In Turkey, the presidential regime sought by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is now firmly in place.
Hardly any area of public life is not in his hands. It would seem that Turkey’s one-man-rule system knows no limits despite its economic cost, dissent within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and international criticism. But to liberal Turks and to Western observers, such a trend looks utterly unsustainable. In a democracy, leaders and systems are not forever.
The April 2017 constitutional referendum, which gave way to Turkey’s current presidential system, and the June 2018 presidential and legislative elections were hard-fought and unconvincingly won by the president and his party, AKP.
Complaints from opposition parties of voting irregularities were promptly dismissed, and the government forged ahead with the March 2019 municipal elections—largely presented as a presidential referendum of sorts.
Much to its surprise, the AKP suffered a severe blow, losing not only several major cities but also the iconic post of mayor of greater Istanbul, once the launching pad of Erdoğan’s political career in the mid-1990s.
Even worse, utterly displeased by the Istanbul loss by the slimmest of margins (14,000 votes out of 8.5 million votes), the leadership engineered a rerun of the Istanbul vote. On June 23, it lost again—this time by a crushing 806,000-vote margin. Strikingly, the quest for absolute power led to absolute miscalculations.
The quest for total power doesn’t stop there. On August 19, the democratically elected mayors of the Kurdish areas of Diyarbakır, Mardin, and Van were dismissed by Ankara and replaced by governmental appointees. This was a blatant breach of democracy presented as part of the fight against Kurdish terrorism. International criticism doesn’t matter much here. What’s significant is that Turkey’s leaders are still a long way from making peace with the Kurds, who make up 20 percent of the country’s population, after Ankara scrapped a reconciliation process in 2015.
Furthermore, in Turkey’s current concept of governance, power wouldn’t be absolute if there was dissent in civil society. This is why the independent media has virtually disappeared from the scene and why judicial farces such as the Gezi trial are held despite entirely baseless indictments.
After two sessions, the Gezi trial, where respected figures like Osman Kavala, Hakan Altınay, Gökçe Tüylüoğlu, and thirteen others face an “aggravated life sentence” (imprisonment without the possibility of parole), lingers on without a shred of evidence to support the accusation of attempting to overthrow the government during the 2013 Gezi protests.
Even worse, the organization of Istanbul’s penal court has been modified and judges have been reshuffled in order to get an entirely tailor-made trial.
Another pillar of Turkey’s rule-of-law architecture was recently dismantled: the independence of the Central Bank. Not only was the bank’s governor dismissed by presidential decree on July 6, but nine of the institution’s top managers—those people guaranteeing its professional credibility in international circles—were also dismissed a little later.
The implications of this latest move are tragically simple: international financial markets and investors, on which Turkey is heavily reliant, will once again lose confidence in the country’s economic reliability. The central-bank episode illustrates the unavoidable linkage between rule of law on the domestic scene and international credibility.
Another illustration is Turkey’s policy in Syria, which has led to military operations seizing two large swaths of land (Afrin and Jarabulus) and a repeated threat to occupy more land between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers, in contradiction with international law.
The official motive for such military operations is the fight against terrorism, but the government’s domestic motivation to ramp up its nationalist narrative is never far from the surface. The policy of returning irregular Syrian refugees has similar motivation. (The Turkish government is suspected of forcing Syrian refugees to return to Syria, where the Assad regime has criminalized those who fled the war and violence.) According to analysts, this policy shows a shift from “compassionate Islamism” to “Turkey first”.
Overall, such an unquenchable thirst for absolute power and total disregard for a rules-based governance begs two simple questions: Will it ever end? And how would it end?
At this juncture in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political trajectory, there is no reason for him to alter the political system he has so energetically forced upon his party and the entire country.
Seen from Brussels, the string of political decisions taken by the Turkish regime since 2017 illustrates two fundamental realities. First, that Erdoğan has realized that the EU model of governance is a hindrance to his quest for absolute power. (Recurrent statements about the EU aspirations of Turkey therefore have a paper-thin credibility.)
Second, that he has found comfort in his relationships with strong leaders with worldviews that are in sharp contrast to the established Western, or EU, order: Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and even the United States’ Donald Trump. As long as Erdoğan can juggle deals with Russia (at the price of heavy contradictions), China (at the Uighurs’ expense), and the United States (with the risks associated with Trump’s unpredictability), he is likely to stay the course.
Reasons for a change of course and a return to a decent level of rule of law can only be found in the domestic arena: discontent with an absurd economic policy, the rise of strong opposition figures, or a partial breakup of the ruling AKP.
After almost seventeen years in power, it is doubtful that Turkey’s president would relinquish power without a fight. Regardless of the consequences for his country.
Correction: This piece misstated the total number of years Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been in power as either prime minister or president of Turkey. They are seventeen, not nineteen.