On June 25, 2015 I met with a couple of friends at a coffee shop where we usually meet before the Pride march that takes place on Istiklal Avenue every June in Istanbul, Turkey. On this sweltering summer day, the mood was festive, as it usually is at the Pride march. Drummers and dancers, rainbow umbrellas, political signs, and a lot of young and colorful people crowded the street, making the usually busy pedestrian Istiklal even more so. Amidst the excitement, however, it was hard to overlook the heavy police presence. Police with riot gear were everywhere, holding street corners, giving people menacing looks, with armored water-cannon vehicles standing by where Istiklal Avenue connects to Taksim square.

For Turkish protestors, especially those in Istanbul, this was a common sight. Since the Gezi Park protests of 2013 it has been almost impossible to protest or march on Istiklal Avenue, and violent police intervention has been a regular occurrence. Yet the Pride marches, very much part of the protest repertoire of the city, have been happening in Istanbul for 13 years without any police intervention, nor had they ever caused any violence or skirmishes. In fact, even in 2014, a year after the Gezi Protests, both the Pride and Trans marches took place, drawing thousands of people.

On Tuesday, August 29, Dr. Erkmen will discuss Mobile Emergency Rule: Protest, Law, and Authoritarian Consolidation in Turkey with Boise State students as part of the Politics and Policy Brown Bag Series presented by the Center for Idaho History and Politics.  Photo of 2013 Gezi Park protests

So it still surprised me when I saw people running as the police started attacking protestors. Not in the mood for pepper-spray that day, I quickly bolted from the scene using some back-streets. At home, I watched as the police chased down protestors with plastic bullets and pressurized water, causing injuries and detaining many protestors. Afterwards the Governor’s office claimed that the organization committee for the march did not get the necessary ‘permission’ and that the march had the potential to ‘cause disturbances.’ In 2016 and 2017 then, using similar language the Governor preemptively declared that they were ‘not allowing’ the march citing Law 2911 on assembly and demonstrations and the need to respect ‘public sentiments.’ What was once one of the biggest collective gatherings of Istanbul was no more.

What happened to the Pride March exemplifies an on-going trend when it comes to protest repression in Turkey. After a decade in the 2000s when protest politics were relatively normalized, it looks like the tide has turned with increasing constriction of the right to protest. More and more, what is once considered acceptable is considered off-limits by the authorities. Beyond the usual suspects like leftist activists and Kurds, repression targets groups that were considered ‘harmless’ before such as environmentalists and LGBT activists. Moreover, repression happens through various mechanisms beyond the observable police activity, in this case pre-emptive bans that declare protests ‘unlawful.’ In my research project with Mert Arslanalp from Bogazici University, we explore these new mechanisms that the Turkish regime is using to control/repress protests by focusing on the period between 2010-2016 in order to examine how competitive authoritarian regimes consolidate. Specifically, we are interested in law as a mechanism of repression and how law and the discourse of law are used to delimit constitutional rights.

Photo of 2013 Pride March in Istanbul.

Photo credit: Instanbulian91. Tens of thousands attended the 2013 Pride March at Taksim Square, Istanbul.

COMPETITIVE AUTHORITARIANISM AND TURKEY AS A COMPETITIVE AUTHORITARIAN REGIME 

Before moving further into a discussion of protest repression, let me clarify what I mean by competitive authoritarian regimes. Competitive authoritarian regimes, as the name implies, are rather curious blends of competitive and authoritarian features, presenting a challenge for political analysis. What is particular about these is that formal democratic institutions such as elections and representative parliaments are in place. Competitive authoritarian regimes, as the name implies, are rather curious blends of competitive and authoritarian features, presenting a challenge for political analysis. These formal institutions, moreover, are not mere facades; they are regarded and used by political actors as means of obtaining and exercising political authority. Elections involve real political competition. Yet, the electoral field is so skewed in favor of incumbents that the elections cannot be considered fair anymore. Incumbents violate the rules of the democratic game so often and to such extent that the regime fails to meet conventional standards for democracy.

Competitive authoritarian regimes are a modern phenomenon. Research shows that it is these kinds of regimes that have increased in number in what is called the ‘Third Wave’ of democracy after the end of the Cold War, rather than liberal democracies. As such, there has been more attention directed to these hybrid regimes in scholarly literature. Scholars have particularly focused on the electoral field in order to understand how these regimes stay in power; however, protests and control of protests have not been explored as much. And yet, street protests present a unique challenge for these regimes. Such regimes cannot completely prohibit peaceful protests as they need to maintain the appearance of formal democratic rights. Nor can they let protests happen freely as protests in these settings can be potentially destabilizing. Therefore, one of the central challenges of these regimes is keeping spaces of contention seemingly open while also controlling opposition. So how do competitive authoritarian regimes deal with protests? Are there any novel strategies that they develop to tackle this problem? And if there are, what do these methods mean for the survival of democratic rights in these settings?

These are some of the questions that we deal with in our research, where we define Turkey as a competitive authoritarian regime. Noting significant democratic backsliding in recent years, we contend that Turkey, a NATO member and a long-term U.S. ally once considered a beacon of democratic hope in a problematic region, cannot be considered to meet the minimal standards of a democracy anymore. Of course, with its history of military coups and a legal-institutional role for its military, as well as the Kurdish conflict and numerous human rights violations, Turkey was never considered a consolidated democracy but more a tutelary one. However, in the 2000s, with the opening of EU accession talks as well as the election of the Justice and Development Party (JDP) that claimed to represent disenfranchised parts of the Turkish population and promised to reform the constitution to decrease the military’s role in politics, it looked like Turkey might be on the way to democratic consolidation. That hope, however, was slowly and surely crushed as the JDP regime opted for an authoritarian path, with Tayyip Erdogan at its helm.

