In an age of strong men, the Turkish president has tightened his grip on a profoundly polarized country facing instability and crisis.
Like many past weeks, this one was eventful. British Prime Minister Theresa May surprised everyone, including her cabinet, by calling a snap general election. This was a U-turn because, so far, May had consistently ruled out fresh elections.
The prime minister argues that Westminster is divided at a time when the United Kingdom needs “certainty, stability and strong leadership.” As a consummate politician, May has blamed other political parties of “game playing” after the Brexit referendum, which is likely to weaken the UK’s hand in negotiations with the European Union. In particular, she blamed the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Liberal Democrats and the “unelected” members of the House of Lords.
The British can at least thank their lucky stars that George Osborne will finally be quitting parliament. “Boy George,” as the former chancellor was once nicknamed, is not retiring. He is moving on to more lucrative pursuits by editing the Evening Standard. By George, the British have been spared the prospects of “obnoxious” Boy George “perpetually smirking” on the parliamentary backbenches.
Even as the British have escaped Osborne, the Turks seem to be stuck with Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president won a referendum that amends his country’s constitution and gives him new executive powers.
Al Jazeera English observes that the referendum will transform Turkish political system “from a parliamentary system to an executive presidency, significantly expanding the powers of the top office.” The victory was expected. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) led a fierce campaign in a “climate of fear and censorship.”
The margin of victory was unexpected. The AKP garnered 51.4% of the vote, while the opposition managed 48.6%. Most observers concluded that the referendum took place on an “unlevel playing field” because the two sides did not have equal opportunities to campaign for their ideas. Campaigning restrictions, media marginalization and police harassment meant that opponents of Erdogan fought a rearguard battle.
Now that the opposition has lost, Turkey’s president will have tenure for five years, for a maximum of two terms. She or he will have the power to directly appoint top public officials, including ministers and one or several vice-presidents. The position of the prime minister will be scrapped. Furthermore, the president will have power to meddle with the judiciary. Tellingly, Erdogan has accused the judiciary of acting under the influence of Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based preacher whom the president blames for last year’s failed coup attempt. From now on, the president will have to power to impose a state of emergency in the country.
To most sane individuals, this expansion of presidential powers sounds excessive. Erdogan counters such reservations by thundering that the new system is only emulating France and the United States. Turkey is facing turmoil because of Kurdish insurgencies, Islamist terror campaigns and the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Refugees are flooding the country and straining the social fabric. Erdogan claims he needs more powers to bring peace and security to his troubled land.
The problem with this argument is it leaves the president far too powerful. Already, Erdogan has arrested tens of thousands and sacked or suspended 100,000 from their jobs. After this referendum, he might be in power till 2029. By then, Erdogan would be a youthful 75. He might continue to stay in the saddle like Robert Mugabe who shows no sign of relaxing his grip on power even at 93. Erdogan is now no longer a mere president. He is now an all-powerful sultan.
THE SULTANATE VISION FOR TURKEY
In the October 17, 2015, edition of The World This Week, this author chronicled how Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created a secular Turkish republic through sheer force of will. As Nathaniel Handy points out, Ataturk’s Turkey was a one-party state with a single acceptable vision for Turkish society. Behind the façade of European-style democracy, no alternative or competing narrative was permitted.
Ataturk turned his back on Turkey’s religious past. He drew little solace from Sunnis in modern-day Pakistan, India and Bangladesh launching the Khilafat Movement for the restoration of the authority of the Ottoman sultan as the caliph of Islam. The unsentimental general packed off the last of the Ottomans into exile and sought to create a “radiant civilization” based on science and knowledge. Sullen Sunnis in rural areas, especially in Anatolia, had no choice but to march along to Ataturk’s tune.
The Kurds were also forced to do so. Those who disagreed and rebelled were crushed with an iron hand. In the July 17, 2016, edition of The World This Week, this author quoted Sciences Po’s research, according to which “thousands of Kurds were slaughtered, many more resettled, some were burnt alive, others were subjected to poison gas, entire villages were gunned down and soldiers had orders to kill even women and children.”
Some Kurds still liken Ataturk to Selim the Cruel, Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun. Many religious Turks see Ataturk as Satanic. After all, he dragged his country away from Islam and the Middle East to godless secularism and to Europe. Ataturk changed the dress, the script and the law of the land. He created the modern Turkish nation on the grave of the Ottoman Empire.
Erdogan seeks to turn the clock back. During his time in opposition, the secular Turkish so-called republic packed off the young Erdogan to jail for declaiming: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.” Turkey’s effete elite was living on borrowed time. In 2003, the age of Erdogan began.
Bit by bit, Erdogan clipped the wings of Ataturk’s Kemalist elite. In 2015, this author observed how the president had built Ak Saray, a pure white palace of 1,000 rooms on 50 acres of Ataturk Forest Farm. In the process, Erdogan had flouted court orders, damaged the environment and spent more than $615 million. This palace was symbolic and it was clear that “Sultan Erdoğan [was] inaugurating a new era where Islamic identity and Ottoman grandeur now define Turkey.”
In this sultanate vision for Turkey, there is no space for dissent. Yet there have been protests aplenty. In 2013, a police crackdown on protesters trying to save Gezi Park sparked off mass countrywide protests. Till date, the ghosts of Gezi Park refuse to die. In June 2015, the AKP lost its parliamentary majority. It was only able to win in the November 2015 elections “by creating a siege mentality.” Erdogan conveniently declared war on both the Islamic State and the Kurds after being rather friendly with them in the past.
