Democracy, with its in-built “checks-and-balances”, should ideally prevent autocrats from concentrating power or foil any such design that makes itself apparent. Turkey, however, seems to be hurtling in the opposite direction. Over the past couple of years, various Turkish institutions appear to be working in tandem in ensuring that they help produce the most adamantly autocratic leader in the history of modern Turkey.
If proof were needed, it was amply provided on June 24, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan was re-elected as president and moved another step closer towards his dream of becoming the new ‘Father of Turkey’ and moulding the country according to his whims and fancies.
The 64-year old president’s re-election—with a significantly extended brief—not only abolishes the post of prime minister, but also gives him sweeping powers to enact law by decree, dismiss ministers, judges and parliament itself, besides guaranteeing immunity to him and his family from prosecution. His renewed mandate will now keep him in power till 2023, if not for another five-year term that extends until 2029.
Despite authoritarian tendencies, Erdogan is wooed by both the US and its NATO allies and by Russia. His support is vital for a volatile West Asia.
For someone who grew up in a poor neighbourhood of Istanbul and sold lemonade and sesame buns in the streets as a teenager, Erdogan’s road to success has been long and tortuous. At its end lies his elevation to becoming the most powerful leader of Turkey since Kemal Ataturk, founder of the republic in 1923. His detractors fear much worse—the awesome concentration of power in his hands will give the executive president licence to become more autocratic and ruthless than in the past, squashing the remaining flickers of dissent.
Yet Erdogan isn’t the brash product of a coup. The rude power that the election seems to have conferred on him was approved last year when he won a ‘yes’ vote in a referendum to the proposed changes he wanted in the Turkish constitution. Results of both the referendum and Sunday’s election were on expected lines. Erdogan won handsomely in the Anatolian heartland and the Black Sea region, but did not fare that well in big cities like Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir, as well as the Mediterranean coast and the Kurdish dominated southeast.
Though Erdogan managed to win over 51 per cent of the vote that re-elected him as president, a post he first won in 2014, the results also show the sharp polarisation in Turkey between Islamists and liberals.
The roots of Erdogan’s audacious late surge lie not in ballot boxes, but on the streets where, in July 2016, a large number of people, including the majority of the armed forces, rallied behind him to thwart a coup launched by a section of the military commandos in the middle of the night.
For a country that has witnessed military intervention in civilian affairs four times since 1960, the 2016 episode was a major turning point; Erdogan reaped the benefits when people took to the streets to prevent a military takeover.
Ironically, Erdogan’s emergence in Turkish politics in the early 2000 was hailed by liberals, who hoped his equal emphasis on Islamic values and capitalism would create a space where market forces would ultimately trounce conservatism. Subsequent events proved otherwise. Though Erdogan managed to significantly boost the Turkish economy (a reason for his popularity with the poorer masses), his statist tendencies got amplified from 2013 onwards and reached alarming, near-paranoid proportions after the failed coup in 2016.
Despite these increasing authoritarian tendencies, Erdogan—overlord of a strategically placed country—continues to be wooed both by both the US and its western allies and by Russia, as they continue to overlook his domestic policies in the hope of enlisting his support on major challenges bedevilling a volatile West Asia.
Turkish commentator Halil Karavelli argues that Turkey has never had a truly liberal leader since Ataturk. But Erdogan has “expunged virtually every trace of liberal advocacy from the mainstream”. Karavelli feels that any future movement towards reform would likely emerge from below, among the victims of Turkey’s conservative order, especially the country’s ethnic and religious minorities. At the moment, ‘the sultan’ seems invincible under his carapace of power.