Turkey continues to slide towards chaos as President Tayyip Erdogan escalates attacks against Kurdish rebels in the southeast of the country and jails citizens who openly object to the violence. In a previous post, I examined the toxic polarization that has fueled his consolidation of power, but other factors clearly contribute to the phenomenon too. This time, I will make the case that President Erdogan has strategically used the very real threat of terrorism to his advantage by leveraging emergency powers to crack down on civil society, opposition leaders, and the media. Many Turks are so afraid of their physical wellbeing that the subversion of democratic norms and due process seem a small price to pay for security.
War in the southeast and the legitimate threat of terrorism
Turkey has been in various stages of war with Kurdish separatists since 1978. When Erdogan first took power, the country was tired of the long and bloody conflict, and the president saw the Kurds as potential allies. He offered new rights and until 2015 the peace process seemed to be progressing. However, once the head of the pro-Kurdish party Selahattin Demirtas came out against his constitutional proposal, all bets were off. Terrorist attacks by the PKK increased in the southeast and Erdogan responded quickly and violently. Thousands have died in the conflict since 2015 and artillery and bulldozers have leveled entire districts while some communities remain under 24-hour curfew. In March of this year, the United Nations human rights office published a report detailing the numerous human rights violations carried out by security forces and failure to investigate alleged unlawful killings.
Despite the government’s all-out war against Kurdish nationalist, terrorist attacks continue. The much-publicized suicide bombings and mass shootings that have wracked the country, and especially Istanbul, have been committed by both the PKK as well as ISIL. People are understandably afraid, and terrorism now tops citizens’ list of concerns, replacing unemployment.
Emergency powers as political weapons
Terrorism is clearly a legitimate concern for Turkish citizens and the government, but Erdogan and his supports have managed to politicize the country’s anti-terror act. The same Selahattin Demirtas whom Erdogan had hoped to establish a coalition with was jailed for terror-related charges this year and faces 142 years in prison. 168 generals have been sacked, the judiciary has lost 4,000 members, and at least 6,300 academics are out of a job or in jail. Just last week, trials began for more than 2,000 people, including many academics, who signed a petition calling for a negotiated solution to the military conflict with Kurdish separatist. Though the document seeks peace and would be common in most western democracies, such activism is not tolerated in Turkey. Those who signed face charges of “making propaganda for a terrorist organisation” under article 7/2 of the Turkish anti-terror act. Many who signed have had passports revoked, and some face prison sentences of up to seven and a half years.
The media has also taken a hit since emergency powers were instituted after last year’s failed coup. Can Dundar who ran the left leaning Cumhuriyet newspaper was arrested on charges of “military espionage” and “helping a terrorist organization” for publishing leaked footage of central intelligence officials carrying weapons to northern Syria. These are not isolated incidents, and suppression of oppositional voices in the name of keeping the peace has become the norm in the last two years. Amnesty International underlined the violations of freedom of speech wrought by the anti-terror law in its annual Human Rights Report, and as if the issue needed more highlighting, the group’s Turkey Chair, Taner Kılıç was later imprisoned.
The boundaries between a terrorist and someone expressing discontent is blurred, as evidenced by Erdogan’s rhetoric. Last year he claimed that there was almost no difference “between a terrorist with a gun and a bomb in his hand and those who use their work and pen to support terror.” This statement is chilling when one considers the severity of such charges and the many activities the government classifies as support for terrorism.
Pippa Norris, of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, examined the relationship between terrorism and democratic erosion in a paper that diagnosed the risks to western democracies. Though she looked specifically at Western Europe and the United States, her findings ring true for Turkey today. “Like tapeworms, fleas, aphids, fungi, and barnacles, a parasite-host relationship links anxieties over random terrorist acts with growing support for populist-authoritarian parties.” We have seen this exact phenomenon play out in Turkey as Erdogan becomes increasingly authoritarian and a frightened populace largely concedes.
Politically, Erdogan’s suppression of Kurds in the southeast and crackdown on opposition voices seems to have worked. His AK party was denied a majority in the June 2015 election but regained it five months later, and the constitutional referendum discussed in my previous post was a resounding success for Erdogan. It seems that at least domestically, the president has successfully leveraged his emergency powers and the anachronistic anti-terror law. He has punished political opponents and silenced the media and civil society. Ironically though, the safety and stability Erdogan promises to supporters becomes ever more tenuous. As his government commits human rights violations and alienated the international community, trade will suffer. Without international cooperation and approval, lackluster economic growth and isolationist tendencies may ultimately increase instability in the country and undermine his leadership. Unfortunately, those most likely to suffer under this outcome will also be ordinary Turkish citizens.
Photo by Middle East Monitor, “Kurdish ‘Terrorists’ Blamed for Bus Bombing Today”, Creative Commons Zero license.”