Erdogan and Ataturk’s mantle

Ilhan Tanir , Saturday 28 Jul 2018

Erdogan cemented emergency powers into a new presidential system at which he is at the helm. But while he has a grasp on political power, the markets often have a mind of their own

Erdogan, Ataturk
File Photo: Recep Tayyip Erdogan speech in front of portraits of himself (R) and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (L)(AFP)

Recent centralisation in Turkey’s political landscape through presidential decrees and elections held under a state of emergency resemble a top-down approach that was part of a governance style deployed during the single-party era in the first half of the last century.

As a young country, the Turkish Republic — which was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 — was quickly introduced to a rigid type of secularism.

The founders and leaders of the new republic ruled the country with unyielding fervour until multi-party elections in 1950. Their main aim was to get to Turkey to resemble the West through a series of reforms that included getting the Turkish people to wear Western-style hats and ditch the Arabic alphabet for the Latin one.

During this period, like Italy, Germany and Japan at the time, Turkey paid lip service to democracy while it was ruled by the People’s Republican Party (CHP) alone.

The new government controlled the Directorate of Religious Affairs and attempted to rid the country of as much Islamism and religiosity as possible.

During this time, both the Islamists and other religious people experienced an enormous amount of pressure. This pressure was somewhat relieved from 1950 to 1960 but continued with varying degrees of severity over the following decades.

An Islamist leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who as a founder of the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP), came to power nearly 80 years after Turkey was founded.

He promised to carry out Ataturk’s vision of joining the West by pursuing the country’s membership into the European Union.

During the first few years in power, Erdogan and his team prioritised controlling the amount and balance of power given to the army. These were also the reforms that needed to be made before Turkey and the EU could begin membership negotiations.

It was an opportunity to support demilitarisation in Turkey and to break the military’s influence in politics. Until the AKP was voted into power in the early 2000s, there had been three military takeovers in Turkey and a military memorandum in 1997.

At the end of May 2013, the Gezi Protests began to preserve the greenery of a park in the middle of Istanbul’s entertainment hub: Taksim Square.

The demonstrations started in Istanbul then spread throughout Turkey, and the protests turned into a reaction against unchecked development and increased control over peoples’ lives. Some officials — including people in Erdogan’s own party — were waiting for the AKP to soften its stance and make some concessions on some of the demonstrators’ justified claims. Instead, Erdogan doubled down on his rhetoric and began to brand and demonise the Gezi protesters as terrorists and vandals.

Right-wing populism, which has begun to surge in Europe due to the presence of Syrian refugees, started with the Gezi protests for Erdogan.

Erdogan and his officials, after these protests sparked, began regularly deploying conspiracy theories to push back and control the base, producing fake news if necessary.

In time, Erdogan didn’t feel that there was much need to continue with EU membership negotiations, and Turkey’s relationship with the EU began to deteriorate.

From 2013 onwards, Erdogan became more and more authoritarian, and as he became stronger, he picked fights with EU countries as material to win elections.

There no issue — from prohibiting male and female students from staying together in the same dorm, to abortion — that Erdogan hasn’t touched and used to polarise Turkish society.

Erdogan — who knew that 60-65 per cent of the Turkish population was politically and culturally right-wing and nationalist — calculated that issues like right and left, Islam and secularism, abortion and anti-abortion, and in recent years capital punishment and its opponents, would sharply and severely divide Turkish voters. He used this to his favour and won based on his forecast.

While Erdogan won, Turkey lost.

With Erdogan at the helm, the country quickly moved away from separation of powers. Independent institutions fell one by one.

By late 2013, a severe war started between the government and the Islamist transnational Gulen movement and its leader, US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Gulen and Erdogan had once been allies; however, their relationship broke down as Gulen-linked law enforcement officials launched serious graft cases that hit AKP officials.

In 2014, Erdogan and his government started a campaign that has been dubbed the “independence war”, mainly going after suspected Gulenists within state ranks.

In July 2016, the Gulenists were widely blamed for carrying out an unsuccessful coup attempt. While there are serious indications that the Gulenists were involved in the coup attempt, nobody so far has been able to tie Fethullah Gulen himself directly to those events.

The powerful, critical media was closed with an iron fist as a state of emergency was declared five days after the failed coup.

Erdogan — who had ruled the country for 12 years at the time — then began to govern the country through presidential decrees under the state of emergency. Police and security forces became untouchable.

A process was started against more than 200,000 citizens. Over 150,000 government employees have been fired from different segments of the government. Tens of thousands have been thrown into jail.

Erdogan changed Turkey’s political system from a parliamentary to a presidential one by holding a referendum to amend the constitution in April 2017 under state of emergency rules while opposition parties were repressed by the state.

The yes vote for the changes was 51.3 per cent, while the no vote was 48.7 per cent. The sweeping executive powers that resulted were cemented under parliamentary and presidential elections last month, also held under the state of emergency.

The state of emergency expired 18 July, but Turkey will continue to be ruled by presidential decrees with the presidential system in place.

Presidential decrees bypass approval from parliament and are the most powerful tools provided by the state of emergency. This will continue as part of the new system that gives Erdogan enhanced powers.

Historically, the Turkish parliament had been powerful in using its checks and balances under the old system.

Now, parliament has been defanged and has minimal oversight powers.

The state of emergency was limited in scope and everyone expected that it would eventually come to an end. However, the powers bestowed upon President Erdogan and the executive branch with the new executive presidential system are permanent and appear virtually limitless. 

Many were hopeful that Turkey would normalise after the state of emergency ended. However, new decrees and anti-terror laws that are now going through parliament will be permanent and not restricted by the state of emergency. It appears that they will have a long-term impact on Turkey.

For now, there doesn’t seem to be any significant challenges to Erdogan’s administration, aside from the economy.

The markets so far disappointed with the fact that Erdogan appointed his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, to be minister of finance and the treasury. Investors are irked by Erdogan’s unorthodox economic theories, particularly that high interest rates lead to high inflation instead of the other way around, as orthodox economic theories assert.

Moreover, in the lead up to the June elections, AKP officials said that a spike in the price of onions was due to foreign powers hoping to topple President Erdogan to show conspiratorial approach to deal with real world’s problems continue.

Whether or not Erdogan can convince the world that his economic governance is sound and stable — instead of built on conspiracy theories — remains to be seen.

*The writer is Washington-based senior editor at AhvalNews

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Erdogan and Ataturk’s mantle 

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