When talking about democracy or the lack thereof, we tend to focus on the conditions of basic individual and collective rights. Promises of freedom of speech, due process, and the rule of law exist to protect citizens against the state’s abuse of power. When states disrespect these rights, by attacking protestors, imprisoning people because of their thoughts, and disregarding due process, we can recognize authoritarianism, an anti-democratic, oppressive system of governance.
The long history of the authoritarian state in Turkey is full of examples of human rights abuses: among them are the prohibition of expression, penalization of thought, and repression of social movements. Reinforced by periodic military dictatorships, as well as the war on the Kurdish guerrilla movement, Turkey’s authoritarian state has developed many different instruments to control Turkish society. After the military coup of September 12, 1980, an authoritarian regime often called “the regime of 12 September” set the stage for the coming decades of authoritarianism, despite constitutional claims to democracy.
Since the rise of the Justice and Democracy Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) in 2002, the decay of democratic structures is increasingly evident—in the arbitrariness, the destruction of courts and other institutions, and the institutionalization of the unrule of law. Authoritarian centralization of power increased after the Gezi protests in 2013, and culminated after the coup d’etat attempt of July 15, 2016, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan now controlling a majority of government structures and institutions. A powerful authoritarian state shapes the social body economically, politically, and culturally. Courts and prisons target and detain a wide range of Turkish dissidents, from Kurdish rebels and activists to the acolytes of the Gülen movement, a Sunni social movement formerly allied with Erdoğan’s AKP.
While the repression of political dissidence attracts international attention, the expansion of the penal state over everyday life in Turkey and its contribution to authoritarianism is often overlooked. The discourses of security against crime justify the enforcement of this penal state, with more aggressive and intrusive forms of policing, and more punitive laws and imprisonment. The police, courts, prisons, and other security mechanisms are increasingly utilized to control, regulate, and pacify the society. Common crimes are framed as an apolitical and legitimate space for penal intervention, but the political control enabled by this securitization is not separate from the making of an authoritarian state. On the contrary, the growing criminalization and penalization policies of the “war on drugs,” and the “war on crime,” constitute a significant part of the authoritarian state formations today.
Consider the case of Ezhel, the popular Turkish rapper, who was arrested in 2018 for “encouraging drug use” in his songs. One of the most talented hip-hop artists from Turkey, Ezhel stands out in his honest and thoughtful prose, his ability to capture the realities on the streets, and his insightful critiques of politics and the structures that surround marginalized young people in Turkey. He sings about cannabis too, as a part of the reality he exposes, which according to Turkish Criminal Code 190, is a crime: “Those who openly encourage use of addictive or exciting drugs, or publish with this purpose, are punished with imprisonment from five years to ten years.” After a month in detention on these trumped-up charges of encouraging drug use, Ezhel was acquitted and released by a judge within just nine minutes of the trial opening, but his prosecution sent a warning in the AKP’s war on drugs. A year later, Ezhel was convicted and given a deferred sentence of twenty months in prison for drug use, although police searches of him and his home found no drugs.
Alongside these kinds of attacks on popular figures as a part of this war, a set of new tools have been developed: harsher punishments, increased policing, new police units, more advanced enforcement technologies, and more military involvement have been incorporated into the ostensible efforts to eliminate drugs from Turkish society. Such fortification of police power increased police presence and control of the streets, restricting the everyday life of citizens—and not just those who commit crimes. Poor, racialized neighborhoods and populations have been the target of such policing—much more so than middle-class citizens, many of whom have applauded the fight against crime by this new police power.
Since the Turkish government declared a “war on drugs” in 2005, the number of people in prison for drug-related offenses grew from 4,125 in 2005 to 37,367 in 2016. While drug use might have been increasing, the government has deliberately chosen to treat this as a criminal problem rather than a social health issue. The tools to intervene are police and prisons, rather than rehabilitation centers or addiction programs. And the war on drugs is just one element of a broader pattern of increasing incarceration. In 2001, before the rise of the AKP, the prison population in Turkey was 55,804. By 2016, it had risen to 200,727. As of November 2018, there were reportedly 260,000 prisoners in Turkey.
The war on terror and the crackdown on dissidents since the 2016 coup attempt served as pretexts for the detention of a significant number of political prisoners, while more common crimes have also contributed to intensified policing and punishment since the 2000s. The “war on crime” not only helps contain the target populations, but it has supported the legitimacy of the Turkish Police, which has long been under fire for its human rights abuses. The growing panic about an urban crime wave in the 2000s justified the police appropriation of increased resources and powers to fight against crime. As neoliberal urban spaces produced criminality—real or imagined—the police force reinvented itself as a crime-fighting agency and consolidated its power.
Along with the Turkish National Police, other policing mechanisms are also in place, constituting penal/authoritarian formations. Extensive CCTV systems, digital/cellular surveillance, citizen’s integration into policing mechanisms, and a big private security sector are among those new mechanisms of policing. As new technologies expand the police control over the social body, “respectable” citizens are integrated into policing practices through community policing units or through the creation of city security councils. Established after 2004, a very large private security sector also proliferates in Turkey, commoditizing the securitization of everyday life. By 2014, there were about 1,300 private security companies and 220,000 private security guards—almost as many as the total number of official police personnel. Even though they operate within the logic of the market, the private security firms are not disconnected from state policing: they are embedded within it. They operate in relation to and sometimes as an auxiliary to the regular police, thus expanding the control of populations further.
A construction surge of new prisons and mega-prison complexes has naturally accompanied this expanding securitization regime, with over half of the 389 prison facilities across the country constructed since 2006. Amnesty International calls the mega-prison complex known as Silivri Prison, which holds about 20,000 prisoners, the “world’s largest prison for journalists.” Despite all the prison construction of the 2000s, prisons in Turkey are still overcrowded. To meet the insatiable demand, more prison facilities are on the way. According to the Ministry of Justice, forty-eight more prisons are to be opened by 2021, increasing the prison capacity to 500,000 inmates. By 2023, an additional 198 prison facilities are scheduled to be completed.
All this adds up, revealing two important links between the penal state and authoritarianism. First, in the name of security, everyday life is policed more intrusively than ever, disregarding the rights of citizens. The instruments, laws, resources, and practices mobilized in the “war on crime” and “war on drugs” increases the penal state’s capacity to define so-called criminal populations and intervene in their lives. At the same time, this strengthens the state’s grip on the entire population, albeit with a particular focus on its poor and racialized segments. Second, the instruments and strategies to fight crime are easily adapted to the containment of politics, and vice versa. The capacity that is consolidated in the name of building security comes in handy when protests are to be repressed, as we witnessed during the repression of the Gezi protests. Civilian police units called the Peace Teams (Huzur Timleri), which were established to fight mugging and other street crimes were also brought in to fight the protestors. In turn, increasingly militarized police such as the Rapid Action Units, first formed to contain protests, are utilized in drug busts and neighborhood operations in the “wars” on drugs and crime. The changes in the laws that gave more power to police to fight crime were also useful in the oppression of political dissidents. After all, the instruments and strategies that fortify the police and penal state against crime are the same instruments of an authoritarian state. Demands for democracy should not exclude a critique of security and crime discourses, because the penal state depends upon these pretexts to extend its authoritarian power.
Zeynep Gönen is an assistant professor of sociology at Framingham State University.