When Turkey’s President Erdogan visits Theresa May in Downing Street on Tuesday, he will no doubt be on his best behaviour and control his baser instincts. Otherwise, as he will be met by a Free Turkey Media demonstration organised by English PEN, he could do as he has done earlier – as in Washington and Ecuador – and call on his bodyguards to beat up demonstrators.
Of course, if it had been Turkey, they wouldn’t have been allowed to demonstrate, but if they had, they would not only have been beaten up but also incarcerated. Remember the Gezi Park uprising five years ago when over 8,000 were injured, 8 killed and 5,300 were arrested? Since the abortive coup in July 2016, matters have not improved. In what President Erdogan himself called ‘a gift from God’, there has been a massive purge of the regime’s opponents, real and imagined. 152,000 have been dismissed, including the military, police, teachers, academics, judges and prosecutors and health service personnel, 160,000 have been detained and 77,000 arrested. In Turkey you can be held for up to seven years before coming to trial.
Turkey is now the world’s biggest jailer of journalists. Recent figures show that 254 journalists and media workers are in prison, 192 of them in pre-trial detention and 62 convicted. In one case, two brothers, journalists Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, were accused of sending subliminal messages during a tv panel discussion. In February they and the programme’s presenter were given aggravated life sentences, which means solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day and no parole, for ‘trying to abolish the constitutional order of the Republic of Turkey by resorting to the use of force and violence’.
Erdogan’s visit is opportune. He has called for parliamentary and presidential elections in June instead of November next year, so if successful he can implement the constitutional amendments approved in a narrowly won referendum last April. These will establish a ‘Turkish style’ presidential system without the normal democratic checks and balances. The office of prime minister will be abolished, making Erdogan the sole ruler.
The odds are heavily tilted in Erdogan’s favour. Last month the Turkish parliament extended the state of emergency for the seventh time for another three months, so that the president can continue to rule by decree. The Council of Europe found that last year’s referendum was held on an uneven playing field, and this practice has now been cemented by a new election law, which also permits unstamped ballot papers. For this reason, an opposition deputy asked why 500 million ballot envelopes had been printed for 55 million voters.
Dissent is in effect muzzled, as the government controls more than 90 percent of the media, 189 media outlets have been closed and more than 174,000 websites are banned. Even access to Wikipedia is blocked.
The UK is no longer able to support Turkey’s bid for EU membership, but apart from trade, the question is what kind of basis can be found for this special relationship.