Death of Democracy in Turkey
By Soner Cagaptay
U.S. News and World
June 29, 2017
On June 17, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced
as illegitimate the ongoing protest march from the Turkish capital, Ankara, to
Istanbul, organized to demand justice regarding Erdogan's media crackdown and
led by Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, as it's also
known. He has even threatened that Kemal Kilicdaroglu, CHP's head, could be detained.
And he has already arrested Selahattin Demirtas, the head of Kurdish nationalist
Peoples' Democracy Party, or HDP, the third largest faction in the Turkish
legislature after his Justice and Development Party, widely known as AKP, and
Erdogan, a divisive, right-wing politician, has realized
that he cannot continue to govern the country the way he likes so long as it is
democratic and is therefore taking steps to end Turkish democracy.
Since coming to power through his reformed-Islamist AKP in
2003, Erdogan has gradually become more autocratic. He has accomplished this by
playing the "authoritarian underdog," as I explain in The
New Sultan. Building on the narrative that Islamists were persecuted under
Turkey's past secularist system, Erdogan now portrays himself as a victim who is
grudgingly forced to suppress those conspiring to undermine his authority.
Erdogan has intimidated the media and the business
community by ordering politically motivated tax audits and jailing dissidents,
scholars and journalists. His police regularly crack down on peaceful opposition
rallies. A constitutional referendum that Erdogan won on April 16, albeit by a
slim margin, allows him to appoint high court judges without a confirmation
process, as well as folding the executive and legislative branches under
He has achieved enormous success in elections by demonizing
and politically brutalizing various demographics, mostly leftists, which will
not vote for him. As a result, while the conservative half of the country adores
him, the other half holds a profound resentment of him. Erdogan has plenty of
enemies waiting for him to fall from power. In any case, he knows that the
corruption charges brought against him and members of his family in 2013 have
left him with no graceful way to exit the scene.
As a result of Erdogan's need to stay in power, while
Turkey's elections continue to be free, they are increasingly not fair.
Evaluating voting in the April 16 constitutional referendum, the Organization
for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported that government-appointed
provincial governors have restricted "freedom of assembly and
expression" by using the "extraordinary state of emergency
powers," which Erdogan put in place following the failed coup of July 2016.
Erdogan has used that abortive coup to consolidate power,
further alienating his opponents. After the putsch attempt, initial purges
targeted members of the conservative Gulen movement -- an erstwhile Erdogan ally
that appears to have played a role in planning the abortive coup. However,
Erdogan has also used post-coup state of emergency measures to purge and arrest
thousands of leftists, liberals and Kurds. Forty thousand people have been
jailed since July 2016. Less than a year after the coup, Turkey cannot be
considered a democracy anymore.
Together with deep societal polarization and Erdogan's
complete domination and personalization of power, these developments have
catapulted Turkey into a permanent state of crisis. The Islamic State group and
Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, terror attacks, which have killed over a
thousand people over the last two years, have added to the toxic mix.
Fighting with the PKK domestically and in Syria, where
Ankara has been battling the PKK-allied Kurdish People's Protection Units, or
YPG, exacerbates Turkey's crisis. Tensions with Russia, Iran and the Assad
regime, all of which Erdogan is confronting in Syria's civil war, mean that
Erdogan also has external enemies that want to see him fall and Turkey spiral
Moscow will play a key role in undermining Erdogan. In the
run-up to the April referendum, Russian-government-owned Sputnik's Turkish
service campaigned against Erdogan, and did so unabashedly. During the
referendum campaign, Sputnik's Turkish website published over
twice as much (and overwhelmingly anti-Erdogan) material as the combined
outputs of Deutsche Welle, Voice of America, Al-Jazeera and BBC -- other foreign
media with Turkish-language services.
Where does Turkey go from here? I see two trajectories for
the country in which Erdogan is the central character. As Erdogan ends
democracy, his opponents will refuse to fold under him, working tirelessly to
undermine his agenda. Turkey's political polarization will increasingly turn
violent. This is what happened in, of all places, Washington on
May 16, when Erdogan's guards and pro-Erdogan Turks beat up anti-Erdogan
Turks and Kurds in front of the residence of the Turkish ambassador. Violence
will beget violence.
Even more worrisome, Turkey's chasm will expose it to the
machinations of its foreign enemies, such as Moscow and Damascus -- which will
take advantage of their traditional ties with radical Kurds, PKK, YPG, and
Turkish leftists to hurt Erdogan -- as well as the jihadists, who are already
challenging Erdogan's brand of conservativism from the far right. Over the last
two years, the Islamic State group has carried out almost a dozen attacks in
Turkey, killing over 300 people.
Coupled with these threats, the country's crisis could
catapult Turkey onto another path: a dangerous and unfortunate civil conflict.
In this trajectory, Erdogan would be remembered as the leader who brought about
the breakdown of modern Turkey.