JDP came to power with a very strong electoral mandate, yet it used this power to fuse the state with the party. It penetrated the bureaucracy and exploited state resources in a partisan manner. It also subordinated the judiciary, especially after a constitutional referendum in 2010 gave the party more power in designing the higher courts. Moreover, the party controlled the state-owned media to use it for party-propaganda, while it reigned in the mainstream media through a combination of sticks and carrots. The pressure on the mainstream media and creation of a pro-government media bloc left very little space in the public for oppositional voices to be heard. All of these developments weakened the rule of law and led to serious rights violations in Turkey. Combined with the politicized bureaucracy, this meant a seriously skewed playing field that made it almost impossible for opposition parties to challenge JDP electorally. Meanwhile, the electoral process has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, not just due to allegations of electoral abuse, but because of attacks on opposition politicians and the unequal footing in which the opposition can campaign.

As such, with its unfair elections and uneven playing field, it makes more sense to call Turkey a competitive authoritarian regime than anything else. In fact, the declaration of an Emergency Law in July 2016 after a failed coup attempt that gave Erdogan and his cabinet the possibility to use decrees without the oversight of the parliament or the judiciary was the icing on the cake. (The law has been renewed four times since then.) The coup attempt instigated a massive purge that included the opposition that was deemed to be an impediment to or critical of the government and its policies. Currently, at least 120 journalists are in jail, along with 13 MPs from the pro-Kurdish opposition party HDP. And it was in this climate, under the State of Emergency that enabled harsh repression of the opposition and severe limitations on the freedom of expression and association, that Turkish citizens voted on the referendum to change the constitution of the country from a parliamentary institutional structure to a presidential one with no checks on the power of the president. The outcome of the referendum meant the consolidation of an authoritarian regime in Turkey.

Photo of Police action during Gezi park protests in Istanbul, June 16, 2013.

Photo credit: Mstylav Chernov, Wikimedia Commons. Police action during Gezi park protests in Istanbul, June 16, 2013.

ANALYZING PROTEST REPRESSION AND ‘MOBILE EMERGENCY PRACTICES’ IN TURKEY

In our research we focus on the day-to-day functioning of the regime as it deals with street protests between 2010 and 2016, leading up to the declaration of the Emergency Law. We have encountered the regular use of what we call ‘mobile emergency practices’ that involve the practice of suspending constitutional rights, such as the right to protest, via executive and administrative orders in an extremely localized, temporary, and ad-hoc manner. During the period that we study, the government resorted to these measures vis-à-vis a diverse set of protestors, on a wide range of issues, and in multiple and varied locations. The measures take the form of ‘bans’ that are issued by key bureaucratic officials responsible of maintaining public order, who ground and justify the limits they impose upon protest activity on broad interpretations of certain existing legal frameworks. By referring to legal frameworks, authorities frame protests and protestors as ‘illegal.’ The bans they are using vary from complete bans on any kind of collective gathering to specific acts. They may also last as short as few hours or extend as long as several months. In many cases they delimit the spaces of protest as well. Our preliminary data shows that these measures peaked in the second half of 2015 and early 2016 before the establishment of full-fledged emergency rule.

There are multiple issues our research underlines. First is the need to pay closer attention to what is referred to as low-intensity repression (or channeling) when studying how authoritarian regimes consolidate. These measures are more insidious than openly violent repression because unlike violent repression, they remain under the radar. They are, however, ongoing, widespread, and particularly effective in controlling the streets in the context of a competitive authoritarian regime. What they manage is to control the effects of protests as they dictate their terms, pushing protest to more predictable and palatable forms, by enclosing them to managed spaces, and therefore cutting them off from larger the public. The very targeted, localized, and temporary forms of these suspensions mean that the non-activist population does not really experience these routine violations of constitutional rights. Moreover, these routine yet legally exceptional measures contribute to the overall environment of institutional ambiguity, which present an additional organizational challenge for the activists and might lead to inaction among the larger citizenry.

The second issue is the continuity between the Emergency Rule in the Turkish case and what came before it. Our research demonstrates that rather than representing a radical rupture, the Emergency Rule actually accentuates legal repression tools that were already regularly in use. Emergency measures are defined as temporary legal measures that suspend or restrict constitutional rights as a response to an ‘extraordinary’ situation and as such, a state of emergency assumes a break in what is considered ‘ordinary.’ By revealing a form of suspending rights in a highly particularized, localized, and temporary fashion that is not captured by existing studies, our research questions this boundary between what is considered ‘ordinary’ and ‘extra-ordinary’ and demonstrates the regular use of legal exceptions within ordinary politics.

Obviously these practices present only one facet of the complex process that is the authoritarian slide that we have been observing in Turkey. In the Turkish case, they facilitated this slide by weakening street protests and as such rendering popular opposition to governmental policies and practices voiceless. While we explore mobile emergency practices as they affect the constitutional right to protest in this research, one can extend the concept to other liberties. As such we believe that the concept opens up new venues in studying the process of authoritarianization, and that bringing these practices into focus can help in getting a better sense of how this process works, not just in Turkey but also in other regions of the world.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.