader. He decided to make him a puppet, but Davutoglu didn’t accept that. He resigned. His successor, Binali Yildirim, lacked charisma and was a total yes-man of Erdogan’s. [The office of prime minister was abolished earlier this year.] He’s not someone who can lead the people. Today it’s being said in Turkey that when Erdogan dies, his son-in-law, the current finance minister, will succeed him.

How do you understand the people who vote for Erdogan? What do they think he gives them?

They see themselves in him.

They must also see that Turkey is in a problematic economic situation.

Erdogan has succeeded in persuading the masses that the present economic crisis is due to the American sanctions.

Do they consider him a good leader?

Yes. A good and experienced leader, the person who’s closest to the Turkish nation and to the ordinary Turkish citizen, in terms of his connection to the people, in terms of his style of life.

Are you kidding?


What exactly about Erdogan’s lifestyle reminds the ordinary Turkish citizen of his own life? The palace with thousands of rooms? The plane? The servants?

Turks are not Israelis. Think of the Ottoman Empire – the Turks are used to sultans who live in palaces. Ataturk also lived in a palace in Istanbul. To the average Turk, it’s natural for the ruler to live in a palace, it’s not considered a sign of corruption. On the contrary: It shows that the state is magnificent, that it has power. When Erdogan visits the simple folk, he sits on the floor. He eats with them and drinks with them. He hosts them in the mosque he built in Ankara and prays with them as part of the masses. People are enchanted by the fact that he knows the prayers by heart. Imagine Bibi Netanyahu standing in a synagogue and singing like a cantor. That’s how Erdogan connects with the simple folk. That’s what interests him. Not the elites.

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