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Shrouds and Power, or what does the corruption scandal mean for Turkey? (part 1)

A note from the editors of LeftEast: This is the first of a number of articles on Turkey we will be publishing over the next two weeks. With this series, we wish to introduce our readers to the dynamics of the Turkish society beyond the Gezi protests. We will do that through the discussion of topics without which contemporary Turkish politics cannot be understood: the longue duree history of AKP’s neoliberal rule, the ethnic composition of the Turkish working class, and the Kurdish question. Our aim is also to expand our traditional geographical coverage to other peripheral capitalist zones.
On December 22, 2013, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited the Black Sea city of Trabzon, seeking popular support to shore up his legitimacy in the midst of a corruption scandal that would cause four of his ministers to resign.  Waiting for him at the airport was a large group of young men covered in long white shrouds, as if at their own mass funeral.

Was this a protest against the deaths of six peaceful protestors this last summer? Unfortunately not; the men were there to show loyalty to their Prime Minister, even unto the grave.

To be sure, in Turkish politics it is not uncommon for people of various factions to profess willingness to die for a cause.  Yet of all these would-be martyrs the young men in their shrouds stand out; symbolically they are already dead.  Do people behave like this in a democracy?

Maybe not, but what is a democracy?  In liberal parlance the term typically designates both “rule by the people” and a system in which the government itself is subordinate to law.  The implicit conflict between these two meanings rarely breaks out so openly as it might in a country where one faction has succeeded at making “law,” as embodied in juridical institutions, occupy the place, in the national imaginary, of a foreign and elitist occupier.  This is what has happened in Turkey.

It did not happen all at once.  There was the 1960 coup, overthrowing Adnan Menderes, who had not only turned back some of Atatürk’s cultural reforms but also practiced heavy censorship—leaving empty columns in newspapers—and used police power to monitor his opponents.  There were the 1971 and 1980 coups, the latter of which restored order to a conflict-torn country on the frontier of the Cold War, but at the usual price of brutally suppressing oppositional politics and in particular the Left. It also delivered a revised constitution officially sanctioning the role of the military and burdening political parties with a 10% barrier for parliamentary representation.

Last but not least, there was the ineptly labeled “post-modern coup” of 1997, in which the constitutionally appointed Council of State, including both military officers and jurists, expressed disapproval of Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan’s government, after which he resigned.  After a large portion of Erbakan’s camp reconstituted itself as the neoliberal and pro-EU Justice and Development Party (AKP) and won the 2002 election, there were attempts on the part of the opposition to close AKP through the courts on account of the party’s violation of secularism, a principle espoused in the Turkish constitution.  These attempts failed, but secured former opposition leader Deniz Baykal the sarcastic description “sometimes a democrat” in pro-government media and much worse in Erdoğan’s own rhetoric.

History has granted Turkey the perfect environment for a leader who both rails against the “juristocracy” and sees a coup everywhere he looks; who in 2010 manages to pass a referendum effectively curtailing the independence of the judiciary, with the support of “liberals” and intellectuals both at home and abroad; who has a crowd of his political opponents, including officers, journalists, and sitting parliamentarians, tried for coup-plotting by a court created by that referendum, convicted on the basis of overtly fraudulent “evidence” and sentenced to lengthy prison terms…and then, once he’s fallen out with the prosecutors over an attempted investigation of his own government, fires and/or reassigns them to other posts in the midst of the investigation, and pushes for new legislation to prevent similar “abuses of power,” as he sees it, by the judiciary.  Oh, and of course, claims that they’re plotting a coup.

And gets away with it, so far at least.

Many readers will already know that on December 17 of last year, Zekeriya Öz, a prosecutor whose work in the Ergenekon “coup” trial had greatly pleased the Prime Minister, made public an investigation into the sons of three government ministers alleged to have taken millions of dollars in bribes from an Iranian businessman in return for a myriad of favors, including avoidance of prosecution for illegal business activities and Turkish citizenship for five of his associates.

Photographs quickly made the rounds showing money stashed in shoeboxes and stacked on tables in the homes and offices of the cabinet members’ sons, one of whom had somehow come into possession of one of those money-counting machines one finds in banks.  The general to whom Erdoğan entrusted the army once his predecessor went to prison asserted that the machine must have been planted there (so much for the silencing of the military!) and all eyes turned to the comrades of Fethullah Gülen, whose organized presence in state institutions, most believe, is what made the recent investigations and leaks possible—Zekeriya Öz being only one of many members of the judiciary long presumed to be close to Gülen’s movement.

