Turkish Democracy Crumbles as World Cheers 'Democratization'

Like a headlong charge in some medieval battle, Turkish soccer fans rushed at police barricades along an Istanbul expressway on July 10. The police immediately fired tear gas to disperse the crowd of more than 100,000 people who had gathered to demonstrate against the detainment of Aziz Yıldırım, president of their popular soccer club Fenerbahce, the 2010-11 Turkish champions.

To rub in the arrest, it was announced soon thereafter that Yıldırım would be jailed indefinitely as he faced trial for alleged match-fixing. The main accusation against him is “setting up an armed organized crime ring for profit,” which seems rather flimsy. Enraged fans then continued their protest outside the courthouse where Yildirim is being held.

Like something out of a Soviet bloc country rather than Turkey’s traditional democracy, the government and its supporters spoke of “an Ergenekon of soccer,” a comparison to the trumped-up case in which many hundreds have been arrested and imprisoned without trial for three years. They were charged with allegedly planning a coup. Their actual “crime” seems opposition to the current government.

One reporter for the pro-government and Islamist Today’s Zaman newspaper, Huseyin Gulerce, spoke about networks of “coupmakers” and subversive elements in soccer that would now be brought to heel. “Today, the civilian authority is calling the shots” and its enemies “are doomed to lose.” The timing of the soccer struggle coincides with the resignation of the four top military officers, another case of the government asserting itself over a key institution.

When Turkish voters approved the September 12, 2010 referendum on 26 items of constitutional change, the United States and EU hailed the results as proving “the vibrancy of Turkey’s democracy” and “a step in the right direction.”

Yet the referendum clearly violated the EU Venice Commission’s own Code of Good Practice on Referendums, which states (page 12), “There must be an intrinsic connection between the various parts of each question put to the vote, in order to guarantee the free suffrage of the voter.”  Some popular reforms were blended with other changes giving the regime more power. Many voters supported the plan because of the former provisions while disliking the latter ones.

The international cheering for “democratization” goes on while generals, civic leaders, writers, and journalists have been imprisoned since the government’s July 2007 landslide election victory convinced it that it no longer needed to be cautious in asserting its hegemony. Not a single person has yet been convicted. One of the first jailed, writer Ergun Poyraz, marked his fourth anniversary in prison on July 27. Eight newly elected members of the parliament are still in jail, too.

The referendum gave Prime Minister Erdogan the ability to pick members of the high court and in some cases parliament, thus subordinating all three branches of government to himself. Thus the ultimate irony: Erdogan was granted dictatorial powers in the name of democratization. In addition, the Turkish police force, YÖK (Higher Education Board), Diyanet (Presidency of Religious Affairs), and the Turkish Central Bank among numerous other institutions are now controlled by the governing party, its cronies, and supporters.