Haroon Siddiqui

“There is a kind of disfranchisement happening within the party [the Justice and Development Party (AK Party)] that could be good for Turkey. This is a critical junction in Turkish democracy,” wrote Toronto star columnist Haroon Siddiqui, elaborating that the challenge for Turkey’s opposition parties to step up their game has arrived.

Siddiqui, who is an expert on the Middle East and Turkey, speaks about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s leadership and the route that Turkey has taken under the past three terms with Erdoğan as prime minister, while elaborating on Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “Zero Problems with Neighbors” policy, which has not been able to deliver for various reasons. “That was a brilliant policy. It more or less worked. We forget that it worked. It also paid economic dividends for Turkey because the trade with the neighboring countries shot up, and for the first time they went up by a third, which is a huge thing and that is all the more significant because Turkey was getting nowhere with its application for entry into the European Union.”

Today’s Zaman caught up with Siddiqui, the past president of PEN Canada and chair of PEN International’s Writers-in-Exile Network, to look at an ongoing graft probe, Turkey’s foreign policy and what is happening in the political climate now. He envisaged what the future holds for Turkey with Erdoğan as president.

The first two terms of Erdoğan’s government was a great success story with a booming economy, democratic reforms and accession talks with the EU. But with the third term, especially after the Gezi Park protests and the graft probe in December 2013, we’ve been hearing many negative reports about the autocratic governing style of Erdoğan and his party. In your opinion, what are the main reasons of this change of tone?

One can only speculate because one doesn’t quite know why, but we have seen this trend that whereas he is a great politician with a populist touch and so on and so forth, there is a streak of authoritarianism in him — or a streak of great individuality, depending on how you put it. That, [along] with unchecked power, seems to have played up a great deal; what we saw in the first term and second term is nothing compared to what we are seeing in the third term. All principles in democracy… is that power goes to your head if you stay too long in power. That’s one. But secondly, the checks and balances within the party and in Parliament work generally, but here in this case what has generally happened, my understanding is that, there is nobody in the AK Party to stand up to this leader. They owe all of their victories to him. It is unprecedented in a parliament[ary] democracy for a prime minister to have led his party to three majority governments, each one with a bigger percentage of the vote. So, he is like a demigod, and there is nobody in the party of his equal stature to challenge him, and the only one that could have come close to him was [President Abdullah] Gül, but President Gül has been occupying a presidential office. And his own sense of it — and rightly so — is that presidential power and [the] presidential office is above politics, and he should not get involved.

Looking at Turkey’s foreign policy

Current Foreign Minister Davutoğlu has always been the strategic mind behind Turkey’s foreign affairs during the AK Party era. They first started with the “zero problems with neighbours” policy, which has since derailed. What would you say about the foreign policy scorecard of Turkey and the AK Party?

You see, two things. One, the initial policy was the right policy. It was unprecedented when Davutoğlu and Mr. Gül, before him, opened up Turkey to the region and so on. That was a brilliant policy. It more or less worked. We forget that it worked. It also paid economic dividends for Turkey because trade with the neighboring countries shot up, and for the first time they went up by a third, which is a huge thing, and that is all the more significant because Turkey was getting nowhere with its application for entry into the European Union. So the original policy was absolutely correct. In my judgement, in fact it was good for Turkey and paid economic dividends, and Turkey now has a huge presence, even in Africa and elsewhere. That’s one. Two, if the policy has gone wrong, it is not entirely the fault of Turkey because circumstances have changed. I mean, Turkey did not create Bashar al-Assad, Turkey did not create a war in Iraq, Turkey did not create [Nuri Kamal al-Maliki], for example, so it is unfair to blame them completely for it. What we can blame them for is that they have not properly prepared for such eventualities; but who could have predicted those things? That is a counter-argument. The last point is arms and aid going to ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant]. It is not proven that Turkey was instrumental in giving arms and aid to ISIS. America has been going back and forth, back and forth, whether we should arm [opposition forces] in Syria or not. One day, yes, we should arm them; the other day, no, we should not arm them. And now will we do it? We have to do it through Turkey. So, Turkey has been the American ally in the distribution of non-lethal and other aid. What remains to be proven is whether or not Turkey has directly sent arms to [northern Iraq], and it is very doubtful that they sent arms to ISIS. Some of the Turkish, American, Saudi and other arms would have ended up with ISIS, but [it has not been] proven that Turkey sent them to ISIS, and we still don’t know where ISIS got all the arms … Right, so it is unfair to blame Erdoğan. Erdoğan has made many mistakes and so on, but to say that he is responsible for it is unfair. And Turkey has ended up with, what, 1.5 million Syrian refugees? He did not invite them. Then, they would come. It is in the nature of the beast itself. So, originally the mistake was that the West, and certainly the United States, did not want to get involved in Syria. Why did we not want to get involved? Because more people will get killed, but of course, already, more people have been killed. If we go there it might destabilize the region. Well, it’s already destabilized because you did not go there. Right, so all of [the reasons] cited for not being involved in Syria have, in fact, come through because you have not been involved. So in that sense, Davutoğlu and Erdoğan were right in speaking out against Bashar al-Assad in the beginning. Whether or not they, by themselves, could have changed the course of history is a debatable point.

The structure of the Turkish media has changed significantly in the AK Party era. We had a chance to observe this during the municipal elections in March and the recent presidential elections. During these elections, the majority of mainstream Turkish media acted like a propaganda machine for Mr. Erdoğan and his party. There are dozens of well-equipped journalists who lost their jobs only because they don’t support government policies. What do you think about freedom of press in Turkey?

