Authoritarianization of the Turkish regime under AKP rule

Authoritarianization of the Turkish regime under AKP rule

I borrowed the title of this column from the new book by Prof. Sencer Ayata, a deputy leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and a renowned sociologist. It is, of course, impossible for one column even to summarize the entire process of how Turkish regime has become increasingly authoritarian under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). But we can at least try to briefly elaborate on this infamous transformation. 

One of Ayata’s fundamental points is that the military’s tutelage over democracy has now been replaced by an authoritarian regime with a civilian and popular character. Restrictions on freedom of thought and expression are rising systematically, while people’s freedom to assembly is being suppressed through violence, he says, describing the justice system as a “governmental tool” used to punish dissidents and protect pro-government circles. 

By seizing public offices by establishing its own cadres, the AKP has established a “party state” that will serve its political and economic objectives, Ayata states in the book’s foreword: 

“A political understanding that divides and polarizes society, that creates antagonism within society, and that divides people into camps, has been imposed. An authoritarian regime is being built on antagonistic camps. The economy has been taken under the tyranny of government oligarchs … An expansionist foreign policy aiming to divide neighboring countries on a religious and sectarian basis has become a source of aggression beyond borders and a source of authoritarianism within the country.”  

Heavy damage to checks and balances

The chapter on the rule of law examines the ruling party’s efforts to get rid of checks and balances, and to undermine the principle of the separation of powers. “The AKP government has inflicted heavy damage on the mechanisms of checks and balances, deemed to be the foundation of democracy. The fundamental problem that democracy faces in Turkey is the accumulation of all these powers in the hands of the executive and its leader. Furthermore, the principle of separation of powers is being breached through regulations that empower the executive on judicial matters,” Ayata writes. 

Another field in which the authoritarianism of the AKP can be clearly observed is human rights, according to Ayata. Violations of universally accepted human rights have been widespread throughout the AKP’s rule, particularly on the right to life, personal security, personal freedoms, right to a fair trial, freedom of expression, and the right to freedom of assembly. Ayata draws particular attention to the security forces’ use of disproportionate force during the Gezi protests of June 2013. The Gezi protests actually gave the AKP a good opportunity to engage in self-criticism, as it was its policies that led masses to take to the streets, but “the AKP’s authoritarian mentality and its understanding snubbing human rights manifested itself once again in the face of this historic call … Following these painful incidents, Erdoğan has started being described as dictator by some of the world’s prominent newspapers and magazines.”

Media under pressure 

Obviously, the pressure on the media, the Internet and social media is one of areas where the AKP’s authoritarian mentality is being actively implemented through direct threats. The ongoing debate over daily Cumhuriyet’s recent publishing of video footage showing the transfer of arms into Syria through Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT) is enough to demonstrate this tendency. 

Ayata’s book criticizes the AKP government for trying to desensitize and de-subjectify citizens through monopolization and control of information sources. One of the methods that the AKP has been using is the “ownership strategy,” which has already allowed pro-government businessmen to get the hold of a number of media groups. Although the number of dissident media outlets is declining, the ruling party has continued to put pressure on them in order not to leave any room free for critical opinions. Journalists who criticized Erdoğan have been fired, while some have been subjected to lynch campaigns started directly by Erdoğan, Ayata recalls, describing attempts to intimidate journalists and cartoonists through lawsuits filed by government figures.    

Another important chapter of the book examines how the AKP has established a society of fear and of insecurity through its interventions in people’s cultural and private lives. The AKP’s authoritarian mentality has injected fear into society and removed fundamental values of confidence, solidarity and tolerance that have vital importance for a healthy social life. Declaring every dissident a “traitor,” disseminating political paranoia, and taking steps to profile citizens in order to exert more pressure on them, are just some of ways the AKP has used to increase its control of society. 

Aggressive foreign policy 

The AKP’s interventions on the status of women, the economy, and civil society are also components that contribute to making it an authoritarian regime, Ayata underlines, placing special emphasis on foreign policy. The unpredictable and uncontrollable foreign policy of recent years has brought about an authoritarian and aggressive discourse that has led to Erdoğan’s prejudices and psychological state becoming the main determinant shaping Turkey’s international relations.   

In his conclusion, Ayata draws attention to the fact that the number of opponents of this mentality is growing both inside and outside Turkey, becoming more vocal in their demand for the implementation of democratic norms. “There is a need to be more decisive and creative in order to end an authoritarian regime and to strengthen democracy. It’s important to encourage hope and to conquer the fear of those who are living under a dictatorship. The hope for democracy should always be held,” Ayata writes. 

Overall, this new book perfectly depicts the feelings of many people in Turkey who believe that the June 7 polls mark the last chance for them to keep alive their hopes for democracy.