No room for illusions in Turkey’s future
Once more, Turkey’s ever mightier President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has managed to divide those who monitor his deeds and attempt decode his intentions. After the coup attempt, even many who had been critical of his policies had a change of heart, creating a rather bizarre balance between what they see as biased coverage in the Western media — a blurred term — and arguments for rapprochement, which is a blank page.
This has been taking place amid an unprecedented institutional purge, including waves of arrests and the silencing of the media, leading to profound confusion among the punditry and opposition politicians.
It is natural. The subject is a politician who has marked himself as a true survivor, a mastermind of cunning politics who has expanded his personal power base by using and abusing friends and foes, abandoning alliances and forging new ones with a snap of his fingers, leaving behind a battered political stage that is dangerously asymmetrical.
Now that Erdogan has emerged victorious, he has a firm grip on the entire arsenal of strings to pull. This makes the question of what is in his mind more crucial than ever.
It leaves no room for naivety, false hopes and gullible strategy building. This also requires a sharp distinction between who Erdogan is, what he says and what is being done. The real focus must be on deeds.
There is a big gap between the “democracy has won” a slogan now de rigueur in Turkey after the attempted coup and the instrument of the Emergency Rule that gives Erdogan the power to rule by decree and which leaves the doors to arbitrary rule and impunity wide open. Erdogan’s decrees have highlighted an intention to dismantle what remains of traditional republican institutions. There has been a massive purge of state personnel and key state structures have been subordinated to the president, rather than to the parliament.
This means the de facto presidential system, which has dragged Turkey into domestic instability since August 2014, is being cemented around Erdogan, leaving all gates open to the establishment of authoritarian rule in which the palace is the absolute power centre.
This is what decrees do to fragile democracies. Emergency rule for 90 days can be extended ad infinitum as the rule of law vanishes, unless a democratic opposition builds a solid counter-dynamic.
The euphoria from reviving the democratic order in the wake of the coup attempt may be utterly illusory in Turkey’s case.
It may explain why there is also a clear contrast between how Erdogan acts domestically and internationally. While pressing on with restructuring the state, he perhaps feels that not even the coup attempt has helped break his isolation abroad.
The West has been muted in its support while the cautious backing from the Arab and Muslim world clearly fell below his expectations.
This is where his two-fold challenge lies.
First, Erdogan knows that the Turkish economy is under growing pressure. Investors are cautious and the currency is shaky. This causes nervousness.
Second, Erdogan’s method has always been based on a “my way or no way” view and the post-coup climate gives him, he seemingly believes, the upper hand in negotiating visa-free travel for Turks in the European Union in exchange for accommodating hundreds of thousands of refugees. So far, however, his harsh rhetoric on the issue has only widened the gap.
His combative language on the United States extraditing Fethullah Gulen and hints at ending US cooperation in the war against jihadists also has one target in sight, which many pundits fail to see. Erdogan is utterly frustrated with the case against his son Bilal, who is being investigated for money laundering in Italy and, more importantly, the corruption trial in US federal court against Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab, a case that has implications for Erdogan’s family and Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party.
It should surprise no one, therefore, if the rift with White House escalates further with Gulen as a pretext.
Taking all these points in account, it cannot be said that democracy has begun to win in Turkey. We are simply in the middle of a vicious chess game in which hopes of a successful outcome are being kept hostage.