The consecration of illiberal democracy

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 6 Jun 2023

The re-election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as president of Turkey in last week’s elections is bad news for Turkish democracy, writes Hussein Haridy


Last Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected for a third term in office with 52.1 per cent of the vote against his opponent Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) who got 47 per cent. This means that 25 million Turkish voters voted for Kilicdaroglu, hoping to unseat Erdogan from office.

Eighty-nine million voters went to the polls in the second round of the Turkish presidential elections on 28 May, and the final results demonstrate how polarised Turkey has become. Those who voted for the opposition candidate were hoping that miracles could happen and that the 20-year rule of Erdogan would come to an end.

The reelected president was jubilant at the result, and in his post-election speeches he spoke in grandiose term of Turkey over the next five years during his third presidential mandate. One of the remarks he made was quite surprising when he told his supporters “what did I tell you? We will be together to the grave.”

Though Erdogan also said that the real winner in the presidential election was Turkey itself, there are fears that he will now maintain the policies and practices of the last ten years without substantial changes.

Those who did not vote for him are afraid that the chances of his further hollowing out state institutions are not slim. In other words, they fear that Erdogan’s autocratic rule will continue.

The elections were a referendum on the future of democracy in Turkey. Over the last two decades, the newly reelected Turkish president has undermined democratic rule in the country by centralising power in his office, politicising the judiciary, and curtailing free speech. He has not hesitated to throw prominent opposition figures into jail on spurious charges.

One example of this that comes to mind is the fate of Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the Kurdish-dominated People’s Democratic Party (HDP). At one of his campaign rallies leading up to last month’s elections, Erdogan vowed that Demirtas would stay in prison. He told his supporters that “you can’t free Selahattin… especially during my rule. Something like this is not possible.” The European Court of Human Rights had meanwhile ruled that he should be released from prison.

In his speech inaugurating his third term in office, Erdogan assured the tens of thousands of people who attended it that the “century of Turkey has begun, and the doors of our country’s growth have been opened.”

Many among those who have come to believe in him as some kind of saviour may think that Erdogan will steer their country towards imperial greatness. What he and his followers have in mind when they think along these lines is of course related to the former Ottoman Empire, which stands in their national subconscious for confrontation with the West and unfettered support for Islam worldwide and for Islamic causes.

Erdogan vowed that the economy would be the number one priority for the new Turkish government in his speech. He has replaced leading ministers from the previous government, and Turkey now has a new foreign minister, the former head of Turkish intelligence Hanan Fidan, who replaces Mevlut Cavusoglu.

He has reappointed a former deputy prime minister and minister of finance, Mehmet Sinsek, as the new finance and treasury chief. This appointment is a clear indication that fixing the economy is the main challenge facing Erdogan in his third term. According to the Turkish constitution this term is also his last, though questions remain as to whether this will actually be the case.

Erdogan also appointed a new interior minister, Ali Yerlikaya, the former governor of the Istanbul province, who replaced Souleymane Soylu, known for his anti-Western positions and the harsh treatment he meted out to those who opposed government policies.

The Turkish president said there would also be a new constitution for the country. The statement took most people by surprise, save for those who doubt that he will in fact leave power at the expiration of his present term in office. After all, he is the one who told his supporters once the final results had been officially published that “we will be together to the grave.”

Such people, Erdogan’s supporters, do not understand what a constitutional order means in terms of the peaceful transfer of power. Democracy for them is only the ballot box, and it does not include other vital elements of a democratic order such as constitutional checks and balances, a free press, the freedom of expression, and the rule of law. Were these things respected in Turkey, its head of state could never say that his opponents, or one of them at least, would remain in jail in the absence of due legal process.

 Another five years in office for Erdogan will put Turkish democracy, or what is left of it, in great peril. During his reinauguration as the country’s president following the recent elections, Erdogan spoke about a new constitution, the main reason for which is presumably nothing short of the perpetuation of his rule.

He now has a majority in the Turkish parliament, and this could be used to bring about a momentous change in the history of the Turkish Republic. This change would consecrate a regime that is inspired and guided by the rise of illiberal democracy. It would be a betrayal of the foundations of the secular Republic that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded a century ago in 1924.

The irony is that the celebrations of the centennial of Ataturk’s secular Republic next year will now be held under an autocratic rule that is a threat to the very foundations of liberal democracy.

The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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