Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to straddle the global stage like a colossus. With one foot firmly planted in NATO, he should in theory be closely aligned with his Western colleagues. His other foot, however, appears to be resting in the snows of Moscow. He has concluded an arms deal with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin which gives him access to an anti-missile system designed to detect and shoot down stealth fighters like the F-35 produced by the US, which he was also seeking to acquire. Forced to make a choice, he plumped for the Russian deal.
He is also the fulcrum of current political and military activity in the Middle East. Domestically he has for years been combatting the PKK, a group struggling for Kurdish autonomy, sometimes prepared to use terrorism to make its point. He maintains that the YPG group, which dominates the Kurdish Peshmerga military force stationed on the Syrian-Turkish border, is indistinguishable from the PKK.
When US President Donald Trump suddenly announced a withdrawal of US forces from the area, Erdogan sprang into action, launching a military attack aimed at forcing the YPG back further into Syria. He proposes to construct a so-called “safe zone” several kilometers wide, into which he intends moving the nearly 4 million Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey during their civil war.
Undeterred by the arrival of Syrian national forces in support of the YPG Erdogan, having agreed to a short ceasefire to allow the Kurdish troops to retreat from the area, is intent on reaching his military objective. What gives him the ability to act unfettered on the international scene?
By the time Adolf Hitler seized the reins of supreme power in August 1934, his Nazi party had gained control of every aspect of the nation’s administration. Thereafter he ruled Germany, and the vast territories that his armed forces conquered and subjugated, totally unencumbered by any political, judicial or constitutional constraints.
Examine Erdogan’s rise to power in Turkey, and disturbing parallels emerge. Yet Erdogan is still not the absolute ruler that Hitler was.
In July 2016 Erdogan had been Turkey’s president for two years, and had made no secret of his determination to transform the office – traditionally simply ceremonial – into that of a political supremo. The timetable for accomplishing Erdogan’s constitutional revision envisaged its passage through parliament by the end of 2016, and a popular referendum a few months later. However his AKP party were at daggers drawn with the followers of Erdogan’s main opponent, Fethullah Gulen, an influential Turkish cleric who lived in the US. Popular support was spread evenly between them, and the result of the referendum seemed far from certain.
Then, on 15 July 2016, just before 11 pm, military jets were seen flying over Ankara, and a group of Turkish soldiers took over several institutions there and in Istanbul. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced that part of the military was making an “illegal attempt” to seize power. The coup, if that indeed is what it was, was soon thwarted by national forces, but it justified Erdogan in imposing a state of emergency. Retribution of unprecedented severity was exacted from suspected opponents. More than 110,000 people were arrested, including nearly 11,000 police officers, 7,500 members of the military, and 2,500 prosecutors and judges. 179 media outlets were shut down, and some 2700 journalists dismissed.
Subsequent intensive inquiries left a large number of questions unanswered, and the New York Times was not alone in believing that these loose ends led to the suspicion that the government may have allowed the coup to unfold, or even encouraged it.
In April 2017, with the state’s constitutional and judicial powers still outside the executive’s control, the referendum on the constitutional changes duly took place. The result – a narrow 51% in favor against 49% against – strengthened suspicions about the nature of the coup the previous July. Had opposition voices not been removed, and a major propaganda campaign not been possible, Erdogan could well have lost the referendum, and with it his long-desired bid for supreme power.
After the referendum came the constitutional transformation, described by one commentator as “maybe one of the starkest examples of constitutional gerrymandering.”
The office of Prime Minister was abolished as was the parliamentary Cabinet, and their powers were transferred to the presidency, together with a tranche of traditional parliamentary powers such as setting the annual budget. Authority over the armed forces was, for the first time, invested in the president.
The judiciary similarly lost power to the president. The High Council of Judges and Prosecutors was completely revised. The new Council was reduced from 22 regular members to 13, Of these four are appointed directly by the president while, in addition, the minister and deputy minister of justice – both members of the president’s cabinet – take up two more seats. As a result six of the 13 council members are presidential appointees.
Erdogan now heads a system of executive rule virtually free from the constraints of separation of powers, thus enabling him to establish by decree the structures to support his system of one-man rule.
And yet a modicum of the basic constitutional and judicial structure of the old Turkish republic lingers, and the popular will still has the ability to break through. Erdogan began his political career as mayor of Istanbul. Subsequently, throughout his time in national politics, his AKP party ruled Istanbul. Indeed he is on record as saying that if his party “lost Istanbul, we would lose Turkey.”
Then came the municipal elections of March 2019. To the shock and horror of the AKP and of Erdogan himself, the AKP candidate was defeated by 0.2% of the vote – a mere 13,700. The AKP immediately challenged the result and petitioned for a rerun. That did not sit well with the electorate. In the new vote, held in June 2019, the anti-AKP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, boosted his margin of victory 57-fold to win 54.2% of the vote against 45.0%. It was a record in the history of Istanbul local elections.
Several commentators considered the result the “beginning of the end” for Erdogan. It was scarcely that, especially given the almost unassailable position he has acquired within the body politic. The whole episode does however indicate that all is not yet lost for Turkey, that democracy is bubbling away, and that hopefully absolute power will continue to evade Erdogan.