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High Stakes in Erdoğan’s Turkey

By Oset Babur

Throughout 2015, Turkey has been no stranger to the news spotlight. The country saw not one but two national elections, a tragic bombing that claimed the lives of more than 100 in the capital city, and a G-20 summit that was overrun by cats. The star? Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s 14th president and former prime minister. His complex personality and impact on Turkey’s development have become favorite discussion topics for the media, forcing the following questions: Is he a menace to Turkey’s secular democracy? Or, perhaps, a necessary stabilizer given the political and economic turmoil that plagued Turkey between June and November? Does this stability come at the cost of the fundamental rights and values that were once the cornerstone of the Turkish state?

The greatest blemishes on Erdoğan’s public image come from his government’s increase in crackdowns on press, academic, and personal freedoms. In Hürriyet Daily News, the liberal Turkish paper Hürriyet’s English-language syndicate, journalist Mehmet Yılmaz describes a scene in which a university professor had her home and person searched upon reports that she was teaching terrorist propaganda in the classroom while discussing human rights issues as they relate to Kurdish minorities. Just recently, Iraqi-Kurdish VICE journalist Mohammad Rasoul was finally released from a maximum security prison after being detained for over four months. He will face trial in Turkey on charges of working with a terrorist organization (though if the Turkish government is referring to VICE as a terrorist organization, the publication will probably take this criticism in stride). Meanwhile, liberal outlet Cumhuriyet covered the illegitimacy of Rasoul’s purported affiliation with the Islamic State or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) by underscoring the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) history of detaining Western journalists on similar grounds.   

With threats to the integrity of the press at an all-time high in Turkey, it’s no surprise that major newspapers have been pitted against one another. Cumhuriyet, which received the Reporters Without Borders 2015 Freedom of the Press prize, exposed government gaffes such as the AKP’s official website deleting Erdoğan’s comments comparing modern Turkey to Hitler’s Germany, and berated the president for his blatantly fascist regime. In response, the pro-AKP newspaper Sabah ran a piece reporting on Cumhuriyet’s history of supporting fascist governments, including Hitler’s. And of course, few can forget CNN Türk’s choice to air a documentary depicting penguins instead of the Occupy Gezi protests that set Istanbul’s Taksim Square ablaze in the summer of 2013. Similarly, Doğuş Holding’s privately-owned news channel NTV both failed to cover the Gezi protests and chose not to air the BBC program “World Agenda” in order to avoid giving protestors air time, leading to a suspension of BBC and NTV’s news partnership. NTV and CNN Türk were widely referred to as “satılık medya,” or “for sale media,” and had their newsstands and cars tagged with the popular slogan. So, how was Erdoğan, whose country came 149th out of 180 countries ranked by Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom index, able to claim that his country’s media is the freest in the world? How did his party win 49 percent of the popular vote in the November 2015 elections?

It’s easy to characterize the president as an economic stabilizer for his country, which has enjoyed annual growth rates of nearly 5 percent under AKP rule and is free of the chronic inflation rates that soared above 100 percent just a few decades ago. In June 2015, when the AKP failed to win a majority in parliamentary elections largely due to the success of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the Turkish economy stumbled spectacularly in the absence of a coalition government (as required by the constitution) to lead the parliament. The 2015 crisis hit its apex when the AKP won a decisive victory on Nov. 1, and the Turkish lira enjoyed the highest advance it had seen in over seven years, followed by a Turkish stock market surge unprecedented since December 2013.

In the months of post-election chaos, leftist Diken lamented the negative developmental repercussions of Erdoğan’s hot-and-cold relationship with the International Monetary Fund, and exposed the impacts of Turkey’s dependency on foreign investments. Diken’s fears are not unfounded: Turkey’s gross external debt is nearly 50 percent of its gross domestic product, and its current account deficit is expected to hover around 5 percent of GDP. It is also extremely sensitive to recent moves by the U.S. Federal Reserve that cap the international cash flow currently funding the Turkish deficit. Essentially, the AKP’s reputation as an economic stabilizer for Turkey relies on the assumption that Turks will welcome the short-term developments without asking about the debt and long-term dependencies that accompany them. So far, the AKP has been successful in this game.

Has Turkey traded economic stability at the cost of political and social freedoms? The answer to this question is almost as complex as an attempt to analyze the merits and pitfalls of such a compromise. Under Erdoğan’s leadership, the Religious Affairs Directorate, or Diyanet, doubled its budget between 2003 and 2013. With over 150,000 employees, the institution has become an invaluable tool for the AKP that recruits voters across even the most remote corners of the country. Many Turks who honor the memory of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk rightfully admonish the contrast between Erdoğan’s rule and Atatürk’s efforts to modernize Turkey. While Atatürk emphasized secular values in government and the schoolhouse, the AKP banned bartending courses at tourism-industry vocational high schools. Likewise, Atatürk’s Turkey gave women fundamental rights in divorce and inheritance; Erdoğan gave a speech lauding women primarily as a symbol of chastity and encouraging them to restrain their laughter in public. Amid the gaffes, both Turkish and international reporters have the difficult task of building an accurate profile of Erdoğan and his impact on Turkey. In today’s Turkish media, it is almost impossible to find a news outlet that remains objective about Erdoğan’s government—but perhaps this says more about the polarizing nature of this regime than it does about journalistic integrity. On the other hand, international sources often lack the valuable firsthand ire shared by sites like Diken, and for this reason alone, we cannot simply tune into BBC to expect the full story. What do we make of the circumstances? The best we can do is stay vigilant and keep as many Internet tabs open as possible when learning about the insidious changes to Turkish society that come with every new subway station.

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Oset Babur is a recent graduate of Wellesley College and has previously served as a researcher at the EastWest Institute, and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

[Photo courtesy of World Economic Forum]

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