Turkish opposition faces new government redlines over acceptable criticism - Dr Gökhan Bacık

Turkey’s opposition parties face new red lines over topics deemed unacceptable for criticism by the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) allies, Dr Gökhan Bacık from Palacky University told Ahval in a podcast.

On Wednesday, heavily armed police stormed the offices of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) after it was accused of breaking laws against insulting the president.

The CHP recently intensified its questioning over hundreds of billions of dollars alleged to have gone missing from the Treasury and Finance Ministry during the tenure of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak.

As part of the campaign, the party’s offices flew banners that read: “Where is the $128 billion?” with a silhouette of Erdoğan’s presidential palace in the background, prompting the intervention of police.  

Bacık said the authorities’ response was indicative of the new parameters of dissent the Erdoğan government was willing to allow the opposition to operate in.

“I think this is another strong example of what we call authoritarianism in Turkey,” Bacık told Ahval Editor-in-Chief Yavuz Baydar in an interview.

“My understanding is that Erdoğan is trying to define a safe zone for what can be criticised in Turkish politics.”

Bacık added that these parameters may include allowing dissent on certain topics like unemployment or some aspects of foreign policy. The cut-off point, however, is subjects that come too close to Erdoğan or his inner circle, most notably suggestions of corruption.

Questions of financial fair play have particular potential to resonate with the public amid ongoing economic turmoil. Unemployment and inflation remain high, while the COVID-19 pandemic continues unabated, wreaking further damage on the economy.   

Bacık noted that since corruption investigations launched against figures close to Erdoğan in 2013, the president has grown much more intolerant of any similar allegations.

In ordinary times, Bacik posited that the Turkish public is less interested in corruption, but the ailing economy has made the topic politically charged. To weaken its resonance, he said, Erdoğan is trying to make it an untouchable subject.

“(Erdoğan) is defining corruption, mainly this debate over the lost $128 billion, into the basket of issues which are not safe to raise in Turkey,” Bacik said. 

To this end, the saga was an attempt to redefine political discourse along authoritarian lines, he added.

A key difference between now and past debates over contentious issues, such as the Kurdish political movement, is that the battle lines have been drawn between Erdoğan and his largest electoral rival. Until recently, the government’s ire was aimed squarely at the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which faces closure by the courts, but the same tactics are now being focused on the CHP. 

An ominous sign of this came on Wednesday, when the Turkish parliament received requests from the presidency to lift the immunity of ten members, including the CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. 

Bacık said that targeting the CHP is “something comparatively big” even by the standards of Turkish politics but added it was only the latest stage of development for Turkish authoritarianism.

“Authoritarianism never dies,” he said. “I assure you that this is not the final stage.”