Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he will reply to Donald Trump’s letter, which included expressions such as “don’t be a tough guy”, “don’t be a fool” and “I will call you later”, when deemed necessary on a later date due to mutual feelings of love and respect.
Given I am not an expert, I shall refrain from commenting on diplomatic customs or interstate relations. And as a fellow countryman, I can’t say Trump’s letter insulted me.
Upon reading the letter, I considered what would could have happened to me had I written such things as “don’t be a fool” or “don’t be a tough guy” on Twitter. Such reflections are rooted in a historical, political and legal context.
Since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became president in 2014, the crime of “insulting the president” has entered our agenda. Thousands of citizens have been sued for violating the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) Article 299, and more than 2 thousand have been convicted.
Since 2014, Turkish citizens must pay the price for publicly discussing national matters. It it got even worse in 2017 when a plebiscite removed the requirements of presidents to leave their parties and be neutral.
For one cannot discuss national matters without bringing up the AKP leader and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – though it might be subject to TCK 299.
President Erdoğan is the decision-maker in such wide-ranging concerns as the shape of cigarette boxes, whether or not cigarettes are forbidden by Islam, the number of children families ought to be having or whether or not the word “arena” should be remove from stadium names.
As the public figure determining all public issues, Erdoğan speaks freely about whatever he wants, whenever he wants. And while he is protected, other public figures like journalists and artists must think over what they are about to utter and shun some issues before discussing current affairs.
That’s because early one morning police could rouse them from their sleep and they could face a host of penal sanctions for insulting the president or colluding with terrorists. A prosecutor might even prepare a cocktail of accusations and present it to court.
International relations are grounded in the assumption of sovereignty. This assumption serves as the basis for international law and entails the principle according to which states are independent with regards to their internal affairs and share equal status in foreign affairs.
But the relations between Trump and Putin as well as Erdoğan’s ties with both respective leaders demonstrates the international order has evolved well beyond this assumption.
It is difficult to keep track of Trump’s scandalous declarations toward Turkish and other foreign officials. Still, brushing them off and attributing them to Trump’s peculiar personality misses the point.
These actions have a backdrop and actors characteristic of ‘palace regimes” in which the struggle for powers trumps all principles of merit. Needless to say, Trump fits well into such a setting. And according to this “power for power” rationale, democratic principles and legal procedures in international relations not no longer hold.
The crime of insulting the president is a tool to silence the opposition at a domestic level and a way to signal that decisions regarding public matters are in the hands of one person and one person only. Once this internal domination is achieved, foreign policy deals and arrangements can be pursued.
Along with practices like turning mainstream media into an integral part of a government-funded system, arresting critical journalists, laying off hundreds of academics who signed the “Academics for Peace” declaration, the regulation of insulting also aims to to shut down public discussion in Turkey.
As the prominent lawyer Kerem Altıparmak wrote in 2015, the European Court of Human Rights also issued the view that any president ought not enjoy more protection against insults than any regular citizen.
In Turkey, personal power has taken over public affairs and the state has been completely reorganized according to personal relations. While our private matters, ranging from what we watch at home or our sexual lives, have been deprivatized by the president, all public matters have been personalized.
It is precisely this personalization-privatization paradox that creates a parallel between the motives that determine Erdoğan-Trump relations and the motives of prosecutors shaping the relations between Erdoğan and those that are put on trial for insulting the president.