Two things: One, our memory is very short, again, and the organization of security has a very limited memory itself. Media in Turkey is infinitely freer than [it was] 10, 20 years before. We forget the days when media was under the control of the military. You could not use [the term] “Kurdish identity” in the media. [People of Kurdish origin] could not speak their language, and you could not criticize [government] policy. Things have come a long way since then. We need to put everything in context … This government leans heavily on journalists and has leaned heavily on giant corporations and the media. That has been a bad development. But I have news for you. [Rupert Murdoch’s] newspapers are in England, Australia and the United States. Who do you think they support? [Did he] lean heavily on the conservative party or [former Prime Minister Tony Blair] in England? Get real. There are massive problems, but those problems are not exclusive to Turkey. In Canada, try to criticize certain elements and see what happens to you. …The media operate so that, in theory, there is absolute freedom of speech; but in practice, there is no absolute freedom of speech anywhere in the world. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq you did not criticize the government of the United States and [then president George W. Bush] as to why they were doing it. It took five, eight years before people questioned what Bush and the administration had done. What happened to free media? Where was Freedom House? Don’t we [see] an irony here? In the greatest democracy in the world we cannot have an open debate as to why we are in Iraq. So, these are the realities of all democracies, and it is within [ourselves] that we need to [be critical and say] that what has happened is not good. What the prime minister is doing is unacceptable, that more and more journalists have to stand up and more and more journalists need to be heard against the prime minister. The same people who criticize Turkey all the time have not said anything about Saudi Arabia, haven’t said much about Russia. They haven’t said anything about how much freedom of press we have in the United Arab Emirates. How much freedom is in Iran? We need to be fair. We need to contextualize.

A possible division in the party

How do you see the future of the AK Party, with its leader now moving to the Presidency and leaving behind party politics?

If Mr. Erdoğan does what people fear he will do, I suspect there will be division in the party. Because that is the system of internal checks and balances in a democracy; one day you will have an election and the next day the electorate will be outraged. If you are treating the party as if its your own, people in your party would or should rebel. … So there is a kind of disfranchisement happening within the party. And such a division could be good for Turkey. You know? And this is a critical junction in Turkish democracy. Have you moved away from the old model and then come to parliamentary democracy and come to a civilian-run army? We have come to this stage. Will freedom of speech prevail? Will one-man rule turn into a dictatorship? Will the whole system change for the sake of one man? These are questions of democracy. One hopes there is enough strength in the system to affect the [AK Party]. That will be group that will break off from its own party. Of course, Erdoğan is a great leader and great populist. Most importantly, the economy has done well and people keep rewarding him due to the economy. But at some point, these issues will become very important. Why are the opposition parties not able to mobilize and put up a challenge to the “dictatorial prime minister”? They have made this case, but they have not won the day. Either this man is not as bad as he seems or you have been ineffective in persuading people to vote him out.

In December 2013, prosecutors carried out the biggest corruption probe in Turkish history, which resulted in the resignation of four ministers. Mr. Erdoğan, instead of following the regular legal process, labeled this operation a “coup attempt” against his government by the Hizmet movement. Mr. Erdoğan’s government has reassigned close to 40,000 police officers, prosecutors and judges, including those who were involved in the corruption case. His government even blocked access to YouTube and Twitter to prevent people talking about the case. Can you please share your views on this?

When the corruption allegations surfaced and the prime minister made his move, what surprised me is that he did not pay a price for it. He just ran in the election. … What does this say about Turkish people? Now, the parallel with Russia becomes apparent. Certain societies at certain times want a strong leader and they don’t want to see any weakness in that leader. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is the best thing that ever happened, [for such people]. His strength and stability stopped a drift; he models himself on the old Tsars. I think that at the very least, the great majority of Russian people seem to like it. In Pakistan, the same things happen at times. The military comes in and people are grateful that the military has taken over. What does this tell us about Turkish people? Are they yearning for the next [Mustafa] Kemal Atatürk? Or, they want a strong person and they don’t want to see any bad in him. As much as we criticize him, and rightly so … Turks need to ask themselves what they are looking for. If, in fact, the prime minister can shut down a corruption inquiry, can transfer prosecutors and so on, should he pay a price for that? Where are the checks and checks and balances? They come only when the public demands them. I suppose it is a historical evolution from the old days of one strong leader everyone follows because they have a memory of World War I; how one man kept a nation together and we have to follow him. … It is almost bordering on strong, right-wing nationalism. And it emerged out of a democratic period. There are some openings for Turks, some for Christians and some for Alevis. Then he keeps going back. In this presidential election, he attacked Jewish involvement in Gezi Park. He knows Turkish people better than most people do. The issue is with Turkish people. Why they do easily forgive him? Why don’t they react against him? When he strikes a nationalist note, people vote for him. So that’s a more important question that Turks have to answer and start debating at this point. The real debate in Turkey really needs to be: What do Turkish people want? How do they want to see democracy develop at this time? … That really is the next big challenge in Turkey. That’s what journalists and everyone needs to turn their attention to, and start asking some tough questions. What is it in ourselves that is making this possible? I suspect that it is a stage in development and is not caused by anything that Erdoğan has ever done. I get worried by the idolization of him as a democratically elected leader, because I can find problems with my prime minister in Canada, and he is also a parliamentary leader, But he wins with 38 percent [of the vote], but Erdoğan wins 49-50 percent of the vote also in a parliamentary system. We need to ask these profound questions about democratic development [in Turkey] and about the people; what their hopes and dreams are for Turkey as a democracy.

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