Erdogan is closing in on vision of one-man rule
Applying all means of political engineering, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have set the final stage of the governing change that has left the country sharply polarised and anxious.
He is closer than ever to a constitutional referendum that could grant him full-scale empowerment — an omnipotent presidency — to rule the country. It is, no doubt, an exercise that will have vast consequences in the region, in the global scheme of alliances and be a costly gamble for the future of Turkey.
The systemic change has been on the agenda for years but delayed because of the routine turbulence of Turkish politics. The shift to presidential rule was fiercely debated, with US and French models, and was always placed at the heart of broader constitutional reform that, reformists agreed, was an absolute necessity for the country. Turkey has been in turmoil because of military tutelage and unresolved issues of collective rights and freedoms of ethnic and religious identities, such as the Kurds and Alevis.
Erdogan decisively steered the country to an authoritarian-majoritarian direction since the Gezi Park protests in 2013.
Attempts to establish peace with the Kurdish political movement — the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its political wing, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) — did not last long. Revising sharply his political road map for absolute power, Erdogan in the summer of 2015 headed towards establishing a full-scale conservative-nationalist alliance.
He cunningly manoeuvred towards the elements of the army (the militarist Kemalist flank that favours Russia before NATO), assembled circles of the establishment concerned about a Kurdish belt alongside Turkey’s borders with Iraq and Syria and appeased the grass roots of the ultranationalist opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) through expansionist-revanchist rhetoric against the West.
Erdogan’s hard-line policies, which were played out in scorched-earth moves in the mainly Kurdish provinces, paid back well. On top of that, July’s botched coup cemented the foundation of his popularity, as the MHP, fearing implosion and in general content with the politics of fear, found itself as a de facto ally of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The road to absolute power is not an easy one, however. Erdogan and the AKP he tightly controls lack the seats to take the issue to referendum. In parliament, which has 550 seats, he needs 330 votes to do so. The AKP falls short by 14, which, due to the resistance of the other opposition parties, Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and pro- Kurdish HDP, makes him dependent on the MHP, which has 40 deputies.
The next parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for 2019. Here Erdogan plays his cards masterfully on several fronts.
Utilising the failed coup as “God’s gift”, as he expressed it, he now rules the country by decree, eradicating civilian opposition by sheer force, tarnishing what remains of the rule of law.
His destruction of critical media is almost complete, with the massive raid on Turkey’s oldest, independent journalism institution, Cumhuriyet. The number of jailed journalists approaches 150, shuttered media outlets more than 180. This means a total lack of proper, diverse public debate and opens the path to unchallenged political victory.
Erdogan knows that he also has the main opposition CHP in his hand. Stuck in an ideological impasse that prevents it from forging a leftist opposition bloc with HDP, the third largest group in parliament, CHP remains in limbo. Its leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has time after time proven far too weak in his oratorical and strategic skills to challenge Erdogan.
This leaves HDP, which is the only voice of political resistance, very vulnerable and Erdogan keeps tightening the screws on the HDP. Its elected mayors in Kurdish provinces, one after another, have been arrested, municipalities seized and given to the government-appointed trustees.
Services in those settlements have been halted as the internet, telephone lines and garbage collecting have ceased to operate for days, paralysing daily life. The aim seems to be to turn the Kurdish voters against the HDP, which they solidly supported in the past.
Erdogan also squeezed the nationalist MHP into a corner. He knows that its leader, Devlet Bahceli, fears an early election, because the party has lost voters to the AKP. Therefore, he pushes for a vote in parliament, paving the way to a referendum, possibly next April or May.
Bahceli, a fierce opponent of the Kurdish demands for recognition and representation, seeks three things in return: That the new constitution preserves the unitary nature of the state, not give in to any demands for recognition of identities other than Turkish and that the death penalty will be reintroduced.
All signs are that Erdogan will have no objections to them as long as his dream comes true. His hope is that a referendum will end with a yes victory assembling AKP and MHP voters, which make up about 60-65% of the electorate.
That is the plan but there are major problems possible. Such a result would mean insufficient consensus necessary for making a major change
Also, if it comes escorted by the death penalty, Turkey can wave goodbye to its aspirations for a closer alliance with Western institutions, setting sail in full force towards the Central Asian sphere.