With Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu forced from office, Turkey has passed a political watershed: Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s goal of unchallenged power at the top of the state is rooted ever more firmly in fact. Given his behaviour since he became president in 2014, this in itself is no great surprise; the novelty is that it is happening with Berlin’s full acquiescence.
While campaigning for the 2014 presidential election, Mr Erdogan had a clear narrative: if elected with direct popular votes, a first for the 91-year-old republic, he would have a mandate from the people. Therefore the constitution that provides for a parliamentary regime would have to be amended to “reflect” the “will of the people”.
This has always been his view of democracy: a majoritarian system in which a president can act unhindered by the usual checks and balances of western democracy. His appointment of Mr Davutoglu did not change this script. Nor will the latter’s presumptive successor, Binali Yıldırım, who is widely regarded as a faithful ally of the president.
Soon after taking office, Mr Erdogan moved out of the presidential palace that had hosted all his predecessors since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Along with a string of other symbolic measures, he made it clear that a quiet counter-Kemalist revolution was ushering in a “New Turkey”.
His ordeal started in earnest when the June 2015 general election produced a hung parliament. It was the prime minister’s constitutional duty to form a coalition — but the president was not to be constrained by such an arrangement. Snap elections were called in a climate of fear linked to a resurgence in violence by armed separatists of the Kurdistan Worker’s party. Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development party won a majority in November, though not big enough to usher in a constitutional change.
This is where Berlin came to the rescue. In the face of uncontrolled human trafficking from the Aegean coast, Chancellor Angela Merkel directed EU institutions to craft a deal through which Turkey would receive significant benefits in exchange for holding migrants. With three official visits in six months, Ms Merkel is widely perceived in Turkey as having “voted Erdogan”.
She did, not so much by offering goodies to the Turkish president as by exempting him from the conditions of EU membership requiring rule of law and freedom of expression. By linking progress on accession and on visas with containing migrants, the deal put the EU’s usual strict rules on the backburner.
By letting the president threaten the EU in October with waves of migrants unleashed on Bulgaria if (unrelated) benefits did not rain on Turkey, Ms Merkel gave the impression that he was a welcome authoritarian partner, authorised to dispense with the core principles of the democratic group he aspires to join. Predictably, a key condition for the visa-free arrangement — a revision of Turkey’s anti-terror law — has just been rejected by Ankara, putting the deal in jeopardy.
Turkey has elected Mr Erdogan and given him a parliamentary majority in clean elections; so there is little EU leaders can do to challenge his style or domestic ambitions as long as these remain disconnected from the accession process. The question now is how high a price they will pay to avoid Mr Erdogan’s threats about migrants or their own citizens’ freedom of expression.
Linking these issues was always a deadly trap. It has the potential to become even deadlier as Turkey is likely to become an absolutist regime while still claiming EU membership.