There exist various methods of asserting control over a state. In Turkey, it involves what I call “zombification”. Ahval’s Yavuz Baydar in 2018 wrote an article whose headline was “Turning Turkey into a ‘zombie’ nation of undesirables”. Reading the title, I was struck by how accurate the use of the word “zombie” was to describe the state of Turkey’s institutions. Unlike many other countries in Eastern Europe or the Middle East, Turkey is not lapsing back into a recently unconsolidated dictatorship; it has a history of independent civil society. However, recently their independence has been called into question after many years of harassment by the ruling party, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP.
While AKP’s victory in the 2002 elections was seen as a victory for democracy in Turkey, Erdoğan took advantage of his massive electoral mandate to consolidate his power. First slowly, then very quickly. After the military posted a memorandum that essentially condemned the AKP in 2007, Erdoğan started his consolidation of power by purging the military of many of its top generals and admirals. From 2008 to about 2013 a civilian purge of the military establishment took place in the form of the Ergenekon trials. As the trials went on, institutions outside of the military establishment such as civil society and NGOs found themselves accused of being part of a grand conspiracy against the nation. Once the military was sufficiently defanged to Erdoğan’s liking, even more focus was put on consolidating civil society into his fold. Turkey watcher Yunus Sözen predicted that this breakdown of checks and balances would eventually result in a competitive authoritarian political system. Sözen was right, starting in 2008 Turkish civil society has gone down a deep and dark tailspin due to intimidation, government pressure on independent media, and acquisition of NGOs and companies. In a piece from 2016, Esen and Gümüşçü both assert that Turkey is currently a competitive authoritarian regime; I believe that these zombie institutions help reinforce this new arrangement.
It is the previously independent institutions that capitulate to the government that are the subject of this blog post, and I assert that upon the doom of their independence they transform into a hollow shell of their former selves. These institutions that succumb to the AKP become “zombified” and turn into what I call “zombie institutions”. Understanding the zombification of these institutions is key to understanding how Erdoğan’s authoritarianism operates: If the AKP kept up their commitment to the rules of democracy, it would have been forced to go into the opposition a decade ago. The AKP has been able to remain in the government by eroding the independence of institutions like the media through a barely majoritarian popular mandate, which has allowed the electoral playing field to increasingly favor the party over the years. Institutions become zombified, and the more zombie institutions that exist the more pressure these zombies can exert on still free institutions to join them.
From Sabah to Akşam, from Hürriyet to Milliyet, many widely circulated newspapers who dared to criticize the government have been taken control of by AKP-friendly businessmen. Turkey’s media used to be mostly owned by many large corporate conglomerates. For example, one of the largest holdings was Doğan Holding A.Ş which owned approximately 50% of Turkey’s media. Most of Doğan Holding’s media coverage was secular, nationalist, and liberal, in clear opposition to the AKP’s conservative and Islamic values. After some tension brewed up between the AKP and the groups owner and namesake Aydın Doğan, in 2009 Doğan was fined $2.5 billion for tax evasion, which was almost more than the company was worth in value. From there, the Doğan Media Group disintegrated. Some newspapers like Vatan simply stop printing, while most of Doğan Media Group’s portfolio would end up being sold to businessmen close to Erdoğan and the AKP. Doğan Media Group officially came to an end in 2018, when Demirören Group A.Ş, a conglomerate owned by the family of the same name that is close to Erdoğan, purchased the rest of their assets.
Sabah still prints. Though it was once known as the New York Times of Turkey, has since become a zombie. Its articles are not very impressive; they take very pro-government positions and demonize the main opposition party, the CHP. Going on their website, one of the first articles I saw had a polarizing and pro-government headline that translates to “Those infidels who call themselves Turkish are attacking us with the sword”. Sabah used to be an exceptional newspaper, but after its acquisition by a company owned by Erdoğan’s son-in-law, all evidence that it used to be a credible and respectable newspaper has disappeared; it now simply reiterates right-wing talking points from the government. Sabah is still allowed to exist and print, but at the cost of being a zombie of the government.
The AKP’s current zombification project is Boğaziçi University. What used to be an internationally renowned university known as the “Harvard of Turkey” suddenly had their rector replaced by an executive order. This authority was not used by the office of the Presidency since the dark days of the 1980 coup. The new rector, Melih Bulu, never taught at Boğaziçi, and it was later found out that he plagiarized his graduate thesis. Therefore it would appear his only qualification as rector is his proximity to the ruling party, which he was an early member of. Resistance came in the form of daily protests by both students and faculty. The government and Bulu cracked down with a heavy hand. By February demonstrations in front of the rector’s on-campus residence were declared forbidden. On the night of February 1 university students woke up to be arrested by the police. Trolls and zombie media lashed out, equating protestors, LGBT+, academics, as terrorists. Two new faculties, the Faculty of Law and Faculty of Communications were suddenly created without consulting the rest of Boğaziçi University’s senate or executive-board. There is zero rapport between Bulu and the rest of the university’s faculty, so it can be assumed that these new faculties will be a base to gradually usurp the university’s incumbent anti-AKP faculty with pro-AKP faculty.
