The Turkish government under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains in its worst political crisis since coming to power in 2003. On April 3, access to Twitter in the country was restored after the Constitutional Court ruled that a ban imposed by Erdogan on March 21 was illegal. The prime minister had announced he would “wipe out Twitter” after reports of corruption in the government were widely spread on the network. YouTube was also blocked after a recording was posted purportedly of top government officials discussing military intervention in Syria.
The bans follow a pattern of what critics consider increasing authoritarian tendencies displayed by Erdogan. In June 2013, police forcefully broke up protests in Istanbul after resistance to a park redevelopment escalated into a larger movement against Erdogan. Later in the year, the government removed police and prosecutors from their posts after more than 50 Erdogan allies were charged with corruption. Erdogan has portrayed the allegations as a conspiracy led by Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former supporter of the prime minister’s Justice and Development Party (“AK”). Gulen, who lives in the United States, leads the Hizmet movement, which fell out with the government after moves to shut down its network of private schools. Erdogan’s bombastic comments about foreign conspiracies are seen by critics as an indication that he will use further authoritarian tactics to suppress opposition.
So far, opposition parties in Turkey have not been able to capitalize on the government’s turmoil. Local elections on March 30 were handily won by the AK party. If Erdogan’s troubles and popular resistance to him increase, however, his days in power could be numbered. His own party’s rules currently prohibit him from running for a fourth term as prime minister in 2015, and his efforts to adopt a new constitution creating a more powerful presidency (which he would likely seek) have so far been unsuccessful. But if Erdogan’s departure would be a benefit to democracy in Turkey, it could have dangerous consequences across the border in Syria. Erdogan’s government has strongly supported the Syrian opposition throughout the war, though it has stopped short of direct intervention. Turkey’s main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (“CHP”), meanwhile, has openly sided with the Assad regime. CHP members of parliament have visited Syria to meet with Assad, while dismissing the regime’s crimes as “a lie just like…weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” They have endorsed Assad’s war as “resistance…against imperialism.” Even Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul, an AK member, has made an ambiguous call for “re-calibrating” Turkey’s Syria policy
If the CHP were able to defeat the AK party in the next election, or Erdogan were forced out by his own party in favor of someone more inclined toward Gul’s view, it could have a decisive impact on the Syrian conflict, in favor of Assad. Ridding Turkey of a leader with an ego run amok might be positive, but would it be worth the cost of delivering victory to a regime involved in an internal conflict which has caused 150,000 deaths and refugees numbering in the millions?
Scott Petiya is a 3LE law student at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a staff editor for the Denver Journal of International Law & Policy.