The results of the snap elections in Turkey have taken everybody by surprise. This is not because observers with a critical eye have failed to read the script. Rather, it is because of the extent to which state-orchestrated fear has proved effective in cajoling the electorate to give the oppressor a mandate to rule in return for some stability.
Let me begin by calling a spade a spade. As I argued in 2008, the AKP has not been an institution-building party. It inherited the economic governance institutions (and indeed the fiscal and monetary policy priorities) of the preceding coalition government led by Mr Ecevit from 1999-2002. It is important to note that the inherited policy and institutional framework had been adopted under duress from international organisations, essentially to fill the institutional void that had been created by successive conservative governments in the 1990s. If anything, successive AKP governments under the leadership of Mr Erdogan have been busy performing an institutional cull on the largest scale in Turkey’s history.
This has been driven by a simple logic: for the AKP elite, institutional checks and balances are dysfunctional because they make the exercise of the ‘national will’ cumbersome. The national will is expressed through elections that the party wins through multi-party competitions. The rules of the multi-party competition, in turn, can be devised only by the majority party that represents the ‘national will’. All other parties and civil-society organisations critical of the majority party can be demonised as collaborators of internal and external forces bent on preventing the nation from expressing its will. That is why AKP rhetoric has been based on ‘national will’ rather than democracy. That is also why AKP practice has been geared towards removal of legal, administrative and civil-societal checks and balances that could prevent the government from exercising absolutist majority rule. That is also why the AKP elite has gradually but increasingly deployed state power to equate dissent with treason.
The process began as early as March 2004, when the then Prime-Minister, Mr Erdogan, accused the critics of police brutality against women demonstrators in Istanbul as ‘Euro informers’ – meaning collaborators acting on behalf Turkey’s ‘European enemies’ who were bent on derailing the country’s EU membership. It went through various stages, including wide-spread arbitrary arrests during the Ergenekon and Balyoz operations in 2007-2008 largely on the basis of fabricated evidence, the establishment of executive control on the judiciary in 2010, the excessive use of state violence against peaceful demonstrators in Gezi Park and across Turkey in 2013, the covering up of wide-spread and centrally-organised corruption scandals in 2014, the covering up of arms and ammunition shipments to radical Islamist groups in Syria, etc.
As a result, Turkey approached the elections in June 2015 with highly dysfunctional institutions. Turkey now is a country with the worst institutional indicators among its income group with respect to rule of law, voice and accountability, political stability and absence of political violence, and control of corruption. For example, a report drafted by a group of British lawyers and funded by the AKP’s recent enemy, the Gulen Movement, concludes that the AKP government “interfered to produce ‘supine’ courts, censored websites, restricted freedom of expression, stifled corruption investigations and subjected detainees to degrading treatment”.
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The judiciary has become an adjunct to executive power. It has been part of the effort to cover up a wide range of corruption scandals in which not only senior AKP officials and AKP-related business people but also President Erdogan and some of his family members were involved. Similar cover-ups were sanctioned with respect to shipment of arms and ammunition to radical Islamist groups in Syria.
Not only governance institutions but softer institutions such as norms and values have also become highly distorted. This was evident from statements from of the Presidency of Religious Affairs at the top and religious sermons in the mosques, which have absolved the government of corruption allegations. The justification is simple but telling: corruption allegations should not detract from the fact that the government has been a good servant of the nation.
Western governments (in Europe and the US) have failed to take any action against the institution-culling Turkish government – with the exception of iodine statements that expressed some ‘disquiet’ but rushed to add that Turkey is an essential strategic partner. The same criticism can be extended to international organisations such as the OECD, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which lecture poor countries about institutional quality as the main determinant of long-term economic performance but have failed to make any observation on the implications of the institutional cull for Turkey’s economic prospects.
It must be stated that the Western leaders’ ‘business as usual’ approach to Turkey was in contradiction to the information that they had. Indeed, the US administration’s deal concerning the use of the Incirlik airbase and Merkel’s visit to trade cash for refugee control happened in the face of public statements by the US Vice President Joe Biden, and the former US Ambassador to Turkey from 2005-2009, Mr Eric S. Feldman. Both have indicated why Turkey is not a reliable partner and should be excluded from high-level security meetings. It must also be noted that the escalation of state violence in Kurdistan has either followed or been concurrent with the deals mentioned above.
Finally, markets have also failed in pricing the institutional cull in Turkey. True, the Turkish Lira has lost 20% of its value over the last six months and the inflows of short-term capital have slowed down as a result of political uncertainty. However, the inflows of long-term capital have remained and markets did not even blink when: (i) the President intervened and prevented the central bank from raising interest rates; and (ii) the net errors and omissions in Turkey’s balance of payments (black market money for short) showed increases of several billions more than once.
So where do we go from here?
The received wisdom among European and US officials and mainstream commentators is that Erdogan should (or will) listen to the electorate’s message that they supported the AKP because they wanted peace and stability. I think such expectations are based on wrong premises and will be conducive only to appeasement. My reading of the AKP’s hostility towards institutional checks and balances suggests that Turkey is heading towards more polarisation and violence.
It appears as if the President and the AKP government will maintain their nationalistic rhetoric and militaristic approach to the resolution of the Kurdish problem. In addition, attacks on the media continue unabated. The editors of Nokta magazine (which had been raided several times before) were arrested one day after the elections; and the new issue has been withdrawn from newsstands. Pre-election statements by AKP officials and calls in the loyal media indicate that the attacks may be extended to national newspapers, including Cumhuriyet (a critical paper close to the main opposition party – the Republican People’s Party, CHP) and Hurriyet (a populist paper whose owners have been targeted by Erdogan repeatedly).
As a result of these choices, the AKP elite is now unable to devise an exit strategy even if it wants to do so. How can the AKP relax its hostility towards the PKK and HDP without alienating some of its MPs and party activists in provinces such as Gaziantep, Adiyaman and Urfa whose political capital consists of criminalising the HDP and the Kurds demanding autonomy? How can the AKP stop using the judiciary as a trigger against political opponents without encouraging stronger calls from the opposition for proper investigations of corruption allegations, security breaches and potential international crimes along the Syrian border?
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Given this setup, the West, international organisations and markets will watch, from a distance, the suffering of large sections of the Turkish society at the hands of a political elite whose project went wrong because of its obsession with unlimited power, disguised as exercising the national will. Western governments will make critical noises publicly but will also try to secure business deals that will increasingly involve a large number of defence-related contracts. In a way, the current situation in Turkey is a magnified mirror image of what has gone wrong in Western politics since the military intervention in Iraq.
Mehmet Ugur is Professor of Economics and Institutions and member of Greenwich Political Economy Research Centre (GPERC) at the Department of International Business and Economics, University of Greenwich.