Recep Erdogan has just won his third consecutive term as Turkey’s president, so what does this mean for Turkey’s democracy?
What was once a thriving example of a steady democracy to its neighboring countries, is now facing its all-time low in terms of economic inflation, political corruption, and democratic erosion. After the recent election in May of this year, Turkey will now be under the power of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This will be Erdogan’s third consecutive term and his opposition prays it will be his last. He has greatly stifled Turkey’s potential of being a great democratically based country. However, it is important to take a look at some of the traditional roles of the Turkish presidency that Mister Erdogan has forgotten. The gap between what he should be doing and reality is the steep slide of democratic erosion in Turkey presently. The Turkish presidency is considered the head of state and is allowed to appoint his/her Prime Minister. They also lead Council of Ministers meetings and, for the most part, individually handle foreign affairs. Obviously, there is much room for error in the position if left unregulated. This dissent of democracy has been slowly marinating for decades now, and one might question how Turkey has landed where it is now with the economy in shambles and half of the leading parties’ opposition in prison for questioning the government. By analyzing the historical, cultural, and political landscape of Turkey, we can begin to understand how it has led Turkey to its present state, and we can begin to make predictions on whether or not the horizon for Turkish politics is looking bleak or bright.
In 1923, the Turkish republic was established, but it has not had the most stable beginnings. Since its establishment by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, there have been multiple military coup attempts in the name of Atatürk who believed in high principles of secularism and nationalism. In 1980 amongst civil unrest and violence, Turkey underwent Martial Law and essentially dissipated political rule of the parliament and political parties (BBC). Shortly thereafter the military style government decided to allow for a democratically held election to re-establish a new government. Along with this new government came a new constitution, which to no surprise limited the military’s power to the greatest extent. Political parties and political participation started to return in waves and with a sprinkle of human rights reforms, the E.U. was slowly considering Turkey’s return to the democratic playing field. However, the military coup operations were never fully out of sight or out of mind. Turkey also continued to face regressions economically. This brings us to 2003 when Erdogan first took power, he and his party Justice and Development Party (AKP) won by a landslide promising reform on all sides (BBC). However, the county has seen a gradual shift in unequal concentrations of power, criminalizing opposition parties, and Erdogan’s relentlessness to relinquish his power.
In his essay, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Varol Ozan highlights some of these mechanisms of democratic erosion and specifically notes how the Turkish Constitutional Courts were used by the military coups to consolidate power. He describes how the power to elect a majority of the incumbents of the court was given to “No Judiciary” members who were believed to be strongly influenced by the military government (Varol,1688). This tactic in the good name of attempting to establish a democratic system would soon backfire when they realized that the court would go on to make unfavorable ruling that go against the military government, and in any attempt to denounce this court would be an admission to guilt and incredibility. This use of democratic practices for authoritarian means has not subsided since. Ozan also notes how the current President Erdogan has used another mechanism of stealth authoritarianism: Libel Lawsuits. Of course, over the past 2 decades of his political reign, he has faced much controversy and some brave individuals have attempted to speak against him. Erdogan has chased after anyone who insults him all the way from genuine political scrutiny to good ole fashioned political satire. Erdogan has fined individuals and news media thousands; some have been thrown in jail and all under the impression that it was fair and just. These free speech implications are written into the law as ‘breaching the confidentiality of an investigation’ and ‘influencing a fair trial’ through news coverage” (Varol, 1697). The problem here is when Erdogan restricts the people’s ability to engage critically with their government, the people are ill informed when something of actual seriousness occurs because the media is so afraid of perpetration that they are willing to publish anything so long as it does not get them in trouble and can stay in business. This is exactly what happened in June of 2013 amongst intense protests that were heating up and the news outlets only portrayed the Turkish government in a positive light. There is something so essential about the ability to respond to a government and have that government respond to that response. Without it society loses its relationship with its government. People are ill-informed and uneducated on matters concerning their own. People lose security in knowing what is to come. Finally, Ozan examines the use of democratic methods and rhetoric to convey the illusion of democracy. Erdogan is not one to shy away from the theatrics of democracy. These included social discrimination being technically illegal, but the right law enforcement or resources were enabled to defend these efforts. When Erdogan took office, he promised to complete the court systems, but this turned out to be “Cosmetic” as Ozan puts it as he only actually changed the name of the bureaucratic systems put in place while keeping pretty much all the same incumbents and procedures (Varol, 1715). The issue here is that Erdogan is being deceptive to his people and essentially lying to preserve his reputation. The common civilian is not going to know the logistics behind the curtain of Oz’. This kind of rhetoric is vague, ambiguous, and unproductive. That is why it is essential that the Prime Minister be as transparent as possible to the best of his ability. It also hurts the ideals of democracy itself. If what is being put into law is supposedly democratic, but it is obviously not working, people are to assume that it is not the leaders but the system itself not working. The rhetoric Erdogan often uses is centered in community and nationalism. That Us vs. Them narrative has worked apparently well for Erdogan. Jan Werner Muller describes a populist as a person who embodies themselves as “The people” and therefore any opponent of themselves as straying away from the will of the people (Muller, Chapter 1). One way Erdogan has been able to connect himself as a representative of the people is by addressing common concerns like the economy and promising economic reform. However, Erdogan has made some questionable decisions that might have actually worsened the economy. For example, Turkeys economy is heavily reliant on exports. This would usually mean that the banks would hike interest rates to keep inflation down. However, many believe Erdogan has decisively forced the banks to lower their interest rates in an attempt to please the ultra-wealthy and businesses. This has in turn risen inflation over the past decade (Is Turkey”s Democracy in Danger?). From this it is clear that Erdogan does not actually see himself as a for the people and by the people politician, and his real motivation is where the money is.
Along with the above mismanagement of a once promising democracy, we have avoided the most recent and most relevant source of Turkey’s diminishing government. Erdogan would be quite the sore loser. That is if he ever lost, but he takes every precaution to ensure he wins every election. In the recent elections that occurred earlier this year, there were three likely candidates who would be elected to represent the opposition party CHP: Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Mansur Yavaş, Ekrem İmamoğlu. Erdogan showed no real advantage over any of these gentlemen despite his seniority as the current office holder. Because of this he has jailed his opponents and banned them from participating in any future elections. He was able to manipulate the system and eventually won the election this past June. He shows no signs of stopping, and with any potential candidate being at risk for expulsion if they attempt to run against him, it is likely it will be a long time before we ever do see a new Prime Minister. With such relentlessness, Erdogan is barring the people, but he is also barring himself. If he truly desired to stay in power, all he would need to do is prove himself to be the best candidate and obviously he has had plenty of time. Instead, he cheated and now he is not only cheating his candidates, but he is cheating his people.
From this investigation, it would be safe to say that Turkey’s democracy has unfortunately fallen. It has fallen victim to Erdogan. He is unwilling to listen or compromise and has maliciously manipulated his people into believing he is acting upon their will. However, he has destroyed the economy for his special interest friends and his own benefit. Obviously, the people of Turkey are not fools, and that is why he felt such a need to punish his opposition in order to win the last election. Erdogan has also manipulated the court system by advertising it as a concept of democratic ideals when it is essentially a copy and past replica of the corrupt military government style courts of the past whom filled it with individuals of their liking. It is up to the people now. However, they are suffering too much from economic and civil unrest to have the time or energy to devout themselves in breaking this barbaric slippery slope into authoritarianism.