Erdogan is destroying the Turkish democracy he built

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has thrown Turkey’s hard-won democracy into disarray

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has thrown Turkey’s hard-won democracy into disarray by stoking tensions with his critics amid a corruption scandal. Perilous polarization in the society is only a small fallout of an increasingly deepening political stalemate in a country that was touted as a role model for other Arab nations only few years ago.

Two weeks into a corruption investigation that has grown increasingly politicized with the prime minister’s skilled exploitation of the judicial process before crowds of his supporters, the possibility of a peaceful end to the scandal seems more grim than ever. Against the backdrop of the ongoing drama in this key modern Muslim nation looms the shadow of the anti-democratic tutelage system Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is trying to build.

Erdogan exhibited no flips flops in his strategy to label the corruption probe as a “dirty operation” against his government by a “shady gang within the state.” Since the graft probe has been launched by Turkish prosecutors, Erdogan raised his voice even louder, speaking several times in rallies and slamming those who are carrying out the graft investigation as a “criminal gang.” Erdogan praised Iranian businessman Reza Zerrab, who stands accused of being the ringleader of a shady money-laundering and gold-smuggling gang set up to dodge sanctions against Iran, for his contribution to the Turkish economy while leveling heavy criticisms against prosecutors and police chiefs who carried out the raids.

Attacks on the judiciary

The independent judiciary somewhat represents Erdogan’s success story in his journey toward building the consolidated democracy he has long worked hard for. Endorsing a series of sweeping reforms in the past few years, Erdoğan weakened the military’s influence in the judiciary that catapulted Turkey’s democracy into the future. Today, however, Erdogan is at war with that judiciary. Erdogan’s veneer of stoicism toward independent judiciary showed some new cracks this week as he has started threatening a prosecutor who ordered the carrying out of the second wave of the corruption investigation and blaming Turkey’s top judicial body (HSYK) for making statements in contrary to the constitution. He even said he would prosecute the judicial body if had the authority.

A collapse of political stability in Turkey would be a potentially stinging blow to its vibrant economy, which is already showing signs of initial crisis

Mahir Zeynalov

Erdogan’s attempt to cover up the corruption scandal, among other consequences, put in jeopardy years of painstaking efforts to build a kind of democracy that Turkey longed for many decades. Despite claiming that the government will not intervene in the judiciary during the investigation, subsequent measures to halt the probe showed that Erdogan failed to walk the talk.

In his uphill struggle to deal with the crisis, Erdoğan exhibited many obvious indicators of his mounting impatience with the investigation. Authorities removed more than 500 police officials, appointed two additional prosecutors to supervise the case, took the second round of the graft probe from a prosecutor and refused to cooperate with the judiciary to finalize the investigation.

The government also put tremendous amount of pressure on the press and several journalists were fired during this process. TV channels, even the most neutral ones, refuse to broadcast the important developments in the graft probe. On Friday, for instance, only two critical TV channels broadcast the press conference of the now former Turkish minister who announced his resignation.

Political stability in danger

Political instability in Turkey could have ramifications and alarming implications beyond its borders in a region where a nearly three-year uprising in Syria is rapidly spinning out of control and the Great Arab Turmoil brings more violence than democracy. But instead of bridging deepening political fissures in Turkey, Erdogan's government is inching closer to more dangerous political confrontation with his opponents with an unpredictable trajectory ahead of two key elections next year, local and presidential.

The Turkish government has demonstrated little political strategy in coping with the corruption scandal so far, instead advancing Erdogan’s assails against a “shady gang” in various ways, deepening opposition and provoking instability across the country. In a sign of Erdoğan’s uncompromising stance, authorities continue to remove dozens of police chiefs to prevent a possible operation against other government officials or businessmen that had illegal business with bureaucrats.

A collapse of political stability in Turkey would be a potentially stinging blow to its vibrant economy, which is already showing signs of initial crisis, with Turkish lira falling to historic low against foreign currency and markets plunging.

In the past, most Turkish governments were involved in many types of corruption and bribery. Supporters of the government who believe that Erdogan’s government also took bribes prefer political and economic stability to the rule of law. “So what they were bribed,” they argue, “we have a kind of political stability that has been unseen in decades.”

Erdogan had a golden opportunity to sack ministers involved in the graft probe and vow to cooperate with the judiciary to eradicate those who are part of the corruption ring. Instead, he chose to intervene in judiciary and do whatever it takes to halt the investigation. He is speaking several times every day before a crowd of his supporters, also broadcast live on Turkish TV channels, blaming his opponents to oust his government through anti-democratic ways - a strategy that only feeds dangerous confrontation among the public.

Simply put, he is not only attempting to cover up the corruption scandal, but he is also destroying democracy and rule of law he fought for years to build.


Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.