Commentary Magazine


Turkey’s Authoritarian Moment

Turks will head to the polls on Sunday, August 10. It will be the first time the Turkish public elects their president, a post which in the past has both been largely ceremonial and also meant to be above politics. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, however, feels different and seeks to transform the position into a mechanism not to protect constitutional guarantees but to eviscerate them. When pressed during his confirmation hearing last month, John Bass, a career foreign service officer nominated to the ambassadorship to Turkey, only acknowledged Turkey’s “authoritarian drift” when Sen. John McCain threatened to hold up his nomination until he received an answer.

Bass may wanted to have been diplomatic, but a quick look at the current presidential race shows just how authoritarian Turkey has become. Make no mistake: Erdoğan is as much a dictator as Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad are and Hosni Mubarak was. The current presidential race merely confirms it.

Consider the following:

Turkish law says all public office holders should resign a month or two before elections, but the High Election Council, dominated by Erdoğan groupies, gave Erdoğan an exception. The prime minister, of course, doesn’t want to resign even for a moment both in fear that corruption cases suspended because of his parliamentary immunity would kick in and because he wants to use the resources of the state in his campaign.

And, indeed, he has. Whenever he has held a public rally—and he holds multiple rallies per day using his plane or bus to get there—local governors and government officials bus in thousands of people who are handed flags to wave and instructed what slogans to chant. Government officials who do not attend the rally are blacklisted, and quickly find themselves moved to different towns or demoted to lower positions. State officials “request” that contractors who do business with the government pay for the expenses such as buses, flags, and food for those attending the rallies. If contractors do not comply with the request, they will not get a new contract.

The new presidential election law restricts individual campaign contributions to a candidate to about $4,000 and requires that payment be made through a bank, but such donations in kind do not count as campaign contributions. Therefore, when it comes to campaign resources, the Erdoğan government’s blackmail puts Erdoğan in a different category than his two competitors.

Turks also know that a campaign contribution made through a bank to anyone other than Erdoğan could lead to blacklisting. Donate to Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, for example, and expect your business to be audited, lose your government job, or be fired from your private sector job under government pressure. (When I was in Turkey earlier this summer, even some of those working in multinational businesses asked not to be included in group photos of lunches that included low-ranking opposition politicians since they were afraid that would be enough to invite retaliation.) In effect, İhsanoğlu and Kurdish candidate Selahattin Demirtaş receive donations only from their much smaller pools of political activists or from retirees who are less susceptible to blackmail.

Erdoğan operates not only by intimidation, but also by reward. Turks report lines of pensioners in front of banks in order to donate the equivalent of $50 to Erdoğan’s campaign. One old lady interviewed on Turkish television, when asked why she was there, said, “They [AKP] gave me this money to deposit to an account in the bank. In return they will give me food.”

State radio and television (TRT) focus on Erdoğan and rarely give any airtime to İhsanoğlu and Demirtaş despite their mandate for balance. In a typical ten-day period in July, the official statistics showed 428 minutes of coverage for Erdoğan, 45 seconds for İhsanoğlu, and no time whatsoever for Demirtaş. The ratios have improved slightly, but Erdoğan still receives 25 times the coverage of the other candidates.

Even those outside Turkey are subject to intimidation. Absentee voters in Turkey were shocked to see that ballot envelopes are transparent enabling Turkish officials to see the ballot. Rather than count the ballots abroad, they will be flown on the state-owned airlines Turkish Air and counted back inside Turkey. What happens to those ballots along the way is anyone’s guess.

Erdoğan is a dictator. The constitution prohibits the use of religious symbols in political propaganda, but Erdoğan has waved a Qu’ran in election rallies and declared a vote for him is a vote for the Qu’ran. He has an agenda and, like Putin, he recognizes that the West is all bark and no bite. The question is not only whether Turkey has re-embraced authoritarianism so many Turks sought to leave behind more than a half century ago, but also what cost Erdoğan’s dictatorship will extract from the Turkish public and regional security.

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