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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 July 2018

Democracy in Turkey is looking ever more like a facade for a president with autocratic ambitions

His talk of reforms rings hollow when that clearly means further consolidation of power and less room for the opposition to express themselves meaningfully, writes Sholto Byrnes

Thousands cheer during an election rally for Muharrem Ince, presidential candidate of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) on June 23, 2018 in Istanbul. Burak Kara / Getty
Thousands cheer during an election rally for Muharrem Ince, presidential candidate of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) on June 23, 2018 in Istanbul. Burak Kara / Getty

Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have pulled it off, yet again. After his country went to the polls on Sunday, initial figures point to his winning 52.5 per cent majority in the presidential race, avoiding a potentially risky second round.

The alliance between his AK Party and the nationalist MHP also retained a majority in parliament, even though the Kurdish HDP cleared the 10 per cent hurdle necessary to claim seats, a scenario many thought could deny Mr Erdogan victory in the country’s Grand National Assembly.

It adds to the handy tally of local and general elections and constitutional referenda that Mr Erdogan and the AKP have won since coming to power in 2002. If they did so on Sunday freely and fairly, they deserve some congratulations on securing the people’s mandate. But there is some uncertainty about that.

Turkish media is overwhelmingly in the hands of Mr Erdogan’s supporters and allies and his rivals have struggled to be heard. According to one estimate, the president’s campaign received 181 hours of television coverage, compared to a mere 15 hours for his key rival Muharrem Ince.

The state of emergency declared after the July 2016 coup attempt has been repeatedly extended and few doubt that Mr Erdogan has used justified outrage at the anti-democratic attempt to oust him as cover for a wide-ranging crackdown on critics of all stripes. There have been allegations of serious voting irregularities. And one presidential candidate, the HDP’s Selahattin Demirtas, had to run his campaign from prison, where he is being held on terrorism-related charges.

Nevertheless, the popularity of Turkey’s president cannot be denied. The question, however, is this. On Sunday night Mr Erdogan said that his country was “an example for the rest of the world” and that he hoped “no one will damage democracy by casting a shadow on this election”.

But many feel that Turkey is becoming an example for all the wrong reasons – of what not to do – and that the one person whose every instinct is to undermine democracy in order to increase his own executive powers is Mr Erdogan himself.

The presidency he has just won is, after all, his own creation. Approved narrowly in a referendum last year, the office is now vested with huge new authorities – to appoint unelected vice presidents and many other top officials as well as to issue decrees which have the force of law and which leave parliament severely weakened, since its ability to check the executive and its powers of oversight over ministers have either been reduced or removed.

Even if the Turkish people did vote in favour of the enhanced presidency, Mr Erdogan’s record thus far does not encourage faith in his declaration on Sunday that under him, “our flag will flutter more freely, the peace of every citizen will be advanced”.

For Mr Erdogan’s is a sad and demoralising story. He is a man who once appeared to offer hope that Islamist-leaning parties like his AKP could be part of the mainstream. This was, and remains, part of his appeal to the many Turks who felt that Kemalist secularism had gone too far and that religion had been unfairly banished from the public square.

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Read more from Sholto Byrnes:

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It is worth remembering to what extremes this went. When Mr Erdogan’s colleague Abdullah Gul was proposed for the then mostly ceremonial presidency in 2007, the secular elite was horrified – not because of anything Mr Gul had done but because his wife wore a headscarf. The army even threatened to take over should he become president. (In the event, they sensibly backed down).

So, for a while, the AKP seemed to be moderate. It sought a path into the EU, it remained a reliable Nato ally and provided apparent reassurance that Islamists could act responsibly.

Unfortunately Mr Erdogan has, if anything, proved the opposite. The trajectory towards authoritarianism he has taken may have nothing to do with Islamist politics per se – it certainly has nothing to do with Islam – but he has seriously undercut the argument that Islamists of any stripe can be trusted to respect pluralism, democratic norms and the separation of powers.

His early policy of being friends with everyone seems to have turned into being enemies with everyone and his seesawing on the Kurdish issue has been opportunistic, reckless and divisive.

He clearly still has the support of a very large part of the electorate and that must be respected. But his talk of reforms rings hollow when what that clearly means is further consolidation of power and less room for the opposition to express themselves meaningfully both in parliament and in an increasingly cowed media.

As for Mr Erdogan’s assertion that “democracy is the winner of Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary elections”, perhaps one should remember a quip from his early years in politics. “Democracy is like a train,” he said. “You get off once you have reached your destination.” Mr Erdogan is said to have regretted the line later. But it may reflect what, at heart, he truly believes.

Analysts often refer to Mr Erdogan’s attempting to create an “imperial presidency” or to his having “neo-Ottoman” ambitions. The historical framing both softens the reality of the climate of intimidation he has fostered and lends a comforting patina of continuity with a mythologised past, of sultans and pashas, of great battles, of a glorious heritage and a culture the envy of the world.

The truth, however, is that democracy in Turkey is looking ever more like a facade – if not for autocracy then at least for a man whose ambitions lean ever more in that direction. With Turkey’s economy headed into choppy waters, the temptation might be for the newly re-elected president to take even more drastic measures. Both for his country and for its international reputation, one must hope not.

And the Turks who in their millions voted for Mr Erdogan must hope that their new president treads softly, for he treads on the freedoms they have so willingly given away. Their compatriots who did not vote for him would be justified in reproaching them bitterly. For liberties, once lost, are hard to retrieve.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia