Erdoğan’s way: scare, divide and rule

It appears that Turkey’s powerful prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his popular Justice and Development Party (AK Party) have set the election campaign on fear and divisions, rather than a conciliatory tone in a very much polarized society. Erdoğan’s people are determined to run a partisan campaign, hoping this will prevent defectors from peeling away from the ranks. In the aftermath of the May-June anti-government rallies as part of the Gezi Park protests, the AK Party was in fact able to gain some points it had lost since the last elections of 2011, when voters were scared off by the violence that erupted amid protests. This was a temporary spike, however, and the AK Party could not hold onto gains when the tension in society was diffused.

That is the primary reason why Erdoğan thinks he needs to invent straw men to attack in a bid to channel voters’ disillusionment with his government. Out of the blue, he comes up with issues that nobody has been discussing in society and in fact no mainstream political party was even proposing. Then he holds these up as if they are real issues that matter to voters. He played around with abortion, coed housing, capital punishment, the interest lobby and private prep schools to steer the national debate away from substantive issues that might damage his rule. Erdoğan is now pinning his hopes for election victory on sharpening divisions with artificially inflated issues.

When Erdoğan was fighting against nosy military generals and overzealous judges and prosecutors, who were sworn to protect state interests against individual rights and liberties, he was getting big support from Turkish people who felt the brunt of this overbearance in their daily lives. This time around, however, he is picking battles with made-up enemies that are not on the radar for Turks. When he touted the idea of an “interest lobby,” a murky and ambiguous term, as being behind the Gezi Park protests, Erdoğan was unsuccessful in creating a solid and formidable enemy to fight with in the eyes of voters.

The AK Party may very well survive a bruising victory in the local elections in March of next year, with Erdoğan’s popularity taking a hit. It may win the next national elections in 2015. However, in the medium term, the AK Party is vulnerable to challengers. First, the public is not buying the artificial issues thrown at them by the AK Party leadership and voters are not afraid of straw men dressed up by Erdoğan as villains to attack. Second, the opposition has smartened up and is no longer taking the bait. When the AK Party pushed the headscarf issue for women deputies in Parliament with the hope of scoring some points from the escalation of the crisis, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) balked at the idea of mounting a fierce opposition to that change. The same tactic also paid off for the CHP when it did not endorse the controversial coed housing for students. The governing party felt like it had the rug pulled from underneath when it was stripped of the ability to play with controversial issues.

Moreover, Erdoğan’s strategy of consolidating its own troops with deepening divisions seems to have backfired. Rather, the troops on the opposite side of the line seem to be strengthening and solidifying their positions in the face of relentless stigmatizing and marginalizing attacks by the government on various groups. The constant playback of harsh rhetoric by Erdoğan and his men emboldens anti-AK Party groups into digging their heels deeper into trenches. As if adding further fuel to the fire, the governing party has alienated enough groups that supported the government in tough times. This includes liberals, independents, social democrats, moderates and conservative groups that are turned off by increasingly assertive political Islamist ideology on the government agenda.

At the crux of the problem lies the ownership issue with which AK Party does not seem to be comfortable. Erdoğan’s “my way or the highway attitude” in driving the national agenda without actually consulting all the stakeholders on a given issue has unnecessarily increased tension in Turkish society. When the government proposed some legal amendments to improve press freedom as part of judicial reform packages, we, as media professionals who are on the frontline, were not even consulted in Turkey. Instead, the government came up with its own version and rushed it through Parliament, keeping the sword hanging over our heads. The result is that press freedom woes still linger in Turkey.

On the fast-tracked education bill that was adopted in March, the government did not ask for input from the teachers’ union, professional organizations, academia or parent-teacher groups. The law, popularly known as the “4+4+4” education law, included some good changes. Yet the hastily arranged reform caught the education system unprepared with a lack of teachers and facilities, while leaving parents bewildered on what to do. Hence, the reform received much criticism from everybody just as was the case for many ensuing changes in the education system the government abruptly announced at the last minute.

To suppress public debate on important issues, the government often resorted to back-door politics to circumvent established rules in holding a wider discussion in Parliament and the media. Draft bills, usually prepared by the relevant ministries with input from stakeholders, have been penned in the Prime Ministry’s Office with a small cadre of advisors and dropped on the Parliament floor with a last-minute motion. Therefore, no discussion was held in parliamentary commissions. Even Cabinet members whose portfolios were impacted were kept out of the loop. For example, in July of last year, the government rushed an amendment through a motion on the floor to abolish specially authorized courts that were dealing with crimes against constitutional order, organized crime, terror and drug trafficking. The Justice Ministry was not even aware of the motion, even though it had to deal with the ramifications of the amendment.

In April, the AK Party resorted to another bypass to amend the law on the Court of Accounts in order to significantly trim the court’s powers to audit and review government expenditures. Instead of sending the draft through a government-sponsored bill, the AK Party asked some deputies to co-sponsor the bill and submit the draft to Parliament. The draft will revise the 2010 law on the Court of Accounts, which was hailed as a breakthrough by the EU on improving transparency and accountability in government spending. The draft comes after the AK Party’s botched attempt to change the law by burying an amendment in an omnibus law that was appended at the last minute on the floor in the summer of 2012. Thankfully, the change was later cancelled by the Constitutional Court on an appeal by the opposition.

In June of this year, the Taraf daily reported that the government was secretly preparing a draft bill to give overarching and broad powers to Turkey’s intelligence agency. The draft, obtained by the newspaper, indicated that the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) can prey on the privacy of Turkish citizens by profiling and collecting a massive amount of data while obtaining sweeping powers to conduct domestic operations and psychological warfare, and arrest people without a judge’s order. The draft came a year later when the Turkish government pushed an amendment through Parliament in February 2012 to require prosecutors to receive special permission from the prime minister when taking legal action against or questioning intelligence officials.

The last straw by Erdoğan came this week when a draft version of a law seeking the closure of all kinds of privately established prep schools (dershanes) leaked to the media. The bill is so drastic that even private tutoring for kids at homes by parents is banned. The intrusive move is seen as a huge blow to free enterprise and the right to education, prompting concerns that the closure of these schools will block upward mobility in Turkish society. Many saw this as Erdoğan’s attempt to pressure the Gülen movement, which runs one-third of prep schools, into silencing criticism of the government on the eve of elections. The movement is critical of the government on corruption, weakened transparency and accountability, loss of enthusiasm for the EU process, lack of bold democratic reforms to address the country’s chronic woes, including the Alevi and Kurdish problems. The banning of prep schools curtails the free market credentials of the AK Party government while potentially scaring international investors into shying away from the Turkish market.

All in all, Erdoğan’s new way of ruling Turkey has dealt a big blow to his credibility as well as to the trustworthiness of the AK Party’s election program, which promised better accountability, increased transparency and better protection of privacy in government while boosting the free market economy and limiting the role of government. It will be difficult to convince voters on new pledges in the next election when the AK Party has already reneged on past promises.

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