Erdogan remains vulnerable despite power grab

Turkish president dismantling country’s secularism, which will alienate liberal Turks

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan  has rejoined the ruling AKP  after a nearly three-year absence. Photograph: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rejoined the ruling AKP after a nearly three-year absence. Photograph: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began his first 100 days last week as head of Turkey’s new regime by reverting to membership in the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP). He is now set to be re-elected as chairman on the 21st of this month.

Once this happens he will no longer be the theoretical president of all the Turks but, in practice, president of the AKP’s conservative, devout constituency constituting half the populace. This is certain to further alienate the already alienated liberal, secular 50 per cent of Turks.

Under the unamended constitution, the Turkish president was meant to be a neutral, largely ceremonial figure. However, as soon as he was inaugurated in August 2014, after serving for 11 years as prime minister, Erdogan usurped the powers of his previous office, with the backing of his majority parliamentary party.

Although his 18 amendments were approved by a narrow margin – 51.4 per cent in the April 16th referendum – Erdogan’s return to the AKP has demonstrated he intends to move ahead with his drive to remodel the post-Ottoman, Western-style Turkish state founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923. Atatürk adopted aggressive laïcité and the parliamentary system of governance, appointed the military guarantor of this polity, and decreed all inhabitants of the new state to be “Turks”. Over the decades Turkey developed checks and balances for the executive, legislature and judiciary.

Accession

After becoming prime minister in 2003, Erdogan adopted Atatürk’s pro-Western external orientation by pursuing Turkey’s accession to the European Union (EU). On the internal front he began to erode his country’s secularism by actively promoting religious schools, lifting the ban on women wearing headscarves in state institutions, and attempting to criminalise adultery and introduce alcohol-free zones. He criticised birth control and argued men and women are not equal.

The military no longer has the power to act as guarantor of Atatürk’s state

He was able to promote his agenda because the AKP, modelled on the Muslim Brotherhood, dominated the political landscape and could count on maintaining its majority in parliament thanks to weakness and division among secular rivals. The AKP’s control of parliament removed the legislature as a check on Erdogan’s ambitions. In 2013, following allegations of AKP corruption, Erdogan began to purge the judiciary, which he escalated dramatically last year after the failed mid-July military coup which was followed by mass arrests and dismissals of judges, prosecutors, and police.

Coup plot

Erdogan also purged the military in stages, beginning in 2007 with allegations of a coup plot by secular nationalists in the armed forces command and peaking after the failed 2016 coup. The military no longer has the power to act as guarantor of Atatürk’s state.

Since the AKP is heir to three fundamentalist parties – National Salvation, Welfare, and Virtue – and denied power by the military, Erdogan had no intention of permitting the generals to intervene again.

The constitutional amendments transform Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential model by abolishing the role of prime minister and conferring on the president sweeping executive powers. He not only exercises authority over the legislature but is also empowered to draw up the state budget and appoint cabinet ministers, members of the National Security Council and 12 out of 15 judges to the constitutional court. Prosecutors and lower court judges are to be chosen by parliament and president. Checks and balances have been eliminated.

The most important Ottoman practice he has rejected is toleration of multiple ethnicities

Erdogan could reign until 2029, enabling him to advance the replacement of Atatürk’s secular model with a faith-based system featuring conservative Sunni tenets and social practices. He claims his aim is to revert to the Ottoman model, has adopted the pomp and circumstance of the Ottoman court, and is often portrayed as a pasha in a turban and flowing garments.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: A loss in April’s referendum would hurt him more than any previous election failure or shortcoming. Photograph: Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Press Service via AP)
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: "Despite his harsh crackdown on domestic dissent, Erdogan remains vulnerable. In 2015 he rekindled the 30-year war against the Kurds after nearly two years of ceasefire and negotiations."  File photograph: Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Press Service via AP

‘Cherry-picking’

He is, in fact, “cherry-picking” elements of the Ottoman regime, adopting some, eschewing others. The most important Ottoman practice he has rejected is toleration of multiple ethnicities, religious faiths, and cultures. Instead, he has embraced post-Ottoman, Kemalist ethnic Turkish nationalism which forced Greek and Armenian Christians to flee and angered the Kurds, 20 per cent of the population. For generations they have been dubbed “mountain Turks,” and their Indo-Aryan ethnic identity, language and culture have been suppressed, driving them to revolt.

The opposition is strong in Turkey’s three major cities – Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir

Erdogan’s critics argue his referendum victory was undemocratic since opponents of his amendments were prevented from campaigning and the result was fraudulent due to the acceptance by the election commission of ballots without its authentication stamps. The opposition is strong in Turkey’s three major cities – Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir – while Erdogan’s supporters live mainly in rural areas and provincial towns. The divide is largely between secular, urban Turks and devout, conservative, urban working class, small town and village Turks.

Reliance on his constituency without conciliating opponents could lead to demonstrations in Turkey’s cities similar to the countrywide protests in 2013 sparked by Ankara’s decision to build a mosque and mall in Istanbul’s Gezi park, the city’s greenzone. Protesters demonstrated against corruption, limitations on press freedom, destruction of the environment, and Erdogan’s erosion of secularism.

Crackdown

Despite his harsh crackdown on domestic dissent, Erdogan remains vulnerable. In 2015 he rekindled the 30-year war against the Kurds after nearly two years of ceasefire and negotiations. His promotion of war in Syria by facilitating the movement of foreign fighters and arms across Turkey into Syria, and supporting Muslim Brotherhood-linked expatriate Syrian oppositionists, has backfired.

Al-Qaeda and Islamic State have taken over from “moderate” rebels, prospered in Syria and Iraq, formed cells in Turkey’s towns and cities and carried out bombings in Ankara and Istanbul. The Turkish army has been drawn into the Syrian conflict. Jihadis have infiltrated Europe via Turkey and mounted operations in Belgium and France. Radical recruiters have inspired attacks elsewhere in Europe.

Turkey’s relations with the US, EU and Nato have been damaged. Erdogan’s first post-referendum journey was to India, where he was warmly welcomed by Hindu revivalist Narendra Modi. Erdogan will shortly meet his US counterpart Donald Trump who has made a practice of inviting to the White House authoritarian rulers, shunned by his predecessor.

Michael Jansen is based in Cyprus and writes for The Irish Times about the Middle East

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