How Democracies Decay

May 4, 2015

4 min read

Burak Bekdil

Turkey’s stealth Islamism and authoritarian practices are no longer stealth.
It is a powerful analogy showing how theoretically “democratic” Turkey is moving in the same direction as Germany’s Weimar Republic did after 1933, in passing unconstitutional legislation.

“That [Turkey] sounds to me like the late Weimar Republic. So I would have no difficulty at all in agreeing that the logics of certain possibilities are being put together in ways that seem very reminiscent to the broader context of right-wing thought in Weimar Republic, especially after 1930.” Thus commented Geoff Eley, a British-born historian whose early work focused on the radical nationalism in Imperial Germany, and, in Italy, fascism.

It is a powerful analogy showing how theoretically “democratic” Turkey is moving in the same direction as Germany’s Weimar Republic did after1933.

Historians often refer to Germany’s federal republic and semi-presidential representative democracy, which in 1919 replaced imperial rule, as the Weimar Republic.

After a period of relatively liberal democracy, President Paul von Hindenburg in 1930 assumed dictatorial emergency powers to back the administrations of three German chancellors, and finally Hitler.

The year 1933 would mark the ascent to power of the Nazi Party; its immediate measures would include unconstitutional legislation. This would be the beginning of the Third Reich.

Turkey’s own 1933 was the year 2011 when then Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan won his third consecutive parliamentary election victory since 2002, with a landslide 49.5% of the national vote. Eley’s Turkish-German analogy is not unfounded.

Shortly before the parliamentary elections in 2011, a prominent opposition deputy visited Sakarya, a province not far from Istanbul. Muharrem Ince, from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), got on a minibus and made a speech to locals for about 15 minutes. Later, Ince would learn that a prosecutor had charged him with “blocking the city traffic by speaking on a minibus and attempting to wear down the government.”

The prosecutor asked parliament to remove Ince’s immunity so that he could stand trial. Ince was probably the first MP in the world accused by the judicial authorities of trying to wear down the government. Later that year, in a speech in parliament, Ince said: “In fact I am not trying to wear down the government. I am trying to topple the government!”

An indictment was later sent to parliament to put Ince on trial for his “offense,” but he has not stood trial, thanks to his parliamentary immunity.

Nearly four years later, Turkey’s stealth Islamism and authoritarian practices are no longer stealth.

Recently, the country’s television and radio regulator, RTUK, fined a private television station 311,000 Turkish liras (nearly $180,000) because a character in one of the soap operas it broadcasts was shown drinking a bottle of beer, with the beer’s logo visible on the screen. RTUK cited competition laws for the fine, but the same competition rules are not applied for products not banned in Islam. Turkish TV stations, fearing heavy fines, usually blur alcoholic beverages if, for example, a scene shows James Bond drinking his favorite pink champagne.

But it is not only about beverages that violate Islamic rules. The Islamist Weimar Republic would ban anything it would deem “inappropriate.” The members of the Turkish rock band, Grup Yorum, a popular leftist and anti-government group, were appalled when they went to a concert hall to prepare for their planned April 12 concert in Istanbul. They had gotten all the necessary permits from the government. But fans were told the concert had been cancelled, so they went to the concert to protest the cancellation. Then the riot police arrived with water cannon trucks to disperse the band members in case they refused to follow orders. They would learn from the police that the permission for their concert had been cancelled on grounds that “at a time when the country goes through a [politically] tense period their concert might cause undesired incidents.”

Not typical of pre-concert scenes in any sane country, on April 12, Istanbul police used water cannons and rubber bullets against Grup Yorum’s fans, and detained several of them. The fans were there to protest the denial of permission for the concert. Several hours before the fans gathered, the police had blocked the roads leading to the square where the band would have performed. The protesters fled into side streets in the area as police pursued them. Police helicopters flew over the area. Such were the scenes from a concert Turkey’s Islamist Weimar rulers did not want take place. It did not.

Istanbul riot police rough up fans of the band Grup Yorum who protested the government’s cancellation of the band’s concert, April 12, 2015. The police stated that permission for the concert was revoked because it could have led to “undesired incidents” in the current “tense period.”

Turkey seems to have no limits in undemocratic absurdity. Last month, the Turkish state-owned broadcaster, TRT, banned the CHP opposition party’s election campaign advertisement “because it directly targets the government.” Opposition MPs angrily accused TRT of “abusing public office.” The state-owned company has so far refused to comment on how a paid election advertisement could be banned in a democracy. CHP’s deputy leader, Bulent Tezcan, said, “By taking the decision not to broadcast the advertisement, TRT has created a new scandal. The main purpose of state-funded television in all democratic countries is fairness of broadcasting.”

Worse days may be ahead of CHP — and any other opposition party. In 2011, a party official was indicted for making propaganda against the government. Today, its TV ad is banned for “directly targeting the government.” By 2019, the opposition party itself may be banned for snatching millions of votes from the government.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Gatestone Institute

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