Erdogan hollows out Turkish institutions
Barcelona - The attempt to topple Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July allowed the Turkish president to assume emergency powers that he has used to stifle the media and override legal due process.
More than 100,000 government officials have been sacked, depleting the ranks of the army, judiciary, schools, universities and ministries. Added to the cull of senior army officers a few years ago, this has seriously weakened the country’s intelligence and military capabilities. Turkey’s oldest newspaper has been shut down. The allegations that Cumhuriyet, that bastion of secularism, has been aiding terrorism are not simply absurd but grotesque.
More than a dozen parliamentarians, including Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic leader of the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), have been arrested and south-eastern Turkey is under an internet and social media blackout.
Demirtas ran what was, until 18 months ago, the third largest Turkish democratic party, his popularity a clear threat to Erdogan, who is fast turning into a dictator in the Middle Eastern mould. The HDP’s electoral success in 2015 deprived the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of the majority needed to drive through constitutional change and Erdogan’s ambition of an executive presidency.
As the purge continues, all obstacles are being removed that could prevent that from happening.
Turkish leaders are prompt to see a hidden Western hand — particularly American — behind the Gulenist movement yet it was the ruling party in Ankara that was closely allied to this secretive network for years. It was the Gulenists who helped Erdogan purge the military and the judiciary of people who were deemed a threat to his rule.
This movement gives the impression of a Jesuit approach to education, but its taste in transparency is more Opus Dei. Its fight with AKP reminds observers of the bitter feud between Trotskyites and Stalinists after 1918.
“The ultimate irony of July’s failed coup is that it was engineered not by Turkey’s secularists, but by the Gulenist officers Erdogan had allowed to be promoted in their stead,” Dani Rodrik, a professor of International Political Economy at Harvard, wrote for the Project Syndicate website.
Rodrik asked why such a popular leader does not use his power to restore the rule of law and reconcile the Turks among themselves.
Erdogan risks destroying institutions so painstakingly built and putting social cohesion at risk. Promoting the idea of some baroque Orientalist plot suits his purpose but, in the long term, his thuggish behaviour will not serve Turkey well.
There is little Turkey’s neighbours, particularly in the West can do. The European Union’s failure to engage seriously with Turkey over a meaningful prospect of accession to Europe has robbed it of leverage in Ankara, all the more so as it is more interested in securing Erdogan’s help to check migration than worrying about the country’s democratic values. Nor is the country’s economy particularly vulnerable to market pressure, its banks and public finances being in good condition.
Foreign policy continues to play a key role in Turkish affairs. In Syria, Turkey has not hesitated to attack the Kurdish militia backed by Washington as it fears a stronger Kurdish presence there will encourage irredentist feelings in its south-east.
Erdogan has wisely stepped back from his more aggressive stance on Syrian rulers, no longer insisting they should go. He reconciled himself with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he had a spectacular falling out after a Turkish jet downed a Russian military plane a year ago. This is a marriage of convenience, which may last for some time.
At the beginning of the century, with a new political party, Turkey started asking itself: Why do we not abandon this cold-war mentality? Why not have a zero-problem foreign policy with our neighbours? We may not support Iran but we refuse to see it as a threat. We have Syria on our borders and we need to encourage it to join the world.
Events in recent years reminded the man behind that theory, Ahmet Davutoglu, the world of realpolitik has been harsher and less forgiving than an abstract theory.
Erdogan loves to build mosques and claim the Ottoman heritage but he is not Suleiman the Magnificent, the empire’s longest ruling sultan in the 16th century. Suleiman believed in a law-based society and promoted the arts, encouraging his architect Sinan to build some of the most impressive mosques in the lands of Islam.
When Erdogan speaks, his often-intemperate language reminds one of Putin, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President-elect Donald Trump. Such leaders have great popular support but they are also deeply decisive. Whether the bad image they have in the West matters is open to question.
Not all Turks support such policies but Erdogan’s power grab has left them powerless. University professors when sacked are not paid and have their passports confiscated. The great reconciliation between Islam and democracy many thought they were witnessing ten years ago has come to a halt; indeed it is being reversed as Erdogan, ever the opportunist, seeks support among ultra-nationalist officers. Kemal Ataturk’s legacy is at risk.