‘I am the state:’ The rise of ‘democratic’ autocracy in Turkey

Despite this seemingly good news, there’s a growing authoritarianism on the part of Recip Tayyip Erdogan and his allies that’s had real world consequences.

Image Credit: AP

June 24 was a great day for Recip Tayyip Erdogan, who won another five year term as Turkey’s president. As an added bonus, his parliamentary alliance, a mix of Islamists and nationalists, also took the majority of seats in the country’s parliament.

While the result of the snap election called on April 18th was by no means shocking, Erdogan had run an uninspired, gaffe filled campaign against a charismatic opponent, sparking the hope among some that his 15 year tenure at the center of the country’s politics might come to an end.

The win itself was pretty decisive, with the serving Turkish President receiving 53% of the vote. Anything above half ensured he wouldn’t face a second round runoff against Muharrem Ince, a popular member of parliament who represented the centrist Republican People’s Party. On the surface, the vote was also a testament to the strength of the country’s democracy, with over 80% voter turnout.

Despite this seemingly good news, there’s a growing authoritarianism on the part of Erdogan and his allies that’s had real world consequences, despite its democratic credentials, such as the fact that the country is the world’s leading jailer of journalists.

Like many right-wing populists throughout the world, the Turkish President is a good example of the dilemma facing those who favor a pluralistic civil society: what can be done when what amounts to an electoral majority supports such a leader, even, or perhaps especially, under a democratic system of government? It’s a question affecting not only Turkey but countries as diverse as the United States, Hungary and India.

In mixing a fundamentalist strain of Turkey’s majority religion with extreme nationalism, an already somewhat hostile environment has been made much worse for ‘outsider’ communities, themselves long woven into the fabric of what became the Turkish Republic in 1923. Just ask the country’s Kurds, Armenians and Alevis, among many others.

New rules that drastically change the country’s system of government, voted on in the Spring of 2017, come into full effect with last week’s election. What these changes mean in practice is that the country has been changed from a parliamentary to a presidential system, centralizing executive power at the expense of legislators and concentrating it in Erdogan’s hands, conceivably until 2028.

One of the changes initiated by the referendum, which was cynically advertised as a response to a short-lived 2016 coup attempt, is the abolition of the office of the Prime Minister, a position the Turkish President once held and that used to be the real head of the government. Before the referendum and Erdogan’s presidential win, the Turkish presidency was technically a largely ceremonial position, as it is in much of Europe.

Among his new presidential powers, Erdogan will also be able to issue Presidential decrees at his whim, “on political, social, and economic issues that would carry the force of law (article 8, amending article 104).”

Thus, not only legislators but also the judicial branch can be effectively sidelined by decree at any time the country’s president wills it

While this most recent election has been criticized by observers, including monitors from the Council for Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the now obviously more important referendum saw similar claims of irregularities, media bias and last minute changes to the rules that still only helped Erdogan and his allies eke out the narrowest of victories. Controversially, in both cases, Turks went to the polls under a state of emergency that’s been in effect since 2016.

When he conceded defeat, Ince, who received 30% of the vote, lamented the new presidential system, saying, “Turkey has broken its connection with the 143 years of parliamentary system. We have switched literally to a one-man regime.”

One small positive in all this may be that, in the near future, when the costs in terms of lives lost and ruined in Turkey and its near abroad are truly counted, both from conflict and austerity economics, the reactionary Islamist populism Erdogan has done more than any other to legitimize will be forever tarred by his foreign policy blunders, his family’s alleged corruption and his increasingly repressive reign internally.

On the other hand, it should be remembered that 15 years ago, when Erdogan first became Prime Minister, secularism had been enforced by the Turkish state for decades and this had created discontent among more conservative and religious sectors of Turkish society, especially in the rural areas and small towns where he draws some of his strongest support. Erdogan’s long tenure in power, along with his continuing attacks on secularists and the left, may have cemented this demographic as a consequential power broker in the Turkish Republic’s future.

Parallels with right wing populism in Europe and North America

The most effective right wing populists, including Erdogan, use blunt, no nonsense language and are different from establishment types in that they directly address working people, often using vaguely left wing language. In truth, they usually serve the same moneyed interests while wrapping themselves in their country’s flag and openly expressing ideas that more conventional politicians, both conservative and centrist, try to obscure with dog whistles.

As history teaches us, politicians, regardless of their ideological stripe, rarely give up powers bestowed on them by their predecessors, no matter how dangerous, and the changes Erdogan has wrought will almost surely outlive him with unpredictable consequences for his country in the future.

In many ways, Erdogan, at least since he became president, has been an unconventional warning of the emergence of the new generation of right wing populists now ascendant in much of Europe and North America. If one is willing to look at the parallels without bias, there’s very little that separates the reactionary Islamism of Erdogan’s AK (Justice and Development) Party in Turkey from the religious fundamentalism of, say, American Evangelicals who support the current U.S. President’s jingoism despite his clearly unchristian rhetoric and actions. The Turkish President is also at least as prone to use racist messaging, attacks on the press and bombastic language to disparage critics, as the Tweeter in Chief of the United States.

The blending of religious fundamentalism and nationalism that is often associated with this kind of populism was even more apparent in terms of the AKP’s choice of the National Movement Party (MHP), far-right nationalists, as their alliance partner. It appears Erdogan is to a certain extent co-opting the formerly secular nationalism of the nation’s founder, Kemal Ataturk and incorporating it into what might be called ‘Erdoganism’ if such a thing were coherent enough to be articulated.

In another parallel to the current U.S. President, Erdogan has also touted his success at tackling the Turkish ‘Deep State’. It is in regards to pre-Erdogan Turkey that most people first heard this term used to describe the semi-permanent bureaucracies, including security services, that are part and parcel of a modern state regardless of whether or not it’s called a democracy. While Turkey’s secularism had always come with a side of authoritarianism, and its nationalism with a disdain for minority communities, the Republic of Turkey was not so long ago seen as the prime example of a successful modern majority Muslim state.

At the risk of drifting into cliche, it’s becoming obvious that these reactionary forces will inevitably be countered by a rising left, which is why Erdogan and his allies have been so concentrated on destroying it as a political force in the country. Oddly, these things were simultaneously demonstrated by the fate of the HDP, (People’s Democratic Party) a mainly Kurdish left-wing party, whose leader watched the election from a jail cell, while the the party went on to meet the 10% of the vote needed to capture 68 seats in the weakened parliament, a hugely symbolic result

The task for Erdogan’s opponents and those facing similar leader-based right wing movements elsewhere is to call them out in terms of their hypocrisy, especially when they fail to live up to the promises they make to working class voters.

In the United States there has been two years of media coverage focused on the Republican President’s possible ‘collusion’ with Russia. Meanwhile, his underlings have been busy “deconstructing the administrative state”, the dream of conservatives (and many so-called liberals) throughout the West since at least the 1970s with devastating consequences for the environment, the poor and working people. In his own way, Erdogan has done a similar but much more radical thing after cowing or defeating most of his enemies, going on to reconstruct it in his own image.


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