BACKGROUND: On February 23, the Internal Affairs Commission of the Turkish parliament adopted a bill that endows the National Intelligence Agency (MİT) with new, far-reaching powers to conduct wire-tapping and to gather information from all walks of society as well as from other state agencies. Meanwhile, the dissemination and publication of any kind of information that pertains to the activities of the National Intelligence Agency is going to result in severe consequences; not only the publisher of media outlets that publicize such information – which is the case today – but all those who are involved in the publication, from the printers to the editors, are going to be sentenced to prison from three to nine years.
The MİT bill is but the latest in a string of laws – after the internet law and the law that subordinates the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors to the government – that express the determination – and increasingly the desperation – of the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to suppress the challenge to its authority from the movement of the cleric Fethullah Gülen, even if that means that the rule of law is suspended and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms are restricted.
Yet the attempts to stem the flow of damaging information are increasingly proving futile; on February 24, an alleged recording of several phone conversations between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his son Bilal Erdoğan appeared on the internet. The conversations apparently date from December 17, 2013, when the graft probe against among others relatives of several cabinet ministers was launched; in them, Erdoğan instructs his son to remove hundreds of millions of dollars from his house. Erdoğan vehemently decried the tapes as fabrications, but Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), urged Erdoğan to “either board a helicopter and leave the country or resign” as the country could not have a prime minister “who is a thief”. “In our eyes, this is no longer a legitimate government,” said Kılıçdaroğlu.
Whether or not the electorate rallies to the viewpoint of the opposition is going to be demonstrated in the upcoming local elections on March 30. But if the history of voter behavior in Turkey is any guide, the power abuses are likely going to cost Prime Minister Erdoğan significant support. Authoritarianism has remained a permanent feature of the Turkish polity since the founding of the republic; yet historically, voters in Turkey have also displayed an inclination to check authority when it has strayed too far.
IMPLICATIONS: In 1950, in the first, free election of the country, the voters did not waste the opportunity to oust the authoritarian CHP from government. When CHP’s successor in government, the conservative Democratic Party (DP) turned authoritarian as well, it was also punished by the voters; the support for the DP dropped from 57 percent in the 1954 election to 47 percent in 1957. Had not the coup in 1960 intervened, the authoritarian Prime Minister Adnan Menderes would most likely have been voted out of office. In 1965, the voters punished the governing CHP because the party was seen as the guardian of the legacy of the 1960 coup; but in 1973 they rewarded the same party, returning it to power, after its new, democratic-minded leader Bülent Ecevit had opposed the military coup in 1971. In 1983, the electorate once again checked authoritarian power after three years of military rule, with 45 percent rallying to the Motherland Party of Turgut Özal, precisely because he was not the preferred choice of the generals.
Yet this history of voter behavior notwithstanding, authoritarianism has always reasserted itself; authoritarianism is checked when it becomes too overbearing, but it is never expunged from the body politic. The democratic “heroes” have never failed to disappoint: the conservative Adnan Menderes, who had prevailed against the one party rule of CHP proved to be an authoritarian himself; the social democrat Bülent Ecevit, who inspired democratic hope in the 1970s when he stood up against the generals, ended up colluding with them, being brought back to government with their help in 1997, when they engineered the downfall of the democratically elected Islamist-led coalition government. The conservative Turgut Özal, who defeated the party of the military in 1983, did not prove to be a principled defender of democratic rights himself; in a 1987 referendum he campaigned against the restoration of the civil liberties of the political leaders who had been banned from politics by the coup generals in 1980. And, similarly, the fact that he took on the generals did not mean that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was a democrat.
As Ali Bayramoğlu, who is a columnist in the pro-AKP daily Yeni Şafak, has put it, in Turkey only those who are oppressed care about the rights of the individual and the rule of law, while those who rule or rise to rule invariably endorse the omnipotence of the state. Part of the explanation is sociological: reverence of authority is ingrained in what is fundamentally a deeply patriarchal society, with early family life providing the foundation of illiberal political values.
Authoritarianism always resurges because it is only individual authoritarians – or a collective of them – who have gone too far in their abuse of power that are showed the door; what is never questioned, meanwhile, is power itself, the legitimacy and permanency of the structure from which authoritarian power emanates – an all-embracing central government that collects 70 percent of total revenues and that employs 85 percent of public servants, the highest level among OECD countries. As Galip Dalay, a researcher for the pro-government Seta foundation points out, “this level of centralization creates incentives for any group that wants to wield influence in Turkey” and renders the state ripe for power struggles. But what ultimately feeds the power of the state is the weakness of society.
It is the divisions in society that sustain the idea of the iron-fisted state. The supremacy of the state is the consequence of the ethnic, cultural and ideological fissures that fracture the country; they create a climate of mutual suspicion, indeed hostility between the separate group identities – Turkish-Kurdish, Sunni-Alevi, conservative-secularist – which in turn leads each constituency – except the Kurds – to seek the protection of a strong state against the enemy “other”.
The Turks have wanted – and still do – to maintain state omnipotence to keep the Kurds under control; as long as they controlled the state, the secularists feared that any relaxation of the hold of the state would lead to them being overrun by Islamic conservatives. Indeed, once in control of the state, the latter deployed their power first to suppress the secularists, after which the mutual suspicions and lack of trust among the two wings of the Islamic conservatives surfaced, unleashing a bitter civil war within the state for exclusive control of the bureaucratic apparatus.
The civil war within the Turkish state consumes the strength of its agencies – the police, the judiciary, the intelligence services – and by extension of the state itself, yet at the same time, the power of those agencies and aggregate state power to do harm has also increased dramatically. While the AKP government is strengthening its grip over the flow of information and endowing the National Intelligence Agency with unprecedented powers in its bid to crush the Gülenist, its intra-state challengers, the Gülenist power in the security apparatus is making full use of surveillance technology in its bid to bring down Erdoğan, by exposing the illegal financial activities in which Erdoğan himself now appear to be implicated.
This technology was first deployed to bring down the former leader of the CHP, Deniz Baykal in 2010, (See May 24, 2010 Turkey Analyst) and subsequently to force several leading politicians of the opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP), a conservative rival of the AKP, to resign in the run-up to the 2011 general elections.(See May 30, 2011 Turkey Analyst)
CONCLUSIONS: The outcome of the present power struggle will be determined by the effectiveness of the respective instruments of state coercion and surveillance that the two rivals have at their disposal; whoever wins, the outcome will have demonstrated what “big brother” methods can achieve; it will have reinforced, not weakened, the Turkish Leviathan.
The societal divisions that feed and sustain state omnipotence have only become exacerbated during the rule of the Islamic conservatives; Sunni conservatives are now also pitted against each other. In such a poisonous atmosphere of mistrust and enmity in society, the divided constituencies that make up Turkey are unlikely to be predisposed to put faith in the notion of a state that is neutral and in everyone’s service; it is more likely that the eternal struggle to capture the state and deploy it to enforce parochial group interests is going to continue, sustaining authoritarianism into the future.
Halil M. Karaveli is Senior Fellow and Editor of the Turkey Analyst at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.