Erdogan Is Remaking Turkey in His Own Image

The Turkish president’s widening diktat is turning the country into a police state fashioned in his image – and he’s counting on the June 7 elections to let him finish the job.

Arzum Karasu
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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, July 25, 2014.Credit: AFP
Arzum Karasu

ISTANBUL – Some 20 years ago, Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “Democracy, for us, is a train you get off once you reach your destination.” It seems his train is now approaching its destination: Erdoganland.

The Turkish parliament, whose majority rests with the AKP party once led by Erdogan, passed a homeland security bill last month that gives more power to the already powerful Turkish police force. The law, fiercely criticized by opposition members and civil rights groups, is transforming the country into a police state.

What does the new law entail? Passed by a vote of 199-32, it effectively transforms police officers into public prosecutors when arresting, questioning and detaining individuals. Detention can now last up to 48 hours; the police can use firearms against protesters (they used them before; the difference now is that they are legally allowed to shoot protesters); demonstrators partially or fully covering their faces during rallies will now be considered terrorists; the use of Molotov cocktails will also be considered a weapon of terror ... but only when used by protesters. Also, those foolish enough to think of exercising their old democratic rights by sharing an opinion or criticizing state policy – on social websites and/or in public places – risk prison terms for “insulting the government.” These are the most contentious measures out of the more than 300 in the new security bill.

Critics say the law aims to crack down on any dissent, especially ahead of the June 7 parliamentary election. Indeed, Erdogan and his government faced violent social uprisings in recent years, with the protests aimed at opposing the government’s authoritarian policies, and corruption and infringement of people’s rights. The government is defending its bill, calling it a necessary measure to match Turkish police powers with those of its European partners.

That’s funny, coming from a government whose style reminds one more of Putin than Merkel or Hollande. But let’s take a closer look at the latest of Erdogan’s “European standards-oriented” moves. The president of a democratic country is supposed to act on behalf of all its citizens. But what does Erdogan do? He attends the political meetings of the AKP party he was once head of. He still speaks and acts like its leader, and calls on the electorate to vote for AKP, so they “can build a new Turkey.”

Another Erdogan-style feature: In no European country can you prosecute people for insulting the president. Yet in just seven months of Erdogan’s presidency, 105 people have been prosecuted for this “crime” and eight more have been arrested on suspicion of committing it – the latest being a 13-year-old schoolgirl.

It is important to remember that “insult,” in Erdogan’s vocabulary, has a broad definition, including the voicing of discontent at government policies. For comparison, there is no record of people getting arrested for insulting the previous president, Abdullah Gül, an AKP member at the time who presided over the country for seven years. To recap: Seven months, 105 prosecutions, and eight arrests for Erdogan, against seven years with no arrests for Gül.

Another Erdogan gesture about what he considers the European style of governing: Cabinet ministers can now restrict people’s access to websites if they decide the content endangers public order.

Erdogan, however, doesn’t seem to take on board European examples of how to treat the media. Indeed, in Erdogan’s “New Turkey,” being a proper journalist is mission impossible. Even Tom Cruise would pale before the task journalists face in this country.

Most of the Turkish press is under government control. Everyday, Erdogan holds forth on a number of topics, his addresses published or broadcast live by pro-government papers, TV and radio, with many analysts and reporters singing his praises.

Only a few days ago, TV station HaberTürk suspended all its political programming until after the June elections. The very few journalists who refuse to be spokespersons for AKP face intimidation tactics such as tax audits, fines, or being labeled “terrorist” or “traitor,” to name just a few examples.

Erdogan once said, “There is no freer press than Turkey’s press,” and there is a kernel of truth in this. The Turkish press is free to choose between becoming PR agents for AKP while retaining the ability to work as journalists, and refusing to buckle under while facing censorship, fines, unemployment, jail or other punishments.

And because the grip he has over the country’s most important institutions is not enough for him, Erdogan is counting on the elections in June. If AKP wins, Erdogan will be able to fullfill his dream – being president in a presidential system of government. This will allow him to amend the constitution to give him power to his heart’s content.

Under the current system, his grip is omnipresent, but there is a constitution that can stop some of his “reforms” from going through.

Erdogan’s widening diktat and refusal to tolerate any criticism is turning the country into a police state fashioned in his image. He is not noted for his knowledge of history, so he probably doesn’t know that people’s hunger for justice and democracy has always overcome dictatorship. For Turkey, it’s only a question of when.  

Arzum Karasu is a French-Turkish freelance journalist based in Istanbul, whose work has appeared on the BBC, AFP, France 24 and TF1, among other media.