Boğaziçi will still exist, and the university can expect not to be suddenly shut down like an institution like Istanbul Şehir University. Even though Bulu is supposed to be an independent rector for the university, he will be a reliable instrument in the AKP’s mission to zombify Boğaziçi University. Therefore Boğaziçi, like other universities that suffered its same fate, can also expect its quality of education and reputation to plummet, just because the university was a shining beacon of social liberalism and academic independence in the face of the AKP’s illiberal rule.
The atmosphere of independent civil society in Turkey is very uncomfortable. After the failed 2016 coup, censorship and repression of media has been enforced on a never before seen level through abuse of a state of emergency which gets renewed every three months. Opponents and critics of the regime will be harassed and called terrorist or traitor by troll armies and zombie media. Alternatively, abuse of a law deeming it illegal to insult the president is also used to put opponents in jail. All of these measures suffocates civil society and opposition. Therefore, one important goal for the post AKP government will be to find a way to restore civil society by resuscitating these zombies to their old glory. For now though, the result of this hostile environment against independent media has endowed Turkey with the statistic that puts it second to China for the number of journalists sitting behind bars.
- Baydar, Yavuz. “Turning Turkey into a ‘Zombie’ Nation of Undesirables:” Ahval, 12 Nov. 2018, ahvalnews.com/turkey-democracy/turning-turkey-zombie-nation-undesirables. Inspiration of this blog post, AKP rule is degenerating Turkish society.
- Sönmez, Mustafa. “How Turkey’s ‘Zombie’ Companies Keep Afloat.” Al Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East, 25 Sept. 2020, www.al-monitor.com/originals/2020/09/turkey-how-zombie-companies-close-to-erdogan-keep-afloat.html. Also inspired this blog post, many Turkish companies close to Erdogan and the AKP should in practice be unprofitable and bankrupt, but are only kept afloat due to preferential treatment by the government. Because of this, these companies operate very much less than efficiently.
- Sözen, Yunus. “Turkey Between Tutelary Democracy and Electoral Authoritarianism.” Politicsmatter, 2008, yunussozen.blogspot.com/2010/04/turkey-between-tutelary-democracy-and.html. Sözen’s accurate prediction that the 2007-8 political crisis would result in a competitive authoritarian system through zombification of military and government institutions.
- Esen, Berk, and Sebnem Gumuscu. “Rising Competitive Authoritarianism in Turkey.” Third World Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 9, 2016, pp. 1581–1606., doi:10.1080/01436597.2015.1135732. Details on the zombification of Doğan Medya and other degeneration of media institutions and their contributions to the AKP’s benefit in the polls. (9)
- Çaǧaptay Soner. The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey. I.B. Tauris, 2020. Great introductory reading for Turkey’s modern political crisis and authoritarianism
- “Demirören Group.” Media Ownership Monitor, Lime Flavour, Berlin, turkey.mom-rsf.org/en/owners/companies/detail/company/company/show/demiroeren-group/. Very succinct profile of the Demirören conglomerate
- Yaman, Zeynel. “Türkiye Kimliğine Sahip Olanlar Gavurun Kılıcıyla Bize Saldırıyor.” Sabah, 12 Apr. 2021, www.sabah.com.tr/gundem/2021/04/12/turkiye-kimligine-sahip-olanlar-gavurun-kiliciyla-bize-saldiriyor. Inflamatory Sabah article
- “2 NEW FACULTIES BY DECREE: Open Letter to President from Boğaziçi University Students.” Bianet, 6 Feb. 2021, bianet.org/english/education/238843-open-letter-to-president-from-bogazici-university-students. Bianet article going into Boğaziçi University’s open letter to the president
- “Boğaziçi Academics Appeal against Presidential Decision Opening Two New Faculties.” Bianet, 29 Mar. 2021, bianet.org/english/law/241500-bogazici-academics-appeal-against-presidential-decision-opening-two-new-faculties. Bulu did not consult with Boğaziçi University’s senate or E-board
- “Boğaziçi Üniversitesi Protestolarında Neler Yaşandı?” BBC News Türkçe, BBC, 1 Feb. 2021, www.bbc.com/turkce/haberler-turkiye-55883135. Information on arrests at Boğaziçi University
- Tar, Yıldız. “Melih Bulu Shut off the Boğaziçi LGBTI+ Studies Club!” Kaos GL – LGBTİ+ Haber Portalı, 2 Feb. 2021, kaosgl.org/en/single-news/melih-bulu-shut-off-the-bogazici-lgbti-studies-club. Great source that explains the background of the Boğaziçi University protests
- Davidson, Helen. “China Worst Offender in Record-Breaking Year for Jailing of Journalists.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 15 Dec. 2020, www.theguardian.com/media/2020/dec/15/china-jails-the-most-journalists-for-second-year-running. Source on journalist arrests statistic
- Kosebalaban, Hasan. “The Turkish Government Closed a University Because It Fears Free Speech.” Foreign Policy, 10 July 2020, foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/10/the-turkish-government-closed-a-university-because-it-fears-free-speech/. Article on the closing of Istanbul Şehir University