Sunday 7 April 2019

Money, muscle, media fail Turkey’s ‘Caliph’ Erdogan (Sunday Guardian)

By M D Nalapat

His stifling control over governance has not saved him from electoral disaster. 

After 17 years in power, during which his Justice & Development (AK) Party won every electoral contest it entered, President R.T. Erdogan of Turkey has just witnessed a defeat. That too, of proportions so substantial that it will give confidence to numerous foes of Erdogan and his policies who have long been silent, biding their time till the leader, whose followers consider him the new Caliph, loses enough support. Even cities such as Hatay and Adana, which were long considered as much an AK Party bastion as Amethi and Rae Bareli have been of the Congress Party, have switched to the opposition this time around. Given the heft that mayoral posts carry in the Turkish political system, the loss of Ankara and Istanbul to the Opposition will impact the next Presidential elections, opening the possibility that Erdogan will lose. Which is why attempts are being made by the AK Party, through use of pliant agencies, to try and overturn the popular verdict through tampering, a situation not unknown in India.
In Tamil Nadu’s Sivangaga constituency, for instance, the Electoral Officer decided in 2009 in an opaque fashion to declare P. Chidambaram the winner by around 3,000 votes. As has been the norm in the NDA government, whose score is unimpressive where actual VVIP accountability for financial crimes is concerned, the BJP-led government has shown no interest in investigating why the Sivaganga electoral officer in question took the decision he did during the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. Perhaps this is another case of officials protecting other officials, an outcome that is rampant within the government. Worse, till now the array of legal talent available to Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been unable to convince the courts to not give order upon order to ensure that Chidambaram not be subjected to custodial interrogation. Son Karti, although briefly incarcerated, has been permitted to travel abroad almost at will because the government failed to convince the courts that the 2019 Lok Sabha candidate of the Congress Party from Sivaganga is influential enough and resourceful enough to ensure that records overseas be rendered harmless to the son of an individual whose many admirers claim that he is “100% certain” to be the next Finance Minister of India and “40% certain” to be the next Prime Minister, should the BJP be the loser on 23 May. Opacity is, of course, the preferred option in a governance system that has since 1947 followed with fealty British colonial practices.
To take a recent example, the Attorney General of India argued on 3 April before the nation’s apex court that the application of the Right to Information Act to the proceedings of the Supreme Court collegium (which selects judges) would “destroy judicial independence” and make both the judiciary as well as the government “shy”, whatever that means. Surely the AG has confidence in the integrity of the SC collegium. Given that the collegium functions in a manner optimum to the public interest, it would be to the credit of the apex court should its selection process be made transparent, the way they are in the United States. Those against whom false charges are made have the option to put the record straight in public. Unless such charges be shown to be accurate, there is scant cause for worry that the life of an individual subjected to the scrutiny of the public would be destroyed in the manner suggested by the principal law officer of the Government of India. And if the charges get substantiated, the candidate must be made to step aside from consideration. AG Venugopal needs to look at developments in technology, which are continuously making governance processes transparent that were otherwise cloaked in secrecy. Rather than be overtaken by technology and the rising hunger for information and accountability in the ultimate sovereign, the overwhelmingly youthful people of India, it would be best to accept the inevitable and be at the vanguard of the spread of transparency in the processes of governance, rather than seek to stymie the right of a free people to know how all those with immense power over their lives get chosen.
Returning to Turkey, with each year that he has been in power, Erdogan has sought to increase his powers and shorten the list of those opposing him. The media in Turkey resembles that in Cuba or in Vietnam, as does the judiciary and the election authorities. In effect, the law in Turkey is morphing into what President Erdogan wants it to be, much as the law in Pakistan is what the Chief of Army Staff regards as proper. During the elections just concluded, the stifling control that President Erdogan and his followers have over practically the entire spectrum of the governance mechanism in Turkey has not saved him or the party he leads from an electoral disaster. There are two reasons why. The first is that Erdogan deliberately sought to turn Turkish society away from modernisation by demonising such impulses as “anti-Turkish” (aka pro-Western) and boosting the heavily religious elements (mainly in rural society and in the small towns) as being the “genuine” Turks. This celebration of attitudes and lifestyles that the country has sought to leave behind since the time of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk has alienated Erdogan from much of the professional and student fraternity, although fear of jail is preventing most from openly expressing their disdain for the “Caliph”. The other reason for Erdogan’s fall in popularity is the fact that the Justice & Development Party is delivering neither. The country has become a quasi-religious autocracy (Turkey is the only country besides China that backs Pakistan on the Masood Azhar sanctions issue) that has jailed more journalists than any other country in the world. The judiciary trembles at the very mention of Erdogan’s name, and bends over backwards, forwards and sideways to carry out his wishes. As for development, Turkey has tipped into recession, the currency is in free fall, and unemployment is rising at an accelerating pace. Such facts on the ground have prevented the AK Party’s overwhelming superiority in money, muscle and media from ensuring a victory in the mayoral polls. Should President Erdogan try and gerrymander the results by using the election authorities and the judiciary, he is likely to witness a “Turkish Spring” similar to that just waged in Algiers against the dictator, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The waves of popular support for gaining the freedoms that are commonplace in mature democracies will doom those who seek to run their countries the way Stalin did the USSR. 2019 is not 1929.

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