Erdogan’s Turkey: the end of democracy?

The Reina nightclub attack has only added to the country’s sense of insecurity. As its president turns towards Russia, many fear an even steeper slide into authoritarianism

President Erdogan of Turkey has suspended of fired over 110,000 civil servants in Turkey since the attempted coup in July 2016. Many in the country fear an even steeper slide into authoritarianism.


The year was just an hour old when a man dressed in black approached the door of the nightclub, raised an automatic rifle and shot a security guard in the chest at point-blank range.

Reina, a well-known club in Istanbul’s Ortakoy neighbourhood, and a magnet for local celebrities and well-heeled foreigners, was jammed that night. More than 600 people filled its bars, dance floor and waterside terrace, ushering in the new year on the banks of the Bosporus, at the point where Europe and Asia meet.

Among the partygoers was Leanne Nasser, an 18-year-old Arab-Israeli from the town of Tira, who was visiting Istanbul with three friends. It was the young woman’s first trip abroad; she had begged her father to let her travel, even though he was worried for her safety. Also there was 21-year-old Fikri Tosun, from Montluçon, in central France, who had flown to Istanbul with two friends for New Year’s Eve.

Survivors would later recall that the gunman – there may have been more than one assailant, some reports suggested – did not shoot randomly. Rather he moved from table to table, picking off individual partygoers before moving on. Chaos ensued. In the space of 10 minutes about 180 bullets were fired, according to the Turkish daily Hurriyet. Hearing the sound of gunfire, people dived under tables, climbed over corpses and sought out hiding places in the toilets or the kitchen. Some jumped into the Bosporus.

“At first we thought some men were fighting with each other,” a Lebanese woman named Hadeel told the news agency Reuters. “Then we heard the sound of the gunfire and ducked under the tables. We heard the guy screaming Allahu akbar” – God is Greater. “We heard his footsteps crushing the broken glass. We got out through the kitchen. There was blood everywhere, and bodies.”

Back home in France it was about 11pm when Ergin Tosun got a Snapchat message from his brother Fikri in Istanbul. “Brother, I love you . . . I’m going to die,” it said. Fikri was shot in the leg and shoulder but survived.

Leanne Nasser was not so lucky. On New Year’s Day her father flew to Istanbul to identify her body.

Reina attack: a policeman guards the nightclub where 39 people were killed on New Year’s Day. Photograph: AFP
Reina attack: a policeman guards the nightclub where 39 people were killed on New Year’s Day. Photograph: AFP

Thirty-nine people were killed in the Reina attack, including at least 15 foreigners, and dozens more were wounded. Islamic State claimed responsibility, saying that one of its “soldiers” – whom Turkish authorities say they have identified but not yet caught – had carried out the attack.

After a violent, tumultuous year, carnage on this scale has taken on a grim familiarity in Turkey’s major cities. Just last month the Russian ambassador was assassinated by an off-duty policeman in Ankara and 44 people were killed when a car bomb and a suicide vest detonated in quick succession outside the Besiktas stadium, in the heart of Istanbul. The first explosion was so powerful that body parts had to be retrieved from its roof. A group widely considered to be linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, said that it had carried out the attack.

Police arrive at the site of an explosion in central Istanbul. Photograph: Murad Sezer/Reuters
Police arrive at the site of the bombing near Besiktas Besiktas soccer stadium central Istanbul. Photograph: Murad Sezer/Reuters

On edge

The same disorienting pattern has held in the first days of the new year. On Thursday a bomb went off outside a courthouse in the city of Izmir, an attack the authorities said may have been carried out by the PKK.

A sense of insecurity, which has worsened with each new attack since the current wave began, in mid-2015, is now all pervasive. Hotels and tourist sites in Istanbul have reported a collapse in visitor numbers.

Police maintain a heavy presence on public transport and on the streets, and foreign embassies regularly warn of an elevated risk of violent attacks. Vibrant, cosmopolitan Istanbul is subdued, on edge.

“I meet up with friends in the evening, and they say, ‘No, let’s not go there, let’s not go there,” says one Istanbul-based worker at a nongovernmental organisation, who asks not to be identified.

“People are rearranging their schedules out of concern that Islamic State, in particular, is targeting western-minded people and their regular hangout spaces.”

Political and social upheaval

The terrorist threat has risen at a time of upheaval in Turkish politics and society. In the past 18 months alone President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, cofounder and figurehead of the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has vaulted from a position of weakness – the loss of his parliamentary majority in June 2015 – to one of apparently unassailable strength.

A botched coup last July, followed by the arrest, sacking or suspension of 100,000 people, including soldiers and police officers, has further solidified Erdogan’s hold on power and accelerated Turkey’s slide into authoritarianism.

A state of emergency, declared in the days after the coup attempt and extended again this week, has given the authorities sweeping powers to restrict individual rights, including freedom of expression. A hundred and forty journalists are in detention, opposition newspapers have been closed down and online censorship is rife.

"Turkey always had these fault lines, but Erdogan very successfully played on them."

