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Democracy Lost in Turkey





August 30, 2017

Istanbul – The Hagia Sophia

One of our all-time-favorite cities is Istanbul, founded by the Roman emperor Constantine 1700 years ago. During our most recent cruise to Turkey, our Istanbul guide was an effervescent Turkish woman who did her best to sell the country she so loved to all those tourists who followed and listened to her as we visited historic sights in the ancient city; a city that stood as the world’s queen city for over a thousand years—and, not incidentally, the only great city that straddles two continents (Europe and Asia).

But, ominously—in the middle of her extolling the virtues of her country and the liberties its women enjoy—, a shadow came over her face, and she said, “But friends, I can’t help but worry about my country and its millions of women. The person who leads our country is determined to curtail our freedoms . . . but I’m hopeful that somehow we as a people can collectively hold on to the liberty we have enjoyed since Kemal Ataturk founded the Turkish republic in 1923.”

Unfortunately, all her worst forebodings have come true. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has moved swiftly in the last year, to turn Turkey’s once vibrant democracy into a brutal Islamic dictatorship. And, inexorably, in the process the disenfranchising of Turkish women.

In the Sunday July 23, 2017 Denver Post, columnist Chuck Plunkett’s “A Warning From and For a Troubled Land” jumped out at me. Plunkett referenced a recent visit to Denver by exiled journalist Abdulhamit Billici, former editor-in-chief of Turkey’s pre-eminent newspaper, Zaman, which has now been snuffed out by Erdogan. The exiled editor spoke at some length with members of the Post’s editorial board. Here is the gist of what the Denver editors found out:

“Erdogan has jailed journalists, judges, intellectuals and security forces, fired tens of thousands more, shuttered two hundred news organizations, and generally made a mess of things in a country that only a few years ago served as a model free-market democracy for the region.Last March as Billici and fellow journalists were hard at work in the newsroom one Friday afternoon, “storm troopers toting serious weapons surrounded the building. When crowds gathered to protest, police hit them with water cannons and tear gas.” Police then entered the building and replaced the editorial leadership with government-controlled mouthpieces. Fearing for his life, and unsure whether his passport was still valid, Billici escaped, alone, and got across the border in the middle of night.

In Billici’s own words: “A president elected by a populist surge, deftly plays to nationalist desire for a return to the glory days of Turkish dominance—of the Ottoman Empire—finds himself enmeshed in a shady scandal after members of his inner circle are accused of taking bribes to overlook illegal actions by a foreign country.

A president who works a narrative that too many of the country’s judges, academics, journalists and human rights advocates are part of a corrupt urban elite. Indeed, part of the opposition—and therefore dangerous to the country’s future. A president who seeks to amend the constitution to consolidate power—against the will of half the people in his country—and who succeeds in doing so.”

A month after all this, a narrow margin of voters [voter fraud is suspected but cannot be proved] agreed to shift executive power from the parliament to the presidency, and to grant presidents three five-year terms, which would keep Erdogan in power until 2029.

Soberly, Billici continued, “Now the death penalty is back. Critics are tortured in jails. A state of emergency means arrests can occur for the most dubious of charges, and no one believes the courts are independent of Erdogan.”

Then Billici concludes with, “In hardly any time at all, a functioning democracy responsible to the people has been dismantled and replaced by a strong man tyrant whose power depends on dividing the nation into loyalists and enemies.

What happened in Turkey is an extreme result of what happens when populist movements and the opportunistic politicians who enthrall them lose sight of what’s important to maintain in their tear-it-all-down zeal. Concepts like democracy and free speech, respect for the institutions that provide checks and balances and the rule of law are too easy to shed while in the throes of raw emotion and anger.”

The Post editorial team then added its own coda: “You don’t really think it could happen. And then you meet someone who just lived it first-hand.”

* * * * *

As I read Billici’s heartbreaking summation of the fall of one of the world’s great democracies, I was reminded of what members of a conclave of prelates from around the world concluded after considerable discussion: A few years ago they concluded that they were seriously worried about America. As America continues to lose reading households (where books, magazines, and newspapers are accessed in order to know how and who to vote for), and basing voting decisions on 30-second attack ads put out by anonymous sources—they seriously doubted that America’s democracy can long survive.

Forewarned is forearmed. But fewer and fewer Americans bother to read anymore, so our current freedoms are anything but a given.