20 April 2017

Erdogan’s Uneasy Triumph

Yet another crisis for Turkey.

by Neil Tidmarsh

Less than two years ago, it looked as if President Erdogan’s political life was about to come to an end.  The parliamentary election of June 2015 was a disaster for him.  The electorate understood that the vote was really about Erdogan’s plans to change the constitution from a parliamentary system to a presidential one, and the result indicted that it did not approve of them.  Erdogan’s governing AKP party lost its majority, and opposition parties (notably the pro-Kurdish HDP) made huge gains.

Erdogan was unable to form a coalition.  His minority AKP government limped on until forced into a second election a few months later.  The results of that improved his position slightly, but it seemed that his ambitions for a powerful, executive presidency would have to be scrapped.  He appeared instead to settle for ad hoc measures to empower his office, taking an aggressive attitude to opposition of all kinds: official criticism was answered by sackings and intimidation; accusations of corruption against associates and relatives were answered with removals from office; opposition newspapers and media groups were seized by courts; journalists were arrested; accusations of the hitherto little-used offence of insulting the president were enthusiastically hurled about (almost two thousand people have been charged with this offence since Erdogan came to power in 2014).  Nevertheless, it was all a long way from the fundamental constitutional change which he had been championing.

But a lot has happened to Turkey since June 2015.  Commitment to the war in Syria has seen it in armed conflict against Assad’s government, against Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, and against Isis.  Even armed conflict against Assad’s ally Russia – hitherto a friend of Turkey – looked like a possibility after Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian fighter jet.  The insurgency by Kurdish separatists in southern and eastern Turkey has resumed. The migrant crisis has deepened, with three million refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq inside Turkey, and an obligation to stop the flow of refugees over the Aegean and the Balkans to Europe, following the deal with the EU.  Friction with the EU over the migrant crisis and human rights, and with the USA over conflict with US-backed Kurds in Syria and Iraq, has damaged Turkey’s relationships with its Western allies.  And on top of all that, there was last July’s attempted coup d’état, which almost succeeded (if some accounts are to be believed) and which was followed by massive and repressive counter-measures.

It now seems that these crises enabled President Erdogan to project himself as a powerful defender of his nation, determined to face up to and destroy the country’s internal and external enemies.  He has been seen to defy the EU and the USA, and to win the respect of President Putin, a man who many believe is Erdogan’s role model.  He has apparently succeeded in persuading his country that the many serious problems that beset it can only be tackled by a president with even more power than he has at present; and the result of last weekend’s referendum has given him that power.  An executive presidency, with the power to over-rule parliament, is at last within his grasp.

In the coming weeks, Mr Erdogan will almost certainly resume his position as official head of the AKP, which he had to abandon (at least nominally) when he was elected president in 2014.  In the coming months, laws will be passed to prepare for the transition from a parliamentary system to a presidential system.  The change of systems will take place following presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019.

What now?  Europe is bracing itself for more friction with Turkey, fearing a breakdown of the agreement to contain the migrant crisis, something which Erdogan regularly threatens.  He has shown little enthusiasm for passing the democratic and human rights reforms that the EU has insisted are necessary if Turkish citizens are to be given visa-free travel to the Schengen zone.  And now he is talking about reintroducing the death penalty, which the EU considers to be a red line.  He is certain to use his new authority to move away from Europe and towards the recovery of Eastern territorial influence which he has always coveted – a return to Ottoman power and glory.   Europe and the West will find him increasingly hard to deal with as he grows stronger.

And yet there is no guarantee that he will attain the power and authority which the referendum has apparently granted him.  He has claimed victory on the basis of an unofficial count, a count which itself gives him only 51.49%, hardly an overwhelming victory.  The result is being challenged by protesters who are rallying in their thousands, by opposition parties, and by international observers such as the OSCE (which has said that the election took place on an unlevel playing field, with the authorities inhibiting campaigning for the ‘no’ vote).  There is particular concern about a change made to the rules just minutes after the polls closed; unstamped ballot papers, which are usually excluded, were suddenly allowed.  The main opposition party the CHP says that 1.5 million unstamped papers were counted – the margin of victory was about 1.4 million votes.

The final and official result of the referendum will be announced by the electoral board next week.  The board is expected to uphold Erdogan’s victory.  But the HDP and CHP opposition parties, and even parts of the nationalist MHP (the party which Erdogan’s own AKP relies on for its governing majority) may well block the legislation necessary to prepare the way for the new presidential system.

The many crises which have wracked Turkey in the last two years have opened and deepened cracks in the nation which at times look as if they could spiral out of control and even explode into civil war.  The Kurdish insurgency has already reached levels of violence which might qualify as open warfare.  And the reaction against the failed coup d’etat has developed into an anti-Gulan purge which is beginning to look like a country consuming itself; 113,260 people have been detained (including 168 generals, 10,732 police officers and 2,575 prosecutors and judges); 125,000 people have been sacked from their jobs; over 150 media outlets have been closed; 2000 schools, universities and dormitories have been shut down; 131 journalists are in jail.  The referendum has opened up yet another division.  Half the country (largely rural, conservative and working class) now identifies as pro-Erdogan; half (largely liberal, educated, secular and urban) now identifies as anti-Erdogan.  Both sides are equally passionate and dedicated, and the temperature is rising. Could this be the division which finally breaks the country apart?


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