During the media storm surrounding Greece's continuing efforts at self-immolation its large neighbor across the Aegean has been getting a relatively free ride from the international press. Apart from a few semi-critical pieces in The Economist and various small items about the Kurds, critical analysis of what is going on in Turkey tends to get buried under the Greek and Syrian avalanche of news.
Part of the reason is that compared to the very, very low standards of the neighbourhood Turkey seems pretty good. When the comparisons are Greece, Bulgaria, Syria, Iraq and Iran you don’t have to do much to be the star of the class.
One banker said the relatively rosy picture of the Turkish economy masks a real vulnerability. “We are extremely vulnerable to external events. We need a steady flow of foreign funds to cover our deficits. We need low global interest rates. The minute these stop is the minute the Turkish economy starts to wobble.”
But the real risk, according to an experienced foreign banker, is political.
“The risk here, as always, is political. We have seen this chain of events often. At the first sign of political problems people rush to the U.S. dollar, the currency collapses, interest rates sky rocket, people stop spending, the ‘feel-good’ factor disappears overnight. We have seen this many, many times,” he said.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 promising an increase in ‘democracy’. What has actually transpired over the last decade is a re-emergence of familiar rigid Turkish autocracy, but with a different cast of characters running the show. Instead of the Kemalist military, bureaucratic and business elite the country is now run by and for the conservative Anatolian-based masses. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has emerged as the undisputed, unchallenged leader of the country, more in line with one of the early Ottoman sultans than any modern democrat.
|Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan|
The few checks and balances that once existed have all but disappeared. The once-powerful military has been humbled, any remaining political opposition has been emasculated, and the rapidly diminishing number of critics silenced. “He can do anything he wants,” said one foreign businessman referring to the prime minister. “This is a democracy in structure, but not in function.”
The press has been one of the major victims of this disturbing trend toward thought control. Never known for its accuracy, the Turkish press was at least lively with several different versions of the same story appearing in different papers. Now, as one friend put it, “the press has been reduced to bread and circuses.” Front pages are dominated by scandal-ridden Turkish football, the inevitable bus accident, crime, or pictures of aging starlets displaying embarrassing amounts of cellulite. In many ways the press now resembles Jack Nicholson’s lobotomized character Randle McMurphy at the end of the great film One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Challenge authority too much and this is what can happen.
|Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest|
Scores of journalists have been jailed or fired for daring to criticize any aspect of the government in general or the prime minister in particular. As Yavuz Baydar points out in a column in Today’s Zaman this timidity does not require overt government censorship. He says the courage of media owners, never that strong in the first place, has completely wilted in the face of potential threats against any of their other business interests. They all remember with horror the very large tax claim against the country’s leading media group. It was a very effective shot across the bow.
This self-censorship does not apply only to papers that once used to challenge Erdoğan. A journalist from a strong government supporter Yeni Şafak was recently fired for veering from the company line over the killing of 34 Kurdish teenagers who were thought to be terrorists. The reality was that they were smuggling goods back and forth between Iraq and Turkey, an activity in that area that goes back at least as far as Xenophon in 401 BC.
A recent column in the English language DailyNews by Semih Idiz points out dangerous trends in the judiciary, politics, social and cultural life as the ruling party tries to impose its narrow views on Turkish life. The government is moving against state-sponsored theatres after the prime minister lashed out against ‘arrogant, alcoholic actors’ who he said insulted his daughter. Erdoğan says he wants a ‘religious generation’ to emerge. A prosecutor recently brought a case against internationally-renowned pianist Fazıl Say for allegedly insulting Islam in a Twitter message.
|State Theater Workers Protesting A Government Crackdown|
In yet another outburst the prime minister compared abortion to the massacre of the Kurdish teenagers at Uludere and said anyone who had an abortion was committing murder. Predictably this has unleashed a wave of protest. But as long as that protest does not reach down into the deep AKP voter base Erdoğan really doesn’t care.
|Turkish Women Defending The Right To Abortion|
One Turkish analyst says two of the major problems facing Turkey are the Kurdish issue and succession within AKP if and when Erdoğan moves up to the presidency.
“The Arab Spring has reached our borders, but our leaders don’t seem anxious to apply the lessons they’re preaching to others. Turkey is such a one-man show right now, that no one can predict what will happen if Erdoğan ever leaves active daily politics for the rarefied atmosphere of the theoretically neutral presidency.”
For the moment the prime minister can afford to ignore any of the voices raised in protest. The Teflon shield surrounding him won't crack until the economy hits the wall or the violence of the Kurdish protests
increases. Then he will need more than simple, loud bombast.