“It’s like Brexit and Trump,” says Prof Umut Özkirimli, a specialist in Turkish politics now based at the centre for Middle Eastern studies at Lund University, in Sweden. “It’s the same thing we see all over the place. Conservative right-wing nationalists. Turkey always had these fault lines, but Erdogan very successfully played on them. Now the Pandora’s box is open, and it’s very difficult to close it.”

WhatsApp diaspora

Özkirimli describes himself as part of Turkey’s WhatsApp diaspora: the students, academics, businesspeople and others who have gone into exile and, having publicly criticised the regime, fear what could await them if they return. “I can’t go back,” he says. “I don’t have any case against me, but there is a state of emergency. They can grab you at the airport and put you in prison without giving any explanation, detain you from seeing your lawyer for 10 days and keep you in prison for a month without telling you what you are accused of.”

In the months since the attempted coup, which the government says was led by followers of an exiled cleric named Fethullah Gülen, Erdogan’s face has sprung up everywhere: on billboards, on public buildings, in shops and cafes.

Fethullah Gülen: accused by Erdogan of leading failed coup attempt

He has loomed over the political landscape for much longer. As mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998 the former semi-professional soccer player built a reputation as a dynamic fixer, tackling chronic infrastructural problems stemming from the city’s rapid growth, including water shortages, poor rubbish collection and traffic chaos.

His supporters, many of whom felt shunned by the Istanbul and Ankara elite, revere Erdogan as a strong, pragmatic and pious leader who has restored Turkey to its rightful place as a major power.

Last July, in the days after the failed coup, residents of Kasimpasa, the working-class Istanbul district where Erdogan was born and raised, beamed with pride at the resilience of a local son. “He’s one of the people. He belongs to us. That’s why people here love him,” Özgür Akkaya, who runs a grocery shop in the area, says.

Erdogan’s 11 years as prime minister, from 2003 to 2014 – a period of rapid growth, with a construction boom that transformed the skyline of Istanbul and other cities – burnished his reputation as an effective leader and administrator. In the past two decades central Anatolia, a religious belt that, with the urban working-class vote, makes up the AKP’s core support, grew wealthier and more developed.

Under the influence of the AKP, Islam took a more prominent place in public life

Living standards rose and exports and tourism surged across the country, and Turkey emerged as a regional powerhouse.

Meanwhile, under the influence of the AKP, Islam took a more prominent place in public life, and the secularist tradition that traced its lineage to Kemal Ataturk, the nationalist who founded the modern Turkish republic from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, went into retreat.

Period of openness

Many Turkish liberals and minorities recall the 2000s as a period of openness, at least compared with today. Greater debate of the Kurdish question took place, and the authorities appeared to tolerate a certain amount of discussion of the Armenian genocide, a designation the Turkish government rejects.

The views of some of Turkey’s international allies evolved along similar lines. According to an April 2016 article in the Atlantic, based on lengthy interviews with Barack Obama and his foreign-affairs advisers, the US president initially saw Erdogan as a moderate Muslim leader “who would bridge the divide between East and West but . . . now considers him a failure and an authoritarian, one who refuses to use his enormous army to bring stability to Syria”.

The limits of official tolerance for dissent were put to the test in 2013, when youth-led resistance to a plan to raze Gezi Park, in central Istanbul, and replace it with a shopping centre morphed into a wider protest by millions over economic precarity, inequality and the increasingly draconian rule of Erdogan’s party.

Riot police guard the entrance of Gezi Park as protesters shout slogans in central Istanbul earlier this year. Photograph: Osman Orsal/Reuters
Riot police guard the entrance of Gezi Park as protesters shout slogans in central Istanbul.  Photograph: Osman Orsal/Reuters

The authorities appeared to be rattled by the movement, at times standing back and at other times sending in riot police with tear gas to disperse the crowds. It is estimated that 11 people were killed and more than 8,000 others injured during the demonstrations. “I think the Gezi protests happened because of the space he allowed,” Özkirimli says, referring to Erdogan. “But then he realised that he couldn’t control the monster, and he started to brutally suppress everything.”

A turning point came in June 2015, when Erdogan, who had assumed the presidency a year earlier, saw his party lose its majority in parliament for the first time in a decade. Disparate strands of the Kurdish community, which makes up about 15 per cent of the Turkish population, coalesced around the opposition People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, which saw a leap in support.

Erdogan suddenly looked vulnerable; the first terrorist attacks on Turkish soil by Islamic State, coinciding with public misgivings about the influx of millions of Syrian refugees, were prompting many Turks to question the wisdom of his strategy in Syria. (Turkey under Erdogan has been exceptionally generous in its reception of Syrian refugees, almost three million of whom are currently in the country.)

Euphoria on the left did not last long. Erdogan outmanoeuvred his opponents. Instead of forming a coalition he gambled on a second election. His party trounced the opposition, winning 317 seats in Turkey’s 550-seat parliament. Later that summer the government launched air strikes against the PKK and began a new crackdown in the Kurdish southeast, all of which helped to shore up the AKP base.

