CUMHURIYET

The Victims Of Erdogan’s Ambitions Just Keep Piling Up

Will the Turkish President's discarded former allies ever dare to form a new party to challenge him?

Erdogan on a visit to Iran last month
Erdogan on a visit to Iran last month
Erdem Gul

-Analysis-

ISTANBUL â€" Justice and Development Party (AKP) leaders never liked the way Ahmet DavutoÄŸlu became Turkey’s prime minister two years ago, nor did they approve of his performance or professional style once he got the job. The only thing they actually appreciated was the way he left.

This much was clear during this past weekend's party congress in Istanbul that selected Binali Yıldırım, a longtime confidante of President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan, as Davutoglu's successor as prime minister. All present spoke plainly â€" from Council Chairman and Justice Minister Bekir BozdaÄŸ to the average representative â€" and all were in agreement: “The only leader of this party is ErdoÄŸan.”

This is nothing new. After the 2011 elections, the current situation had already taken shape. ErtuÄŸrul Günay, who was a cabinet minister back then, summed it up well: “This party has 20 million voters and millions of registered members. During any activity or congress, the only slogan they chant is "Recep… Tayyip… ErdoÄŸan…" Whether the topic is justice, development, freedom or something else, they do not chant any other slogan. This bodes well for the establishment of a dictatorship.”

He made these remarks years ago, well before Davutoğlu's time. The party’s position was firmly established, but Davutoğlu's presence delayed its open declaration.

That’s why DavutoÄŸlu received the send-off of a low-level bureaucrat rather than one befitting a prime minister. He wasn’t the only one sent packing: the last founding members of the party to speak of “procedure” or “law” were excluded from the party's Central Executive board (MKYK), as were prominent founding members such as former president Abdullah Gül, Hüseyin Çelik and Bülent Arınç.

The increase in the number of ousted officials is directly tied to DavutoÄŸlu’s own departure, as the party adopts a “love it or leave it” philosophy. Arınç and Celik had been voicing their objections and criticisms openly for awhile, while Gül had been sharing his uneasiness in more private circles.

What next?

Gül’s distance from DavutoÄŸlu stemmed from the way ErdoÄŸan became president. DavutoÄŸlu was elected head of the AKP during another congress, before Gül's term was over, effectively preventing him from changing seats with Erdogan as the prime minister. However, the gap has closed, and Gül is now closer to DavutoÄŸlu than to ErdoÄŸan.

While those who have left the AKP haven’t yet founded a new organization, it is widely believed they will do so, especially after this past party congress. Davutoğlu insisted that he will continue his political career and mentioned Erdoğan once in his speech, making no reference, however, to Erdoğan's projected executive presidential system. Publicly stating that he believed his departure caused uneasiness among AKP voters and Turkish citizens in general is significant, but Davutoğlu’s most important observation was the following: “I stood before you for 20 months to serve the cause. Now, I will stand beside you, also to serve the cause.”

AKP leaders were as displeased with these words as they were pleased with Davutoğlu’s departure.

Though the AKP has benefited from the victim image it projects â€" attacked by the “Old Turkey” that once imprisoned ErdoÄŸan for reading an Islamic poem â€" at the last minute, I heard a comment that could strengthen DavutoÄŸlu’s position in the future: “Now, he too is a victim.”

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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