After the coup attempt in July 2016, the president has turned paranoiac. As per the Financial Times, the “crackdown in Turkey [has passed] the point of no return.” Erdogan has used the failed coup to cynically purge the government, media and academia of all opponents. The rhetoric from his supporters after the referendum has been toxic. For instance, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim proclaimed to cheering AKP supporters: “We are all brothers and sisters in a single body standing against traitors.”
In Erdogan’s Turkey, dissent is equated with treason. That is unsettling because nearly 50% of the Turks are not quite jumping up and down in joy after the results of the referendum. The president has declared that he “will serve the country bearing in mind one nation, one flag, one state … The referendum is over and the debate prior to that is over.” This is his sultanate vision for Turkey.
THE AGE OF STRONG MEN
Erdogan is part of a global trend. In the July 3, 2016, edition of The World This Week, this author observed that we were living in an age of fear, anger, hate and terror. In such an age, strong men have emerged to provide simplistic solutions to the problems facing their country.
In the land of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, Donald Trump and his clan rule the roost. In Russia, Vladimir Putin is a modern-day tsar who swims icy rivers, saves tigers and rides horses bare-chested. Even Europe is in danger of succumbing to such strong men or women. Gábor Vona in Hungary, Norbert Hofer in Austria and Marine Le Pen in Austria are some such leaders, all of whom coincidentally belong to the far right.
Why are so many countries turning away from democracy to authoritarian rule? The answer is complex, but Turkey offers an insight that is relevant to the rest of the world. Turkey’s secular Kemalist elites promised a brave new world to their people. In the early days of the Turkish republic, Ataturk did work like a maniac to modernize his land. He might have been brutal, but he had a sense of service. The founder of modern Turkey worked hard, promoted women’s rights and did not dip his hand into the exchequer.
However, the Kemalist state was unable to create roots as deep as the Ottomans. The ruling elite monopolized power, dispensed patronage and sneered at the rest of the country from their mansions in Istanbul. They were repressive to the Kurds because their conception of nationalism was ethnic. They were also intolerant of moderate Islamists because they adhered to a doctrinaire version of secularism. Military coups were a way of life and the judiciary genuflected to men in uniform.
Over time, the elite turned incestuous and insular. Besides, they repeatedly mismanaged the Turkish economy. In the words of RaboResearch, “Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Turkey became heavily dependent on short-term capital inflows and experienced multiple boom-bust cycles.” Inflation rates often exceeded 80%. After the 1997 Asian financial crisis and 1998 Russian default, foreign investors panicked and pulled capital out of Turkey. The devastating 1999 earthquake hit the country’s industrial heartland and made the situation worse. That year, the economy shrank by 3.6% and the budget deficit increased to 12%.
Like its Asian counterparts, Turkey acted as per the diktat of the International Monetary Fund and launched a disinflation program that included budgetary discipline and privatization of large state-owned enterprises, including Turk Telekom. Before this program could succeed, a full-scale banking crisis broke out in 2001 and 2002. It was this economic crisis that led to AKP’s victory in 2002 and the rise of Erdogan.
In the November 13, 2016, edition of The World This Week, this author examined why Trump won the US election. It turns out that Trump in 2016 won because of similar reasons as Erdogan in 2002. It is important to remember that Putin won because Russians remembered the disgrace they went through during the drunken years of Boris Yeltsin. Not only did the Soviet Union collapse, but public assets were sold at a pittance to a bunch of oligarchs who prospered as the country fell apart.
Of course, reasons apart from economics have played a part. Erdogan was backed by rising social classes who resented the Kemalist elites’ vice-like grip on power. They had been rallying behind moderate Islamists for years. They harked back to an older Turkish identity that was inextricably intertwined with religion. Similarly, Trump was backed by a coalition of religious voters, insecure workers, isolationists, white supremacists, muscular nationalists and even Silicon Valley billionaires like Peter Thiel.
ERDOGAN NOT SO STRONG
Unlike Trump or Putin, Erdogan is on shakier ground. Turkey has no resources or technology that would enable the sultan to dole out patronage or stimulate economic growth. The economic tide that, so far, has been in Erdogan’s favor might be about to turn soon.
In the first 10 years of AKP rule, the Turkish stock market returned 700%. Economic reform and the promise of peace in restive Kurdish regions boosted business, consumer and investor confidence. The AKP relied on this confidence to build tunnels, bridges and a third Istanbul airport to boost the economy and please its cronies. Tourism, construction and consumerism boomed. In the words of Andrew Finkel of The Guardian, “The shopping mall, as much as the mosque, has been the symbol of [the AKP’s] era in power.”
Now, the malls are empty. The lira is tumbling. Tourism is falling. Property developers are in trouble, and banks might have significant bad debt on their books. According to the Financial Times, “Turkey has gone from investor darling to crisis candidate in a few years.”
Like the UK in the Brexit vote or the US in the 2016 presidential election, Turkey is now a profoundly polarized country that, in the words of the BBC, is “at risk of becoming another chronically unstable part of the Middle East.” For that it might have Sultan Erdogan to thank.
*[You can receive “The World This Week” directly in your inbox by subscribing to our mailing list. Simply visit Fair Observer and enter your email address in the space provided. Meanwhile, please find below five of our finest articles for the week.]
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*[This article was updated on May 2, 2017.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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