Constitutional revision

Erdogan remains hugely popular. His party’s support usually ranges from 40 to 50 per cent, but in the aftermath of the failed coup, which was denounced even by Erdogan’s most vociferous opponents, his own popularity surged past 65 per cent. Whether he has enough support to achieve what he has long sought – a constitutional revision that would create an executive presidency, in effect ushering in one-man rule – is an open question.

Erdogan has already turned what was a largely ceremonial role into a powerful position, but last month his government tabled proposals that would enable Erdogan to appoint and dismiss ministers, personally declare a state of emergency, and govern until 2029.

Erdogan speaks to a rally of his supporters.

Erdogan and his supporters say the country needs the strong leadership of an executive presidency, akin to the French system, but his opponents see the plan as a vehicle for Erdogan’s ambition and another nail in the coffin of Turkish democracy. If the AKP can win support from a nationalist opposition party the plan is likely to be put to a referendum in the spring.

In the US and western capitals, which long saw Turkey as a beacon of stability in a volatile region, and as a Muslim-majority but secular and western-oriented bridge to the Middle East, the latest screw tightening is being watched with increasing alarm.

Talks on Turkey’s EU accession have long been stalled; now they’re as good as dead. A number of states, notably Austria, have made their opposition to Turkish membership clear, but many others, facing a populist backlash at home, have no appetite for another enlargement round, let alone one that would admit a Muslim country of 79 million people.

The administration used to pay lip service to the EU relationship. They’re not even doing that any more

Instead EU-Turkey talks are continuing on a new customs union, potential visa-free travel and the future of Cyprus, but the prospect of a breakthrough on any of these topics in 2017 looks slim.

Mutual suspicion

The relationship is freighted with mutual suspicion. The EU has condemned Erdogan’s crackdown and declared the idea of reintroducing the death penalty, recently mooted by the AKP leadership, as a red line. At the same time many Turks blame the EU for the collapse of the accession process. Even those who do not support Erdogan were furious about how long western leaders took to visit Ankara and declare solidarity after last summer’s attempt to topple an elected government.

“The administration used to pay lip service to the EU relationship. They’re not even doing that any more,” Cengiz Aktar, an Istanbul-based political scientist and columnist, says. For all that, however, the two sides are locked in an awkward embrace. Ankara cannot afford to alienate the EU, which is by far its largest trading partner, while the EU needs Erdogan to keep his side of the deal on Syrian refugees, under which Turkey stops refugees crossing from its side of the Aegean in return for European cash.

Turning to Russia

Turkey’s Nato allies are looking on anxiously at the flowering relationship between Ankara and Moscow. The tensions caused by Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian jet it said had crossed briefly into its airspace from northern Syria in 2015 have been put aside, replaced by an alliance that, notwithstanding Turkey and Russia’s support of opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, has resulted in a bilateral gas-pipeline deal and, just last week, a plan for a ceasefire in the Syrian conflict.

Turkish upheavals: Russia’s President Putin with President Erdogan in Istanbul. Photograph: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty
Turkish upheavals: Russia’s President Putin with President Erdogan in Istanbul. Photograph: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty

“He is successfully dissociating Turkey from all its western links,” Aktar says of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. “The Turkish westernisation process is 200 years old. It’s not something new. But I think Turkey is slowly but surely entering Russia’s sphere of influence.

“The EU bond is practically gone, but the Nato bond remains. The biggest challenge for the West this year is to see how they will manage to reduce the influence of Russia, and whether they will manage to keep Turkey close to them. In my opinion it’s becoming more and more difficult.”

For all his apparent strength Erdogan will face stiff headwinds in 2017. The first is an economic slowdown. Having grown rapidly over the past two decades, the Turkish economy stuttered last year; exports have stalled and average incomes have fallen short of AKP promises. In a country with recent memory of economic collapse (the 1970s) and triple-digit inflation (the 1990s), a big economic shock could undermine one of the foundation stones of Erdogan’s popularity.

The second headwind is blowing in from the south, where Turkey’s Syrian strategy is being hurriedly rewritten. Having invested heavily in its goal of ousting the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, Ankara now appears resigned to his remaining in power as part of any peace deal.

Turkish troops are making progress in creating a buffer zone in northern Syria, but Ankara continues to fight a costly, multicountry Kurdish insurgency while having to deal with increasingly frequent Islamic State attacks on home soil – blowback, Erdogan’s critics say, for a strategy that for years prioritised containing the Kurds and taking the fight to Assad over any attempt to stem the growth of Islamic State.

If this were 2013 Erdogan might be growing anxious about his domestic support. But a lot has happened in the three years since the Gezi movement came and went. Today, says the NGO worker, the space for dissenting views has contracted, and with it has weakened the will to push back.

“There was a period when we thought there was a different vision of the country that was worth fighting for,” she says. “I feel like there’s a resignation now that things are going to be more authoritarian. You carve out a space for yourself and stay out of trouble. It’s more about survival mode.”

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