A Turkish lesson for democrats everywhere

Posted on July 23, 2016


The latest snub to the rule of law in South Africa came this week with the sacking of SABC journalists by management in flagrant disregard of the ruling made by the Independent Communications Authority. It follows a litany of questionable official actions, comments and downright disregard for the judicial system, the labour laws and, in particular, the Public Protector.

In many quarters in South Africa this has been seen as proof positive that the country has embarked on a journey toward autocracy; toward a time when the rule of law and the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights become mere historical artifacts. There is plenty of evidence to support this. However, there is also evidence that this journey may never be completed; that it may be aborted long before a possible point of no return is reached.

While most institutions protective of human rights are under attack and some elements may have succumbed, South Africa’s liberal reformist bulwark remains in place. The courts are apparently free of manipulation, the trade union movement and the media, while under pressure, remain relatively independent, while the Constitution’s Chapter nine institutions, especially the Public Protector, continue to function broadly for the public good.

But there can be no denying that we are on a slippery slope that was characterised 14 years ago by deputy public works minister Jeremy Cronin, as “Zanufication”. That was before the implosion of Zimbabwe’s economy, along with the almost total destruction of the trade union movement in that country.

And just as there are lessons to be learned from the disaster that is Zimbabwe and the traditional monarchic tyranny of Swaziland, so too are there lessons to be gleaned from Turkey. What has happened over the past week has revealed how a government can use the excuse of a major unrest incident — in this case an attempted military coup — to consolidate a dictatorial hold on power.

The popular image of Turkey is as some sort of paragon of democratic values. It is not, as any trade unionist there can readily affirm. And, as the various international organisations of journalists have pointed out, the country has one of the worst records anywhere for jailing writers and broadcasters who dare to investigate corruption or other issues the state declares off limits.

In May this year, the editor of the daily Cumhuriyet newspaper, Can Dundar, and his Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gul, were sentenced respectively to 5 years and 10 months and five years in prison. They had uncovered and published evidence of the government attempting secret shipments of arms into Syria so “exposing state secrets”. Other journalists have been jailed for “insulting the president”.

After the sentencing of Dundar and Gul, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) general secretary Sharan Burrow warned: “Turkey is heading towards the status of de-facto dictatorship, with the consolidation of power around one political figure and the repression of fundamental rights to freedom of speech, association and assembly.”

The ITUC statement also followed moves by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to change the labour laws to allow employers the right to hire and fire workers almost at will. This apparently emboldened managers at the Renault car plant in the city of Bursa to renege on a worker participation deal struck with the IndustriALL Global Union and its Turkish affiliate Birlesik Metal-Is. Protest action by workers was met with a brutal police crackdown.

Like the South African government’s attitude toward Zimbabwe and Swaziland, governments in Europe such as Germany and France, tend to turn a blind to the anti-democratic transgressions of Turkey. And like all putative party dictatorships feeling their grip on the electorate slipping, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has moved to control or crush independent trade union organisation, and to manipulate and censor the media while trying to ensure a compliant judiciary.

In this regard the failed army coup was a godsend, providing the excuse for what seems to have been a pre-planned crackdown. Within hours of the end of the coup attempt, the government had not only moved against the plotters and the troops who took part in the action; sackings and arrests of thousands of individuals suspected of opposing Erdogan and the AKP followed in quick succession.

Nearly 3 000 prosecutors and judges and some 8 000 civil servants, along with police, were dismissed within 24 hours. And, according to ITUC an estimated 6 000 people, many of them trade unionists, were also arrested.

This was followed in days by the suspension of and estimated 21 000 teachers and 1 500 senior university personnel. Little wonder that there is now suspicion voiced in Turkish opposition quarters that this particular unrest incident, if not orchestrated by the regime, was allowed to proceed to provide the excuse for what is in effect a state of continual emergency.

These are developments to which every democrat everywhere should pay careful attention.