The European delegations are mostly small in size, composed of four or five diplomats accompanying their head of delegation, be it a president, prime minister or foreign minister. At times, it is quite difficult to tell who is the head of the delegation. On the other hand, the Middle Eastern delegations are much more crowded with many people, apart from the diplomats, looking like they do not even know why they are there. It is instantly distinguishable who the head of the delegation is, because he always walks in front, flanked by his bodyguards and tailed by tens of hangers-on. This mafia-like image is justified by the belief that it shows how powerful both the leader and the country he heads is.
The leaders take advantage of the UN’s General Debate during the week in order to boost their perceived “strong leader” image by making inflammatory speeches from the General Assembly’s podium and frequently posing for the international media hand-in-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder and cheek-to-cheek with other world leaders, especially with the American president. Egypt’s deposed President Hosni Mubarak was one of the darlings of the Western leaders. He was the “go-to” Arab leader for any issue related to the Arab world, Islamic world or Palestine. Even he could not have predicted the situation he is in right now in his wildest nightmares, as he might have thought that he was indispensable to Western interests in the Middle East.
Similarly, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was among those who made the most out of the UN General Assembly. After a long period of isolation, Gaddafi made a speedy return to the international stage. He never had a shoulder-to shoulder picture with the American president, but did with all the others, including European leaders and the UN secretary-general. When he tore apart and threw away the UN Charter at the podium of the General Assembly, Gaddafi, too, could not imagine that only a year or so later Libyans would tear his body apart and throw it away. Interestingly, though, both men took office in their respective countries some decades ago as heroes who people hoped would eradicate injustices and bring about prosperity. Yet, they hung on and on, every time finding a way to justify it.
As for Turkish leaders…
The addiction to power and the failure to predict the future once intoxicated with power and influence is not unique to Arab leaders. Apparently, Turkish leaders have also been suffering from what some would call a mental and emotional disorder. For instance, after a decade of unprecedented political and economic progress from 1950 to 1960, legendary Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes firmly believed that there was no longer a possibility of a military coup and that he could get a piece of wood elected to Parliament if he nominated it because the public loved him so much. He and everyone else tragically realized that he was dead wrong, when months later the military junta hastily tried him on charges of treason on a remote island, and hanged him three times to exact their full revenge. On the other hand, another former prime minister and president, Süleyman Demirel, whose last name literally means “iron hand,” has always prided himself as a so-called leader who left office six times but came back seven times. Demirel has avoided a similarly tragic fate largely because he preferred to cooperate with his military detractors whenever the latter reigned in. Nevertheless, his entire political career has clearly illustrated his addiction to political power, and his inability to let go of it.
Then, one is inclined to ask: While American or European leaders move to their ranches to herd their cows, establish their foundations to do charity work, go back to university to teach or retire to their mansions to write their memoirs once they finish their terms in office or are defeated, why do Arab and Turkish leaders always try to hold on to power, stay in office as long as possible or obtain a higher post? Why do they try to bend the law, at times even laws they legislated, in order to avoid legal scrutiny or to stay in power for longer? Is it because the American and European leaders are better human beings? More specifically, given the precedents in Turkish political history and its current practices, what can be said of the fate of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government in Turkey, and of its leaders, from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the top, down to an ordinary minister, if they cannot let go at the right time? Finally, could it be argued that Prime Minister Erdoğan is also a leader who is not able to let go in the first place?
Many both inside and outside Turkey have increasingly voiced concern over the prime minister’s alleged drift toward authoritarianism. Critics have argued that he is aiming for the presidency in 2014 only to further consolidate his “one-man” control over Turkey. Some others have speculated that the so-called Strategic Vision 2023 is just a smoke screen to make it possible to keep him and his cronies in office until then. On the other hand, his supporters have preferred to defer to Erdoğan’s judgment by giving him the benefit of the doubt and saying, “If he is doing it, then it must be right!” Certainly, it is impossible to read the minds of Erdoğan and his team members. As such, it would be unfair to make any conclusive judgment about their tendencies. Yet, the AK Party government’s practices in its third term have so far been quite perplexing.
AK Party leaders’ track record
The AK Party leaders seem to have ventured in to a series of actions that may set a precedent, and judicial changes that can make one miss the anti-democratic status quo, which they were elected in 2002 to fight in the first place. First came Prime Minister Erdoğan’s intervention last year in the legal process to reduce the penalty for match-fixing and other corrupt acts by prominent figures in Turkish football. Then, he waded in when a prosecutor sought to interrogate the chief of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) as part of an investigation into the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) terror network. Erdoğan simply prevented the investigation by pushing through Parliament overnight legislation that makes the prime minister’s approval necessary for any investigation regarding the intelligence chief, army officers and other senior bureaucrats.
Moreover, when Turkish jets reportedly mistakenly bombed 34 Turkish citizens of Kurdish ethnicity near Uludere, the government responded in such an unprofessional way that for a moment people may have wondered whether the government was expecting an apology from the families of the victims for their children and relatives being within the jets’ firing range. In the meantime, various journalists have been reprimanded, and some others fired, even from newspapers that have been traditionally loyal to the AK Party, coincidentally after they have been critical of the government’s handling of the Uludere incident.
These days, the AK Party leaders, under the direct supervision of the Prime Ministry, have reportedly been working to pass legislation that will, among other things, abolish the specially authorized courts’ mandate to investigate organized crime, corruption, drug dealing, coups and coup attempts. Also, any investigation involving politicians, high level bureaucrats and army officers would require the approval of the prime minister, the General Staff or governors, depending on who is to be investigated. That is, if a prosecutor wants to interrogate a senior bureaucrat, they will have to first get permission from the prime minister, or from the Chief of General Staff if it is an army officer under suspicion. The critics of the proposed legislation worry that once it is obvious that there is a pending investigation request, the suspect will either flee or destroy the possible evidence before the request is approved. Or, that approval will never be granted because of obscure reasons, as it has been the case with the prosecutor’s quest to interrogate the MİT chief. Prime Minister Erdoğan has recently defended the proposed legislation in a TV interview by accusing the specially authorized courts of acting as a state within the state. He ridiculed the specially authorized prosecutors by suggesting that investigating his senior bureaucrat was tantamount to investigating the prime minister himself, as if a court’s ability to investigate the prime minister was not a fundamental of any true democracy governed by the rule of law.
Injustice to journalists
Moreover, the proposed legislation stipulates that journalists who write about the voice recordings or videos put on the Internet by whistleblowers will be sentenced to between two to five years in jail. Simply put, if a voice recording of a retired or active army officer pops up on the Internet, where he is plotting to overthrow the government, or a senior bureaucrat is caught selling the state secrets, then the officer or bureaucrat in question will not be investigated unless the General Staff or prime minister approves the investigation. Yet, any journalist or newspaper reporting about that voice recording will face a jail sentence and other commensurate measures.
What is the reason for all this proposed change? Erdoğan’s answer is that his government initiated the specially authorized courts in 2005, and now it was again his government’s right to abolish them. Some would argue that it is the basic description of a legislative authoritarianism. Some others suggest that he is afraid that these courts may at some point launch an investigation into the AK Party government as well, and want to interrogate its officials, including himself, on corruption charges. In reality, time will show who is right, and why Erdoğan seems to be trying to deprive these courts of their freedom to investigate anyone, including himself. Time will also tell whether or not Erdoğan will be the first successful Turkish prime minister not to seek the presidency, but to retire after his third term in the office.
*Mehmet Kalyoncu is an independent political analyst.