Turkey’s free society is disappearing into a sarcophagus

The past five years or so have been a culmination of a full-scale power grab.
Sunday 09/12/2018
Police officers detain a Turkish man during protests in Istanbul, last May. (AP)
Witch hunt. Police officers detain a Turkish man during protests in Istanbul, last May. (AP)

Turkey has often been a political battlefield, as its modern history confirms. For more than a century, Turkish politics has followed the pattern of a power struggle in which one social group tries to suppress others, possibly even to politically annihilate them.

This has been the way ”political progress” has long been perceived, with cadres of a successful party consolidating alliances within the bureaucracy, leaving no space for democratic competition. The unsuccessful social groups have had to suffer authoritarian rule. The travails of the dissenting masses and their leaders have long been a fixed component of Turkish political life.

The past five years or so have been a culmination of a full-scale power grab. Mechanisms such as the law enforcement forces and the judiciary have been used to suppress some groups, which have been declared internal enemies.

The two groups brutally attacked by the regime are the Kurds and the Gulen Movement. The Kurds, who largely support the Peoples’ Democracy Party, are approximately 18% of the population. The Gulenists, followers of a religious sect, are believed to number around 3 million.

The official choice of “double enemy” works well. Neither group has any particular sympathy for the other’s causes.

Other segments of society — large groups such as the deeply pious Sunnis, the secular Kemalists and staunch nationalists, as well as the small group of Alevis — have enthusiastically bought the narrative. So much so that if the regime intends to crush these supposedly hostile social groups, it could be seen as acceptable.

This is how power politics has been conducted over the past hundred years and current events are but a repetition of the pattern.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the most powerful figure in Turkey, hopes to gain absolute power. To achieve this, he accelerated targeting of the smallest, most vulnerable groups — the reformists and liberals, who have called for democratic norms during the rule of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Emboldened by the AKP’s early efforts to secure EU membership, many of those intellectuals and other members of the elite allowed their engagement with EU-supported civil society projects to become public knowledge. Data provided to Ahval News Online by Ozge Zihnioglu, a political scientist with Bahcesehir University, state the European Union has awarded $105.3 million to 1,018 civil society projects since 2002.

However, hopes for EU membership diminished in mid-2013. With the brutal suppression of the Gezi Park protests, Erdogan and his party failed the test of democratic tolerance. From that moment, Turkey has been in a downward spiral in terms of democratic norms.

The European Court of Auditors said membership of Turkish organisations advocating for rights fell from 200,096 in 2015 to 50,598 in 2016.

That the reformists are vulnerable has been obvious since the beginning. Their names and affiliations were registered by the state and could be used in crackdowns as the regime’s character changed. Official narratives that demonised the targets were successfully spread with the help of the pro-government media.

As the crackdown continues against journalists, Kurds, academics, Gulenist grass-roots families and independent-minded reformists were all left with what is the silent approval of the masses and, sometimes, crocodile tears for those being targeted.

The arrest of leftist-philanthropist Osman Kavala and the retreat of the George Soros-backed Open Society Foundation were early signs of Erdogan’s plans to copy Russian President Vladimir Putin with respect to Western-funded NGOs. Reports in pro-government media openly target German foundations such as the liberal Friedrich-Naumann Stiftung.

Also in the crosshairs are the few remaining Turkish civil society groups — Hrant Dink Foundation and the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24).

The Gezi protests were depicted as an uprising against the government. The indictment prepared by prosecutors is reported to be more than 1,000 pages long and 120 civil society figures are already charged. At least 600 more are to be deemed suspects. It is possible that the regime plans further action against other civil society targets as well. Turkey’s free society is disappearing into a sarcophagus.