Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is no longer just President of Turkey, but its Executive head of state. In becoming so, he has consummated the results of a referendum which saw Turks narrowly vote in favour of a new presidential system, in which the head of state has far more power. Whilst some are calling this the first step on the road to dictatorship, he has been elected president democratically, on the back of a democratic referendum. Voter suppression, intimidation, and arrest were likely part of his success, including the jailing of an opposition candidate. But Turkey is not a dictatorship, though it has certainly known those. Rather, it is a highly illiberal democracy.
President Erdoğan has purged the military, media, and educational system of alleged subversives since an attempted coup in 2016. Following his election as president, 18,632 state employees have been dismissed, on the vague charge that they have ‘links’ to terrorism. Yet Erdoğan remains popular among the majority of Turks, having presided over a period of unprecedented economic growth, increased international clout, and the re-introduction of religion to public society.
Following his election as president, 18,632 state employees have been dismissed
Throughout the Middle East, Erdoğan and his Freedom and Development Party (AKP), are revered for their increasingly combative stance towards the west. This, along with Erdoğan’s re-Islamification of Turkish society, and apparently democratic methods of gaining and maintaining power have made him extremely popular on the ‘Arab Street’, as well as in Turkey. Therefore, the ramifications of his rule continuing in the newly empowered post of President should be explored, as well as what it will mean both domestically and internationally.
Key among Turkey’s presidential powers are the abilities to pick a cabinet, and to regulate ministries and remove civil servants. This will allow Erdoğan to cement his position and ensure that all parts of government are unswervingly loyal to him and his vision of Turkey. Just how much these powers will alter the current state of affairs remains to be seen. The Turkish president has always had a deeply authoritarian streak when it comes to freedom of speech and the media. He famously attempted to have a German national (living in Germany) imprisoned for writing a rude poem about him, using an archaic law from the nineteenth century.
In another instance, he had a sixteen-year-old boy imprisoned for insulting the office of president. 2016’s failed coup has been the greatest political gift of his career. It has presented a guise under which he can prosecute, imprison and exile anyone critical of him and his government. Erdoğan’s zeal for purging the army can be understood in rational terms: The army has intervened directly in Turkish politics three times since 1960, and has held power for long periods of time.
However, when viewed in tandem with his policy towards the educational sector and media, a deeper pathology emerges. Reporters Without Borders has revealed that Turkey has the highest number of journalists in prison in the world, ranking 157th out of 180 countries for press freedom. Many journalists face life imprisonment without the possibility of pardon. Judges and academics have also been subject to the same insidious hunt for those the state happily depicts as traitors. With increased power, the only plausible assessment is that Erdoğan will continue to silence domestic opposition with increased avidity.
So, why does he remain popular in Turkey? The country was born out of the nationalistic aspirations of Kemal Atatürk, the country’s first ruler, who defeated Western powers to establish Turkey’s borders after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, whilst simultaneously westernizing Turkey; adopting a Latinate alphabet and banishing religion from state affairs. In some ways, Erdoğan has sought to stylistically imitate Atatürk by playing the strongman.
Reporters Without Borders has revealed that Turkey has the highest number of journalists in prison in the world
In the economic sphere, too, there are similarities. Both presided over booming economies. Yet Erdoğan has sought to undermine the most fundamental of Atatürk’s values; secularism. Erdoğan and AKP’s base are conservative Muslims. Erdoğan has said he wants to see the “growth of a religious generation” in Turkey, and it is this, combined with economic success that has made him so popular. The government is using louder-speakers – quite literally – to stream Islamism into Turkish society; recently ordering all of Turkey’s mosques to broadcast the ‘prayer to conquest’ from the minarets.
On the international stage, Erdoğan is presenting himself as the champion of Islam; preferring to support religious extremists in Syria against the liberal Kurds of Rojava, and speaking in increasingly critical terms about Europe and America. The symbolism of the Turkish head of state claiming a degree of leadership in the Islamic world, whilst assuming near to total domestic power will not be missed in the Middle East. Islam has not had a widely recognized caliph since the fall of the last Ottoman Sultan. While the House of Saud sought the mantel, it has not worn it well. For Erdoğan, greater domestic power will increase his standing among Sunni Muslims, and his increased standing among Sunnis internationally will increase his support domestically. It is a perfect symbiosis.
the only plausible assessment is that Erdogan will continue to silence domestic opposition with increased avidity
Erdoğan’s increasing power will probably go unchecked. The agreement that sees Turkey retain migrants attempting to enter Europe makes him invaluable to European politicians, running scared as they are of right-wing populism at home. If Donald Trump has any feelings on the matter, they are probably a mix of jealousy and respect. In Syria, Turkey is fighting a war alongside jihadists against the Kurds; a people who protect women’s rights, gays, and believe in democracy. The Kurds have been an ally of the West for decades. By failing to condemn Erdoğan’s campaign of brutality, we are betraying them once again.
It appears the West is willing to let Erdoğan export his illiberality beyond the borders of Turkey for short-term domestic gain. To say it is too soon to make these claims is mere obfuscation. Erdoğan has a clear track record that we can study. He has never been shy about it. We shouldn’t be either.