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One year from Gezi, Turkey’s democracy is comatose

The Turkish government vowed over the weekend to do what is necessary - “from A to Z” - to prevent Gezi protesters from marking the one year anniversary

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

The Turkish government vowed over the weekend to do what is necessary - “from A to Z” - to prevent Gezi protesters from marking the one year anniversary in a country once touted as a model for a Muslim democracy but now famed for images of police brutality, attacks on the media and a dangerously polarized society that epitomizes the melting away of much-vaunted democracy.

The security clampdown on protesters and detention of a journalist while on air are merely symptoms of the country’s rapid slide backward into the 1990s that were characterized with anti-democratic practices of the military regime. The two-day clashes in Turkey illustrated the bitter divisions that have split society along dangerous lines - an indispensable opportunity for Turkey’s bellicose prime minister to exploit ahead of the presidential elections on August 10. Leaders who have nothing to offer to the society in terms of improvement in economy and human development usually exploit tensions and play identity politics to hold on to the throne.

Dirty politics

In the past year since the Gezi protests erupted, with the full backing of all state institutions and public resources, Erdogan whipped up an Islamist jingoism with such dirty tactics that alienated millions of conservative Muslims who were critical of his policies. With his ruthless media that is skilled in smear campaigns and an aggressive and lawless spy agency, anyone who stood up against the prime minister’s growing authoritarianism was subject to intense attacks. Erdogan’s conservative critics, many of whom backed the incumbent government in its bid to remove anti-democratic forces such as limiting the role of military in politics and redesigning the judiciary according to EU standards, now fear he will enshrine a type of regime that will only be different in color from previous despotic systems. With combative speeches before cheering crowds, often resorting to personal attacks against opponents, Erdogan was successful in pushing his electorate to venerate the state and present it as a resource long denied from conservative Muslims.

A significant segment of Turkish society still cannot see how Erdogan is putting Turkey on a precipice

Mahir Zeynalov

Erdogan’s AKP, refined from the debris of past Islamists, initially presented itself as a reformist, progressive and pro-democratic political force. Winning accolades both at home and abroad, AKP and Erdogan gained the trust of millions of conservative people who felt for decades that their rights were denied and freedoms restricted. Erdogan is now abusing this trust.

Petty populist rhetoric

Turkey’s dark past has become an even heavier burden today as Erdogan plays to people’s fears as he tries to burnish his standing as a defender of conservative Muslims and the only one that can save the country from what he calls “global and local interest lobby and dark, evil international circles.” Cocking a snook at the West, Erdogan plans to cement his popularity at home by presenting Turkey as a nation that stands up against world’s global players. Weakened at home and ostracized abroad, the AKP establishment may find branding liberal conservative opposition as “pro-Israel and pro-West” an easy sell on the campaign stump, but the AKP government doesn’t realize that it alienates very forces - the EU and the liberals, both secular and conservatives - that helped it get rid of the military tutelage. Erdogan and his supporters’ accusation that his opponents are “working for Israel” is astonishing, given the fact that Turkey’s export to Israel has risen by 35.4 percent since last year, more than Turkey’s exports to any other Muslim country.

The anti-democratic period that started last summer when Erdogan cracked down hard on Gezi protesters reached its climax before the electoral campaign for local elections in March. Erdogan banned Twitter and YouTube, put the judiciary under the government’s control and purged thousands of members of the police and judiciary as he struggles to contain an embarrassing corruption scandal. His party pushed a deeply anti-democratic bill in Parliament after the March elections that granted wide powers to the spy agency and licensed them to do whatever they want to handcuff dissidents with outrageous impunity. Erdogan is now rolling up his sleeves to become the country’s first elected president that will undoubtedly pound the final nail in the coffin of Turkish democracy.

Economic stability

A significant segment of Turkish society still cannot see how Erdogan is putting Turkey on a precipice. The major reason is his ability to maintain the economic stability that is much-needed for Turks who are hugely indebted after benefiting from a decade of promising prosperity. Pro-Erdogan media undoubtedly also plays a considerable role in covering up his blunders. For a country such as Turkey that has no natural resources and depends on foreign investment, democracy and the rule of law are essential components for its functioning and vibrant economy. Without economic freedom and law, Turkey’s economy is imperiled even more while the economic growth is shifting from emerging markets to advanced economies. And when Turks feel the pinch of the economic pain, they will realize that the regime Erdogan built destroyed the nation’s promising democracy and created a vulnerable business environment. I hope I will be wrong.

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Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish 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.