Had Turkey’s President Erdogan continued with his most impressive social, economic, judicial, and political reforms that he initiated and implemented during his first years in power, today’s Turkey would have been a great country, respected and prosperous while enjoying tremendous regional and global influence under his leadership.
Instead, Erdogan reversed his remarkable achievements on all domestic and international fronts in pursuit of building an authoritarian regime that could satisfy his unquenchable thirst for ever more power. Erdogan will stop short of nothing to win the upcoming elections in June. He certainly hopes to preside on October 29 over the hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and to be recognized as the new Atatürk (father) of modern Turkey. The Turkish people must deny him that honor because of his continuing horrific human rights violations.
To put in perspective as to why Erdogan does not deserve to preside over the anniversary and should be handedly rejected in the June elections, it is first necessary to provide a brief account of his relentless reign of terror and his unremitting campaign to harass and delegitimize the opposition parties to achieve his sinister objective.
Following the failed coup of July 2016, Erdogan arrested tens of thousands of innocent people, including hundreds of security officials, academics, and military personnel suspected of belonging to the Hizmet (Gülen) Movement and charged them with participating in the coup. He uses Article 301 of the Anti-Terror Act to crack down on dissent and even criminalize criticism of “Turkishness.”
He arrested hundreds of journalists accusing them of spreading anti-government propaganda, shut down scores of TV and radio stations, and imposed restrictions on the use of social media. Nearly 200 journalists have been imprisoned since 2016; currently 40 remain incarcerated in subhuman prisons, which blatantly defies the convention of freedom of press, especially in a NATO member state. Thousands of university graduates are leaving the country in the search for job opportunities and to free themselves from Erdogan’s shackles. Leaving their country behind is causing an alarming brain drain, which is affecting just about every industry.
The Council of Europe and the University of Lausanne reports that Turkey has the largest population of prisoners convicted on charges related to terrorism. As Turkish journalist Uzay Bulut notes, “The report, updated in April 2021, shows that at the time there were a total of 30,524 inmates in COE member states who were sentenced for terrorism; of those, 29,827 were in Turkish prisons” [emphasis added]. As Leo Tolstoy observed in War and Peace, “One need only to admit that public tranquility is in danger and any action finds a justification… All the horrors of the reign of terror were based only on solicitude for public tranquility.” To that end, Erdogan proclaims to be a pious man, but he cynically uses Islam as nothing but an evil political tool to project a divine power to assert his dictatorial whims unchallenged.
The World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) reports that Erdogan conveniently uses Anti-Terrorism Law No. 3713, which was enacted by his AK Party-led, rubber stamp parliament to stifle freedoms and silence the voices of those who defend human rights. The law allows him to label peaceful human rights defenders as ‘terrorist offenders’. OMCT states that “Official data show that in 2020, 6551 people were prosecuted under the anti-terrorism law, while a staggering 208,833 were investigated for ‘membership in an armed organization,’” typically those involved with the Gülen movement.
Erdogan continues his crackdown on his own Kurdish community which represents nearly 20 percent of the population, depriving them of basic human rights. His systematic persecution of the Kurds seems to have no bounds, as he accuses thousands of being supporters of the PKK, which he considers as a terrorist organization and which successive Turkish governments have been fighting for more than 50 years at staggering human and material cost.
He consistently demands that various Balkan and EU states extradite Turkish nationals whom he accuses of being terrorists to stand trial in his corrupted courts, denying them due process and subjecting them to ferocious torture in order to extract confessions for offences they never committed.
He is preventing Finland and Sweden from joining NATO unless Sweden extradites about 130 political refugees, mostly Turkish Kurds, to stand trial in Turkey. Sweden has rejected his demand knowing that once they reach Turkish soil, it will be tantamount to the kiss of death. To be sure, the rule of law in Erdogan’s Turkey has been effectively dismantled.
To improve his chances of being re-elected, Erdogan wants to ensure that the Kurdish political parties are denied representation in the Parliament. He has incarcerated many of the 56 members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and removed its remaining members from the legislative process; he is determined to close the party altogether. In addition, he arrested many members of the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), accusing them of unfounded terrorism-related offenses and illegally replacing them through government-appointed trustees.
Erdogan is asking the Biden administration to issue a statement in support of his policies to help him in his bid for reelection when in fact he is at odds with President Biden on a host of critical issues, including his egregious human rights violations, his refusal to allow Sweden and Finland to join NATO, his purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, his money laundering, and his ceaseless corruption. And in 2019, he tried to block NATO’s plan for the defense of Poland and the Baltic states unless NATO identified the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces as terrorists.
One would think that if he is so desperate to be re-elected come June, he would make significant concessions both domestically and in his relations with the US and the EU. Why not offer amnesty to all political prisoners, free the journalists, stop harassing and jailing leaders of opposition parties, and fully adhere to human rights and the rule of law?
Why not drop his opposition to Sweden’s admission to NATO? Why not rescind his purchase of a second batch of S-400s and decommission those currently in use, which are totally incompatible with NATO’s air defense systems? Finally, why not restore the democratic principles which every member state of NATO is required to uphold?
But then, Erdogan’s obsession with absolute power has blinded him from seeing and feeling the plight of his own people, which only demonstrates his ignorance and shortsightedness. As Jorge Luis Borges aptly observed, “Dictatorships foster oppression, dictatorships foster servitude, dictatorships foster cruelty; more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy.”
A number of years ago, Erdogan’s former prime minister Davutoglu told me that by the year 2023, Turkey will have restored the glory, the global influence, and prestige that the Ottoman Empire enjoyed in its heyday. Needless to say, Davutoglu’s prophecy has not come to pass. To the contrary, today, Turkey’s economy, social and political order, and democracy are in complete disarray; Turkey is far from having “zero problems with neighbors,” and remains estranged from the US and the EU.
If Erdogan manages to be re-elected through cheating and by disenfranchising the opposition parties, he will celebrate the centennial anniversary while presiding over a country in retreat, with a disillusioned and despairing citizenry and diminishing regional and international stature. He will not be the new Atatürk even though he so frantically wants to portray himself as a great reformer leading a constructive and great power on the world stage.
Instead, Erdogan will be remembered with scorn and contempt for having squandered Turkey’s huge potential while degrading the anniversary that could have been Turkey’s greatest celebration in one hundred years.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He taught courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies for over 20 years.