Of course, Gülen was until recently a close ally, sharing Erdoğan’s conservative ideology and his commitment to presenting political Islam as compatible with modernity.  Journalist Ahmet Şık went to prison for a year (2011-2012) amid a failed attempt by the police to confiscate—on prosecutor Öz’s orders!—all copies of a manuscript he was writing detailing the might of the Gülen movement within the police force.  But Gülen had always shown small signs that he and his followers were not to be taken for granted, from publicly disagreeing with Erdoğan over the 2010 Mavi Marmara crisis to a more recent spat over an intelligence agent.  When Erdoğan decided last fall that it was time to tame the Gülen organization by closing the test-preparation schools that generate a good portion of its Turkish revenue, it seems that Fethullah’s men had been collecting some information on their enablers.

Meanwhile, in Hatay on the Syrian border, another inspection crisis was brewing.

Hatay is the homeland of two of the fallen demonstrators of last year and the district where an explosion in May that cost the lives of fifty-four people led to an immediate press curfew, preventing the release of any news not in the government’s favor. Gendarmes stationed on the border leaked documents showing large shipments of explosives entering the country unimpeded shortly before the attack, presumably in connection to the civil war taking place across the border in Syria. While some uncomfirmed reports cite the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levent (ISIL) taking responsibility for the attack, the Erdoğan government has instead preferred to blame the Assad regime or, alternately, the left-wing Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKPC).

This time seven semi-trailer trucks en route to Hatay were stopped for inspection by local gendarmes, very much to the displeasure of the government in Ankara.  One of the trucks successfully inspected was found to be full of weapons and munitions.  These the government said were aid to the Turkmen community in Syria, though a representative of that community denied knowledge of any such aid.  Further trucks passed Hatay uninspected, on government orders.  Once again officials were disciplined and transferred.  On the basis that the trucks and their cargo were the jurisdiction of the intelligence services and not of local officials, AKP party speaker Hüseyin Çelik asserted that prosecutors could demand an inspection only with the Prime Minister’s permission.  As for the would-be investigators, he added, “what’s on those trucks is of no interest” to them, and “they don’t know their place.”

Contrary to the sense you will get from some corners of the liberal media, such bully rhetoric is not new, though the phrase “know your place!” does seem to be more of a staple now then before.  Nor did it come as a surprise that the AKP pulled out all the stops in an attempt to discredit Zekeriya Öz, its former champion, not only orchestrating his removal from the corruption case but also floating receipts from an Öz family vacation that purported to show corruption on the prosecutor’s part.  Was it to prevent misunderstanding that Öz’s Dubai hotel, while issuing the receipt in English, printed only the relevant detail in Turkish?

A bit more unexpected was Erdoğan’s musing, from the podium of an Islamic university in Malaysia where he was accepting an honorary doctorate, that it was “now clear” that some of the defendents in the Balyoz and Ergenekon cases had been falsely convicted.  Who expected this Prime Minister to stand up for those convicted of membership in a clandestine secularist organization seeking to overthrow him?

Their prosectors, who had by now investigated the government as well, had thereby proven themselves the real coup planners in the current environment, he added.  To prevent a judicial coup, he called for a reorganization of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), the body that certifies, assigns, disciplines and removes members of the judiciary.

In the realignment of recent weeks, what remains constant is the coup allegation, now transferred from the military to the justice system.  The threat of a coup—now defined as anything that challenges the people’s mandate by subordinating its government to law—is what legitimizes Erdoğan’s government.

This is how Erdoğan was able to identify the Gezi Park protests with an attempted coup, so that some protestors now face terrorism charges carrying life in prison; it is how he has been able to pass a law criminalizing on-the-spot emergency medical care for the victims of police violence.

Citizens of Turkey are rapidly approaching a point at which any act of political resistance means one forfeits one’s rights, including the right to live, under the rationale that any attempt to bring down an elected government—for instance, by calling for its resignation—constitutes an attack on democratic legitimacy.  Erdoğan’s constant reference to the ballot box as the only legitimate site to call his government into question only underlines just how far the rule of law has eroded.

Erdoğan’s about-face on the imprisoned military officers is significant insofar as it lacks credibility.  It is not plausible that someone who staked so much of his government’s democratic legitimacy on the effort to put alleged coup plotters behind bars should suddenly discover, to his dismay, that some of them were tried unjustly and deserve a retrial.  The change in Erdoğan’s stance toward the judges in the Balyoz and Ergenekon trials is so transparently a response to those judges’ investigation of his own government as to suggest that he is now dispensing with any expectation of consistency.  In a new politics at once cynical and naïve, AKP voters are now expected to identify with Erdoğan directly, bypassing the shared content of policy agreement on which a less charismatic politician might depend for voter support.  To judge from the men in shrouds, this strategy has had some success.

It may be that a portion of the Turkish population actually finds the government’s indifference to law liberating.  But of course one cannot seriously assess Erdoğan’s continuing support without considering the issue that has been his party’s calling card from the beginning: the economy.  That is where I will begin in part two.