On the Eve of Elections, Turkey Looks into the Abyss | Freedom House

On the Eve of Elections, Turkey Looks into the Abyss

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During the last three months, and especially the last three weeks, Turkey has seen a dangerous increase in political polarization and the intentional deepening of long-standing national divisions. The immediate cause is the crucial set of local elections to be held across the country on March 30.

With two of Turkey’s most important political positions—the mayoralties of Ankara and Istanbul—up for grabs, the elections are being seen as a referendum on the 11-year rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). The corruption scandal that began last December with the arrest of prominent businessmen and the sons of several ministers has metamorphosed into a cascade of leaks revealing senior officials’ most sensitive conversations. The government’s frantic blocking of Twitter and now YouTube has so far failed to choke off the flow of leaked recordings.

Most disturbingly, in the past three weeks the election campaign has turned bluntly nationalist and sectarian. Authorities’ unexpected release of key figures in the Ergenekon case, including the former head of the armed forces and prominent Turkish nationalists, was widely understood as an attempt by the AKP to curry Turkish nationalist support. That the party had proudly crowed over the convictions of these same people in September seemed to confirm the most cynical interpretation of the trials as a purely political enterprise. And after the death of 14-year-old Berkin Elvan, an Alevi who was struck in the head with a tear-gas canister during the Gezi Park protests of mid-2013, Erdoğan issued no condolences. But when a young Sunni man was killed the day after Elvan’s funeral, the prime minister accused a radical leftist group with Alevi ties of killing him, and taunted the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) for not defending its own.

Meanwhile, whoever is behind the bottomless well of leaks has begun fomenting similar divisions. Recent days have brought leaks of conversations in which imprisoned Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Öcalan allegedly brags about his leverage over the government. The leakers are trying to push the nationalists and the government apart, encouraging the former to reject the AKP for making too many concessions to the Kurdish movement. The leak that led to the blocking of YouTube was allegedly of top-level officials—among them the foreign minister and the head of intelligence—discussing whether and how to create a pretext for military intervention in northern Syria. The recording has stoked the worst fears of a public that is vehemently opposed to the government’s support for Sunni militants fighting in Syria.

For Turkish citizens of a certain age, these events are all too reminiscent of the 1970s, when political youth groups from the left and the right (supported by the United States) fought street battles that left thousands dead and provided the pretext for the 1980 military coup. Others, especially among the Kurdish population, will recall the dirty war of the 1990s, in which tens of thousands of people were killed, primarily in the country’s southeast. There are moments, such as the funeral this month of Berkin Elvan, when the country seems to be looking into such an abyss. Opposition and protest organizers have since made efforts to avoid “provocations,” but it is not clear how long patience will hold.

Unfortunately, the local elections may not reduce the tension. No one is sure what the results will be in the key mayoral races. Even if the AKP were to lose Istanbul and Ankara, it would still control the presidency and the parliament, which in Turkey’s highly centralized system gives it a strong grip on the most important levers of power. The security of the ballots against fraud has been a regular point of discussion on nightly news shows, and allegations of fraud after the elections could lead to angry street protests.

Amid these tensions, human rights reforms and democratization gains of recent years have been reversed. The government rushed through a law overturning its own recent reforms to protect the judiciary’s independence. It has also reassigned or fired thousands of prosecutors and police officers. The blocks on YouTube and Twitter show that the amendments to the internet law passed in January are as odious as critics like Freedom House had warned. The arduous reform path toward the European Union now seems impossible under the current government. The damage done in recent months will take years to repair.

Nate Schenkkan is a co-author of Freedom House's February 2014 special report Turkey’s Democracy in Crisis: Media, Corruption, and Power.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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