What's Afoot in Turkey?  

In mid-2000s, Turkey was becoming fast the darling of the international community. The economy was booming. Turkish democracy seemed more secure, even vibrant, for first time in decades, perhaps ever. After all, a party standing very much against the principles of the meddlesome and the all-powerful Turkish military, the Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronyms, AKP, for Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi), had just catapulted to power, winning 34% of the national vote in the November 2002 elections. The AKP — ‘mildly Islamist’ or with ‘roots in political Islam’ as it is sometimes referred to in foreign media — even withstood much bullying and intimidation from the staunchly secularist military, which threatened a coup with a memorandum on its website in April 2007 as the AKP was gaining control of the presidency. Other parts of the anti-democratic Turkish establishment were also gunning against the AKP; the Constitutional Court, for example, attempted to close the party. But the AKP, and in the process Turkish democracy, survived.

What’s more, a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem appeared on the horizon (the official line was shifting from the denial of the existence of Kurds, viewed simply as ‘mountain Turks’, to allowing Kurdish language broadcasts and publications and even some degree of local autonomy). And Turkey was taking surefooted steps towards accession to the European Union, a process promising to anchor democracy, human rights and civil liberties to European standards.

Then it all capsized. 

To be sure, the love affair of the foreign media with the AKP and its charismatic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, did not end all at once. As late as last year, the favorite Western commentary on Egypt was to suggest that they should emulate Turkey (and perhaps they are!).

The Turkish economy is still growing though more slowly, and the current account deficit has now reached an alarming size, make any sudden stop a real danger (and the bubbly housing market might still turn south).

More importantly, it’s becoming harder for even outsiders not to see the problems in Turkish politics.

A few snippets should give a fairly good sense of how Turkey is fast turning from democratic haven in the Middle East to unblemished authoritarianism.


  • The AKP is still in power and now with a more solid majority than in 2002, but has turned increasingly authoritarian. The Freedom House, a reliable source on civil and political freedoms and democratic rights around the world, has just downgraded Turkey’s record on civil liberties. Turkey is now in the same boat as Liberia, Morocco, Nepal and Venezuela as far as its respect for civil liberties goes.

  • Turkey has surpassed China in the number of jailed journalists according to The Committee to Protect Journalists, which states that Turkey’s press freedom situation has reached a crisis point, and reports that currently 76 journalists are in jail. The Turkish Journalists Union puts it at 98, far exceeding the number of journalists in jail in the paragons of press repression such as China and Iran (but before one gets nostalgic about the good old days, The Committee to Protect Journalists reminds us that even more Turkish journalists were in jail in the 1990s). Beyond jailing journalists (with the brunt falling mostly on Kurdish ones), the government has created an atmosphere of fear among journalists and newspapers, which are now generally quite supportive of the government, particularly after the Doğan newspaper group was cowed into submission with huge tax bills hanging over its head as the sword of Damocles.

  • The Turkish ‘deep state’ is implicated in a wide range of criminal acts, including the murder of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. But the Ergenekon trial, targeted at the Turkish deep state and the Balyoz (‘Sledgehammer’) trial, targeted at the military for alleged coup plots, rather than going after the deep state, appear to have degenerated into a witch hunt against an array of AKP opponents, most likely based on manufactured evidence as argued by Dani Rodrik. (Gareth Jenkins provides the best and most balanced account of the Ergenekon case we have seen.)

  • Unsatisfied with its total control of Turkish academia through the Council of Higher Education — a remnant of the military regime that has long worked to extinguish academic autonomy in Turkish universities and has often clamped down on freedom of thought or even on dress styles and head coverings — the government has taken over the Turkish Academy of Sciences and started selecting and appointing members of this body.

  • Authorities have taken an increasingly intolerant stance against dissent, and not only from those in the Kurdish areas (recently, for example, nine lawyers from a human rights group defending victims of state violence were charged with terrorism). In a particularly vicious incident, members of the band, Grup Yorum, were arrested in a left-wing rally, kept in custody for four days and tortured specifically so as to destroy their ability to play music (the lead singer has had her eardrums ruptured and the violinist has her right arm broken). What’s scarier perhaps is that not many people in Turkey seem to care.

So what’s going on in Turkey? And how did we get here from the rosy days of the last decade? 

The next several posts will investigate the origins of Turkish political and economic institutions and the troubled history of Turkish democracy, where we believe some of the answers lie.

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