Breaking the vicious circle

After a long time, the economy has become the Turkish public’s number one problem once again.

Inflation is accelerating and will continue to do so. According to data from TurkStat, the government’s statistics office, average inflation over the past 12 months has reached 11.1 percent, but it will not stop there.

On the one hand, there is the unrest in Iran and its effect on fuel prices. On the other, there is the uncertainty in Turkish markets after Mehmet Hakan Atilla, state-run Halkbank’s former deputy chief executive officer, was found guilty by a U.S. court of aiding a scheme to evade sanctions on Iran. The pressure these events create on the Turkish lira indicates that inflation will continue to climb.

Furthermore, a 25 percent increase in bridge tolls and the 5 percent inflation target show that public pricing behaviour is at least as bad as that of the private sector, and those who produce and sell goods and services.

Undoubtedly, the problem is not only about disrupted public pricing behaviour. Public spending, by the same measure, is equally broken.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) regime, which once launched a public savings campaign by selling parliamentary housing and public vehicles, is now accelerating public spending. For example, this year the presidential palace added 38 new luxury vehicles to its fleet, which now numbers 306 units.

In 2002, Turkey sought to become a first-class pluralistic democracy and state of law. It was with this aim, along with their “people first” motto, that AKP came to power. Today, the AKP’s reputation is built on magnificent palaces, luxury cars, and thumbing its nose at foreign policy norms.

However, lavish spending and garish ceremonies are not enough to explain the problem of pricing behaviour. These attributes are also reflected in a regime of arbitrary accountability, one that lacks transparency, which has swung from a mindset of “people first” to “me and the ruling party first”, a concept that now dominates everything from politics and the economy to how the state is formed.

This swing is such that, after the regime’s 15 years of power and excess, we now face a state that has transformed from one based on democracy and the rule of law to totalitarianism and authoritarianism.

When there are no longer pluralistic and inclusive democratic institutions in a country, those who live there are forced to watch the rulers’ promises for radical change veer off in a painful direction, and they pay a heavy price.

But revolutions trigger counter-revolutions. Whether we call it populism in the name of democracy or the tyranny of the majority, in almost every situation these concepts reassert themselves in our lives as totalitarian dictatorships or even fascism. From Africa to South America and even the West in the 18th century and again in the first half of the 20th century, this same vicious circle has repeated itself.

For centuries, economic and political power was in the hands of the same groups, but new discoveries, new models of production, new economic structures, and new relationships and partnerships emerged to break the vicious circle, and in this way, the current vicious circle is beginning to break.

In societies where wealth is based on land, agriculture, and natural resources, or when economic activities are in the hands of a small minority, regardless of who incites radical change, the new regime turns into the old regime within a short period of time. In fact, for the sake of protecting the new regime, more often than not, a more tyrannical “new old regime” emerges.

For example, Ethiopia’s Giorgis, one of President Mengistu Haile Mariam’s ministers (Mengistu was the leader of the Marxist group Derg that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie, the last ruler of the House of Solomon, in a military coup in 1974), wrote in his memoirs of the time after Selassie:

“From 1974 to 1978, we rejected everything that belonged to the past, whether it was the cars we drove or the suits and ties we wore. We were not going to do anything Selassie had done. But in 1978, this all began to change. Mengistu moved into Selassie’s palace and started sitting in his gold-plated thrones. He did not get down from the imperial carriage, but instead began to compare himself to Emperor Tewodros, who re-established the House of Solomon.”*

It is not just Ethiopia, though. Following independence, most African leaders installed themselves in the palaces of deposed colonial governors or kings. But that was not enough. In the place of former emperors, kings, and colonial governors, the new leaders began to do the same as their predecessors had done, only they made things even worse.

While they were making everything worse, they began to see their own people as enemies. There was a terrible famine in Ethiopia in 1984. For Mengistu, the famine became a tool to use against the opposition. This cruelty caused the deaths of thousands of people.

Today, the early fervour of anti-government protests in Iran seems to have been quelled. The main causes of the demonstrations are unemployment, poverty, and corruption, but the uprising has been met with more cruelty and oppression than even the shah’s regime would have done.

Since the mullahs’ priority is to protect and maintain the existing regime, there is no such thing as the happiness and prosperity of the Iranian people. The mullahs use the income from oil and gas to finance the regime, and they are using the people’s unrest as a way to consolidate and strengthen their own power. It is no different than the imperial times.

For Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for the provocative former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, even for the newly emerged emperor, the past 14 years of drought, famine, and the villagers who have been forced to leave their lands and migrate to the cities are not even on their agenda.

The people’s hunger and lack of employment was not on the agenda of the regime of the deposed shah, either. Iran’s magnificence rested only on the palace’s gold-plated thrones and the existence of his Pahlavi dynasty. The symbol of “power” was the staff of cruelty waved over the people.

Founded on slogans of freedom and equality for the people, the ayatollahs’ regime toppled the shah’s, but since then has taken on the shah’s oppression and corruption and has itself become even more oppressive and cruel. To protect the revolution, state-sponsored executions, torture, and overcrowded prisons are Iran’s current reality, so much so that today’s revolution eats its own children, and the grandchildren of former Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, and even those of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, are considered traitors.

We can say that drought and famine are not the will of God, but it is drought and environmental disaster that have emptied the villages. Let us remember that 50 percent of Iran’s young people are unemployed, but anyone who questions state spending on nuclear weapons and the war in Syria is labelled a traitor, a collaborator, or an agent and thrown into prison.

Elections still take place in totalitarian regimes like Iran. Of course, to keep the opposition under pressure, thousands of candidates are vetoed and regime supporters are released onto the streets.

As long as change is understood and presented simply as the current establishment changing hands, regime change unfortunately is nothing more than a shift to a new old regime within a short amount of time.

However, the only changes that can be permanent are those that occur under a broad coalition that embraces all of society’s differences, such as what has taken place in countries we define as the “West”, like France and Britain.

A strong parliamentary tradition keeps change from being imprisoned in a narrow circle.

In countries where different lifestyles exist side-by-side under the guarantee of secularism, changing from the new back to the old is met with a great deal of resistance.

Globalisation, along with more sophisticated and complex production, trade, and financial relationships, makes it impossible for oppressive totalitarian regimes to maintain compliance for long periods of time.

For this reason, it is not too late for Turkey.

Despite the stall in negotiations, we are still discussing membership of the European Union. We have carried out several inclusive political and economic reforms.

For better or worse, we have an open and competitive economic structure, and we have experience with independent economic institutions.

We have a lasting, multi-party parliamentary tradition that forces pluralism when it is lacking.

Although it is crippled, we have a secular legal base; our human resources are strong as more than half of our population has a career.

Parents still prioritise a good education for their children.

As a result, we have the experience and the tools up our sleeves to break the vicious circle of negotiating a new regime that is worse than the old one. As Ayşen Candaş emphasized in her recent article for Ahval, “Let’s give the situation a name and take action … before it’s too late!”

*Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (2012).