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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Turkey's permanent state of emergency is crippling its chances of development

The lockdown suggests Erdogan is placing his own political career above the interests of the country

The shutdown instigated by Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggests he is putting his own political interests before his country's / AP
The shutdown instigated by Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggests he is putting his own political interests before his country's / AP

To no-one's surprise – but to considerable alarm – Ankara last week extended the state of emergency that has been in place since a failed coup attempt in July 2016. That makes the sixth extension since the coup; 18 months in which more than 50,000 people have been arrested and an estimated 100,000 civil servants removed from their positions.

The ostensible reason for these arrests has been an attempt to root out followers of a US-based cleric called Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey blames for the attempted coup. But with the state of emergency dragging up government opponents and politicians and forcing the closure of media groups, critics within and without Turkey have asked how proportionate president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been.

His critics have a point. The state of emergency has caused serious tensions inside and outside the country. In particular, it has exacerbated a rift with the European Union, a bloc that is crucial to Turkey's long-term future. And the way Mr Erdogan has handled and explained the continuing state of emergency will have long-term consequences for Turkey's democracy. Overall, it is hard to escape the feeling that Mr Erdogan is placing his own future ahead of that of his own state.

States of emergency are rare in Turkish history. When Mr Erdogan imposed it after the coup attempt, it was the first time such draconian nationwide powers had been used since the 1980s. Criticism from the EU, at first muted because of the dramatic nature of the coup, soon escalated.

Other EU countries have imposed states of emergency but usually limited to particular regions. Most recently and most dramatically, France imposed a nationwide state of emergency after the November 2015 Paris terror attacks, something it had not done for half a century, since the colonial era. Controversially, the state of emergency lasted for two years, until Emmanuel Macron ended it in November last year.

Rather than point that out, Turkey's leaders have focused on the continuing threat to the country, without specifying what it is. Certainly that was what Turkey's deputy prime minister Bekir Bozdag said last week, telling journalists in general terms the scale of the threats necessitated the extension but refusing to get into specifics.

When, last year, the German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel said that Turkey would not be a member of the EU while Mr Erdogan was president, he voiced a sentiment that is heard quite differently in Ankara and in Berlin. “It's not because we don't want them,” said Mr Gabriel, “but because the Turkish government and Erdogan are moving fast away from everything that Europe stands for.”

In Ankara, the sentiment is viewed as hypocrisy. After all, progress was hardly stellar before Mr Erdogan became prime minister, nor was it promising during his early years in power. The recent disagreements between the bloc and Turkey have merely exacerbated an already fractious relationship.

In Berlin, Mr Erdogan is seen as the obstacle. And there is, unfortunately, much to endorse that view. He has been excessively belligerent towards, in particular, Germany. In the run-up to the referendum last summer, Turkey sought to hold rallies in several cities in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. They were blocked on the grounds that they could stoke tensions between communities. Mr Erdogan's reaction – accusing officials of “Nazism” – was excessive and deliberately provocative.

That was not the sole example but it was one of the worst. Gradually, the EU's relationship with Ankara has dimmed. Whether it has dimmed because of the president or because of antipathy within the EU towards Turkey is less relevant than the fact it has dimmed on Mr Erdogan's watch.

Of greater concern is how the state of emergency will affect Turkey's democracy. In November next year, the country will hold general elections for the first time since the 2017 referendum that proposed amendments to the constitution, including, most consequentially, replacing the parliamentary system with a presidential one. Mr Erdogan is expected to stand – and win – the 2019 elections, making him potentially the most powerful political figure since Ataturk. The way things are going, it is likely the 2019 election will be held under the state of emergency.

But the 2017 referendum was itself held under the state of emergency, leading to complaints that the democratic process was being undermined.

After all, the 2017 referendum sought sweeping powers for the president, powers that would allow him to declare a state of emergency (without parliamentary oversight), to dismiss judges and to enact some laws by decree. And yet Mr Erdogan, before the referendum was held, arrogated to himself all those powers. He continues to wield them, months later. (One decree, seized upon by his opponents, has been about winter tyres, leading to suspicions Mr Erdogan is simply trying to run a government by decree.)

If the decision to enact the most consequential political change in generations took place in Turkey under a state of emergency and the choice of who will be invested with those powers takes place next year under a state of emergency – and if the man who proposed those powers and becomes the beneficiary of them is also the same one who declared the state of emergency, then the democratic tradition is severely weakened.

Those who point this out need not dislike Mr Erdogan or be disloyal to the Turkish state. It is, rather, a recognition that Turkey's democracy must exist after Mr Erdogan has left office.

That's why the extended state of emergency is so concerning, because it suggests Mr Erdogan does not have the best interests of the country at stake; that, rather, he is willing to place his own future political career above the broader interests of the country.

That doesn't merely mean dealing with EU leaders in a way that demonstrates a recognition that membership would benefit Turkey. It also means stewarding the state in a way that allows a future president to command confidence in the mechanism that brought them to office.

The Turkish state is bigger than Mr Erdogan; he merely inhabits the role but does not embody it. Yes, the coup was a severe attack on Turkey's democracy. But the treatment Mr Erdogan is administering is hurting the patient even more.