A Turkish Tragedy
Recent actions taken by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have put the country in the spotlight due to the proliferate democratic erosion that has been unfolding. Following a military coup and a state of emergency in 2017, President Erdogan has enacted a referendum to allocate him autocratic powers. This new executive government along with its defective voting system and relentless suppression of opposition exude clear signs of aggrandizement and hold Turkey sieged under unchecked authoritarian control.
President Erdogan first took office as Turkey’s prime minister in 2003 and served for a decade until he was elected President in 2014 at their first new national elections. He began to abuse his power just shortly after securing it, pulling many of his ideologies and inspirations from Islamic institutions. His manipulation eventually provoked a military coup in 2016, which was promptly overwhelmed and extinguished when thousands of his supporters heeded his rally call and took to the streets. Backfiring heavily, the armed attack against President Erdogan, his government, and his people were immediately used as fuel to propel his political aggrandizement. The President declared Turkey under a state of emergency and used it as a scapegoat to rationalize the clearing out all of his opposition from the government office, vigorous censoring the media, and proposing a referendum to allocate him immediate and extraordinary power.
The proposed referendum, that was feared by many, would eliminate the prime minister, and change the country’s system from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential republic. In addition to redistributing powers, the new referendum gives the President allows the President to align with whichever party or group he prefers where in the past he had to remain neutral. Singling out a single party leads to such consequences as barring other parties from electorate success, creating a monopoly over the political entity and inability to initiate reform in the future. The President also transitions from appointing 4 of 13 Supreme Court judges to 5 out of 13, burgeoning his influence of the judicial system designed to keep him in check.
The referendum passed by a small margin but reports of ballot stuffing and fraudulent voting were rampant, and the opposing campaign was censored out of the national news. It was a typical election-under-dictatorship that was biased, manipulated, and purely to make the people feel represented. President Erdogan now presides over a critically imbalanced government without identifiable opposition, a reliable voting system, or any other branch to hold him accountable. Under the new referendum, the Parliament needs an absolute Majority to re-pass bills, making it nearly impossible to pass a bill the President doesn’t approve.
To make things worse, the option of impeachment is now nearly impossible with a required vote count exceeding the absolute majority, a review by a special impeachment committee, and then another 2/3 majority to bring the motion eligible for a final review. In other words, President Erdogan is not going anywhere soon; at least not through impeachment. Consequently, Turkey’s new authoritarian system is raising considerable concern among its people and in other affiliated countries. A power-house of the Middle-East with under a dictator’s rule dramatically escalates the risk of social and political instability in the region. Professor Howard Eissenstat with the Project on Middle East Democracy sees right through Erdogan’s façade and sugar-coating, stating the referendum’s “Represents a remarkable aggrandizement of Erdogan’s personal power and quite possibly a death blow to vital checks and balances in the country, judicial independence was already shockingly weak before the referendum; the new system makes that worse.” Giving the President full control of the political agenda with no horizontal accountability from these checks and balances without means to even be able to remove him from office is a recipe for disastrous democratic erosion. Turkey has endured through political unrest and instability in their past two decades and the outcomes of the recent elections are foreshadowing a dark and uncertain future under the authoritarian rule of President Erdogan.
From a structural standpoint, Turkey was already set up for failure with their imbalanced parliament and biased voting system. However, first-world democracies tend to sort themselves out with external aid, thus an agentic theorist would argue that Erdogan used the existing structures as a launch pad to the very top. If it were not for his free-will and selfishness President Erdogan would not have half the vice grip he has on Turkeys political, economic, and social domains. While he is in full command of the country, the referendum does include some emergency safety parameters that parliament can utilize in dire cases. The referendum states that, regardless of received vote majority, a Presidential decree is not allowed to pass if it violates constitutional civil rights, nor is he allowed to overturn existing laws or pass decrees that contradict pre-existing laws. While these loopholes may seem futile, they will serve as metaphorical guard rails to keep Erdogan’s monstrous machine on track and off the path towards Turkey’s demise.
Photo by: Atlan, Adem. Getty Images, www.thestar.com/news/world/2017/10/04/34-sentenced-to-life-in-prison-for-attempting-to-kill-turkish-president-erdogan-state-media.html.
Eissenstat, Howard. “Erdo?an as Autocrat.” POMED. http://pomed.org/pomed-publications/erdogan-as-autocrat/
Fox, Kara; Masters, James. CNN. www.cnn.com/2017/04/16/europe/turkey-referendum-results-erdogan/index.html.
Hacaoglu, Selcan. “Turkey Approves Election Law Seen Boosting Erdogan.” Bloomberg, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-03-13/turkey-approves-crucial-election-overhaul-seen-boosting-erdogan.
Kingsley, Patrick. The New York Times. 14 Apr. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/04/16/world/europe/turkey-referendum-polls-erdogan.html.
The case of Erdogan and Turkey seems to me to be an excellent, if unnerving, case study on democratic backsliding, especially in situations of crisis. It seems as if it was the state of emergency that provided the perfect storm for the extent of democratic erosion experienced in Turkey, as it gave Erdogan the liberty to take full control of the government and manipulate it at will. This is a case of extreme and blatant executive aggrandizement, and it seems as though Erdogan altered enough of the judicial and electoral processes to ensure that backtracking on this backslide would not be easy. I would be very curious to know if the EU has any power in pushing Turkey back towards democracy, given Turkey’s proximity to Europe/European markets and its prior interest in joining the EU. If Turkey does turn more towards the Middle East, it will be interesting to see how Erdogan will fit in with the other authoritarian leaders and coalitions of the region, especially given the tumultuous situation in Syria and conflict with Kurds.