Freedom House, the democracy watchdog, earlier this year downgraded the Turkish press from being “partly free” to “not free.” Now it may have to create a new category: “not free at all.”
On Sunday, Dec. 14, Turkish police raided the headquarters of Zaman, the country’s most widely circulated daily, and a major television station, taking into custody at least 24 people, including the paper’s editor-in-chief and the station’s director. (The editor has since been released.) They were detained on suspicions of “establishing a terrorist group.” But the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said the raids smacked “of political vengeance.”
A decade ago Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Turkey’s prime minister, was the most likely candidate to lead the Islamic world. He had managed to keep Turkey out of the 2003 Iraq War, was grooming it for membership in the European Union, and was getting on with economic reform. Ordinary Turks were feeling prosperous, proud and hopeful. So why is the Turkish government now going off the rails when it has been perfectly popular doing the right things?
Today Mr. Erdogan is the president, and his style is in-your-face confrontational. He is revered by enough people to get his party re-elected, but many others loathe him (remember the protests in Gezi Park?), and some of his eccentricities have made him a favorite of headline writers. Like a potentate of some Sacha Baron Cohen parody, he has had a presidential palace with over a thousand rooms built for himself. No one knows how much it cost: The government agency responsible for the construction says the sum is a state secret because its disclosure would damage the economy.
The joke only goes so far. No one was chuckling during the police raids on Zaman and Samanyolu television that Sunday. Like Zaman, Samanyolu is affiliated with the self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose followers have founded a network of schools, businesses and media companies. The case revolves around the allegation that the Gulen movement may have tried to discredit a small, rival religious group called Tahsiyeciler (“Annotators”), by portraying it as having links to Islamic radicals — including in a political thriller series broadcast by Samanyolu. (The show’s producer, director and scriptwriter were also taken into custody.)
More likely, the Gulen movement’s real offense was to withdraw its support for the Erdogan government last year. It may have done so in opposition to the government’s attempt to broker a peace deal with rebel Kurdish groups. Or because government corruption was spiraling out of control. In any event, police officers and prosecutors loyal to Mr. Gulen are believed to have been behind a series of raids last year against senior police officers, the sons of ministers and the head of a state-owned bank, in which huge amounts of cash were seized.
Many of those police officers and prosecutors have since been purged. And the government now seems determined to rule by fiat. New legislation allows the police to search premises and detain people on grounds of “reasonable suspicion” rather than concrete evidence. The authorities are clamping down on dissent, including on social media, which Mr. Erdogan once described as “the worst menace to society.” Over 50,000 websites have been banned. The government blocked access to YouTube and Twitter in the run-up to local elections in March, until the Constitutional Court ruled that this violated freedom of expression and individual rights.
The government remains popular enough. In nationwide local elections last March, the ruling Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., scored at least 43 percent overall, compared with 26 to 28 percent for its closest rival. In August, Mr. Erdogan won the presidential election in the first round. The A.K.P. is expected to do well in the general election scheduled to take place by June 2015. Apparently, many voters accept Mr. Erdogan’s line that the Gulenists are not fighting corruption but rather trying to stage a coup d’état, or at least undermine his government.
But Mr. Erdogan is playing rough with his opponents at home at the cost of Turkey’s reputation abroad. His ambitions to project power in the Islamic world have already been thwarted: He had banked that Mohamed Morsi would retain power in Egypt, and before Syria erupted in civil war he had pinned his hopes on coming to an understanding with President Bashar al-Assad. Now the Turkish government risks being ostracized in Brussels as well. The European Commission declared that the wave of arrests on Dec. 14 was contrary to “the European values and standards Turkey aspires to be part of,” and some are calling for the European Union to suspend entirely the already stalled negotiations over Turkey’s membership.
Mr. Erdogan promised his followers a “New Turkey,” unfettered by the narrow ideology of the old. But he doesn’t seem to believe his own rhetoric. When he first came to power in 2003, Turkey had just been devastated by an economic crisis and an old political machine powered by nepotism, favors and spoils that had run out of fuel.
After vowing to do politics differently, Mr. Erdogan has brought Turkey back to its former ways. He woos voters with better transportation and health care, and he woos the close supporters who bankroll him with lucrative deals.
As long as the economy expands, the wheels continue to turn. It’s just that the next decade presents challenges much more complex than the last. Under A.K.P. rule, average per capita income rose from about $3,500 in 2002 to about $11,000, but that figure has been largely static for several years. To get to the next level, Turkey needs wholesale reform; it needs to reward not just party loyalty but initiative and innovation. And it can’t do that by banning Twitter and raiding newspapers.
Andrew Finkel, an Istanbul-based journalist, is a founder of P24, a civil society organization that supports press independence in Turkey.