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Twitter ban: Erdogan bringing down democracy in Turkey

Turkey is at risk of descending into violent disarray. EPA/Sedat Suna

In an extraordinary move Turkey has banned Twitter, blocking access to the social networking site that has more than 10m users in the country. The ban has come just hours after the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, addressing an election rally in the western city of Bursa, stated: “We shall root out Twitter, I don’t care what the international community says, everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.”

The ban has been widely seen as a sinister move towards silencing serious corruption allegations surrounding the key members of the government that have been leaked through the social media in recent days. Although the ban has been effective only for a few of hours, the users – including notably the president as well as the deputy prime minister – have been quick to find way of getting round it. Still, the move signals a grave turn of events that have shattered the image of Turkey as a rising star and growing democracy.

The key date in all this is December 17 last year. As a result of a corruption investigation, police detained scores of people, including the sons of three cabinet ministers who subsequently resigned and who are currently facing serious charges along with their sons.

This was a turning point for the AKP (Justice and Development Party) that has been in power since 2002 and has posed the greatest challenge yet to Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the dominant figure in Turkish politics over the past 11 years.

Protests go nationwide

At this point the government, dominant for so long, was already operating in radically changed political landscape in the aftermath of the mass protests last summer. Following the heavy-handed involvement of the security forces, demonstrations against an urban development project in Gezi Park in Istanbul quickly turned into a nationwide protest movement in June 2013.

One major consequence of the Gezi movement – as the protests have come to be known – has been that it marked the collapse of a “fear threshold”. This effectively ended a long period of complete lack of opposition to the government on the part of civil society and particularly in the mainstream media. The initiative shown by mostly young people provided the spark for other segments of the society and a basis on which to build real opposition.

Taking to the Tweets: Erdogan has blocked Twitter. EPA/Tolga Bozoglu

The second effect of the movement directly follows from the way the government and particularly the prime minister chose to respond to the protests. The divisive talk of “us” against “them” that was adopted during the protest and in the aftermath has only deepened the polarisation. So much so that there was no official apology for the deaths of the six young people who lost their lives as a direct result of police force during the protests.

The youngest victim was Berkin Elvan who was 15 when he died last week after spending 269 days in a coma as a result of being hit by a teargas canister in the head on his way to buy bread on the morning of June 16.

Nonetheless, however damaging this polarisation may have been for the society in the long-term, the prime minister has succeeded in consolidating his grassroots support. His followers appear to have bought into the argument that most protesters were traitors who posed a serious threat to the very existence of pious Muslims, the predominant source of AKP’s power base.

Government tainted by sleaze

When set against this background, the corruption scandal with very serious allegations regarding the financial dealings of those closely associated with the prime minister including his family members poses a very different kind challenge for the AKP and for the prime minister, in particular.

This is the first time in the history of Turkey that a prime minister is at the centre of such grave allegations. Second, sleaze and bribery, the subject of the criminal investigation, are against the principles of Islam which has provided much of what the AKP has stood for. The AKP has set “fighting against corruption” as one of its main missions, hence the word Justice in the party’s name. The corruption allegations therefore present an existential threat, not only to the prime minister, but also to the political movement that he represents.

What complicates things further is how the probe had been instigated and conducted. The government defends its position by arguing that the investigation is a coup attempt by officials close to the Hizmet movement that has been acting as a parallel state within the higher echelons of power. The Hizmet (Turkish for “service”) movement is inspired by the Islamic cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in self-imposed exile in the US for the past 15 years and commands a formidable control over a large number of schools, companies and media outlets in 140 countries.

Hizmet has no visible organisation but has millions of devotees, argued to be working for “service to others”. The government line is that the followers of the movement infiltrated the state machinery through the judiciary and the police. It maintains that Hizmet members were active in both the preparation of the corruption case as well as in the arrests and detentions since December 17. The government argues this is an act of revenge for its plan to close a large number of preparatory schools in Turkey – many of which belong to Hizmet.

In what has been seen as a counter attack, the government announced that it now has the evidence that prosecutors close to the Hizmet movement have unlawfully monitored thousands of phones belonging to journalists, business leaders as well as government ministers. For the public this has become an extraordinary reality show: tapes are being leaked almost daily on the internet exposing potentially explosive financial dealings of government members. And the tape wars are set to intensify in the run up to the local elections on March 30.

Democracy under threat

In an effort to regain control of this situation, the government has removed the prosecutors who were in charge of the corruption investigation. A large number of police officers have been either dismissed or displaced and Parliament has passed a substantial amendment to the existing law on High Council of Judges and Prosecutors seriously curbing its powers, handing them instead to the justice minister. There has also been a new internet law giving the government excessive powers in monitoring the digital media.

In the past it has always been military strongmen who have usurped democracy in Turkey – never a democratically elected government. But the latest moves have sparked concerns about losing the separation of powers. When combined with the 10% electoral threshold currently in operation in Turkey, which denies smaller parties representation in favour of the larger parties and especially benefits the AKP, voting a political party in will now effectively mean gaining control over the executive, the legislative as well as the judiciary.

The fallout between the AKP and the Hizmet movement is interesting because the two have worked in harmony for much of the AKP’s reign since 2002 – it’s the first time a pro-Islam party has so openly clashed with an Islamic movement that shares the same power base. An important part of this division has been to open a third front in what is already a very polarised society where the dividing line had been between the AKP supporting conservatives and his opponents.

This struggle within the Islamic movement threatens Turkey’s democratic institutions as well as the very fabric of its society. It would be a shame were all the progress made towards democracy since the violence of the 1970s and 1980s to be lost in this way. The stakes are that high.

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