Turkey: One year after the coup attempt, Erdogan has set up an autocracy
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan faced down an attempted military coup in July 2016. But far from reinforcing democracy, in the year since then he has used the state of emergency to institutionalize an elective autocracy, writes Professor Ahmet İnsel.
The proclamation of a state of emergency in Turkey on 20 July 2016, four days after the abortive coup there, has paved the way for the general rule of arbitrariness. The government, by violating the limits imposed by the constitution on the jurisdiction of the state of emergency, has since then used this exceptional power to purge the administration of undesirable elements and to close schools, universities, newspapers, foundations and associations by simple administrative fiat, without any legal procedure.
The outcome of the repression has been very heavy: more than 130,000 civil servants fired or suspended, including a quarter of teachers; 53,000 people imprisoned; accusations of torture during interrogations; relatives of the suspects forbidden to travel abroad, etc.
Taking advantage of the state of emergency, the government has started to reshape the state to complete the process of merging the state and the AKP (Justice and Development Party), a process that has been going on for several years. The head of state, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, used the failed coup d’état of 15-16 July 2016 to set up a counter-coup regime whose repressive scale has been growing steadily for a year.
The counter-coup regime also allowed it to force through parliament a draft constitutional amendment, prepared on the run and with the unexpected support of the leader of the extreme right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP). This Sunni-nationalist alliance, which was formed after 15 July, in particular to quell Kurdish claims in Turkey and in the region, gave the green light to the establishment of a hyper-presidential regime with an elected president of all powers, including control of justice and the possibility of governing by decree.
These constitutional amendments were submitted to the referendum on 16 April 2017 and approved by a very small majority. The report of the observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) highlights the enormous inequality between the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ supporters during the referendum campaign and the suspension of the right to assemble under the pretext of a state of emergency. The report also indicates serious irregularities in the counting of ballots, with the blessing of the judicial authorities responsible for monitoring elections.
The referendum campaign also provided an opportunity for President Erdoğan to engage in intense polemic with the European Union (EU), in particular with Germany and the Netherlands following the limitation by these countries of meetings to support ‘yes’ organized with the presence of ministers of the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Relations with many European countries have since deteriorated, with Germany, the Netherlands and Austria declaring members of the AKP government personae non gratae. The European Parliament has passed two recommendations to suspend accession negotiations with Turkey and the Council of Europe has decided to reopen a monitoring procedure for Turkey (the procedure was previously closed in 2004).
Finally, there was the detention of about ten members of the pro-Kurdish HDP party, including its vice presidents, the appointment of judicial administrators in three-quarters of the municipalities led by the party, and the detention of the elected mayors. Moreover, the resumption of military operations against positions held by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) made any hope of a reopening of negotiations to peacefully resolve the Kurdish problem ever more distant.
The referendum of 16 April 2017 is the consecration of Erdoğan as the all-powerful reis (chief) of the ‘new Turkey’. The constitutional reform provides for the implementation of the new regime in two stages. It immediately allows the president to become a member of a political party, and to set up a new Council of Magistrates and Prosecutors. These are the provisions that Erdoğan most wanted to bring into force. At the beginning of May he joined the AKP again and, at an extraordinary congress on 21 May, again became the president of the party. Thus, concretely, Turkey currently has a president of the republic who is also president of the majority party in parliament. The separation, even if only symbolic, between legislative and executive powers no longer exists. Erdoğan is leader of a party that benefits at the same time from the political irresponsibility allowed to presidents of the republic! Re-elected president of the AKP, Erdoğan immediately changed the members of the governing bodies of his party, which as a result became in totality the Erdoğan Party.
At the end of May, the eleven members of the new Council of Magistrates and Prosecutors were appointed, four directly by Erdoğan and seven by his parliamentary majority. Appointments and promotions of the magistrates are currently frozen. Since the coup, a quarter of the judiciary has been dismissed and new appointments to judicial vacancies are made through accelerated special procedures, with a large majority of AKP lawyers among the newly appointed.
The other provisions provided for in the constitutional amendments will come into effect following the upcoming 2019 presidential election, including the disappearance of the position of prime minister. The head of state will be the sole head of the executive and the government will be exclusively responsible to him. The parliament becomes a chamber of registration without a major function, while the head of state will have legislative power via presidential decrees.
The referendum has revealed the extreme polarization of Turkey, which has divided into two equal parts: on one side the supporters of Erdoğan, who devote a true cult to him; on the other, those who show him deep hatred. The reflection of this polarization is very visible in the geographical distribution of the results of the referendum. ‘The march to justice’ from Ankara to Istanbul by Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, head of the main opposition party, the CHP, in June 2017, once again showed the strong mobilization of forces in Turkey which say ‘no to Erdoğan’. The success of the march, crowned on 9 July by a gathering of more than 1.5 million people in the outskirts of Istanbul, revived the opposition, which hopes to keep the unity of the ‘no’ camp for the forthcoming presidential election. That hope turns out to be a difficult wish at the moment.
How to designate the current political regime in Turkey?
The regime now in place is much more than just authoritarianism, but it is not a classic dictatorship either. It is an elective autocracy. It is an autocracy because all powers, without exception, are concentrated in the hands of one person. Justice is under the personal control of Erdoğan, as is religious power, via the Directorate of Religious Affairs. Finally, the army has been totally disrupted by successive purges since 2008. Currently, 40% of the generals of the Turkish army are in detention and about 10% of the officers have been sacked.
Erdoğan expresses more and more openly his will to pursue a policy of re-Islamization of the public space. In particular, he is gradually introducing religious courses in education and actively supports the development of religious schools. To ensure his re-election in 2019, he continues the absorption of the extreme right by displaying an Islamic-nationalist posture. At the extraordinary congress of the AKP, he managed to have inscribed in the statutes ‘four principles’: a single state, a single nation, a single homeland and a single flag. Two other principles, without being pronounced, can be added to the other four: a single language (Turkish) and a single religion (Sunni Islam). And a single chief, it goes without saying!
This elective autocracy is first and foremost the rule of the arbitrariness of power. Not only is the rule of law abrogated, but it is no longer a law-based state that remains in force. The total loss of legal certainty accompanies this state of arbitrariness. Turkey is caught in an authoritarian turmoil with a headlong rush of the power towards ever more repression, fuelled by a growing fear of losing power one day. Turkey is suffering the effects of an authoritarian surge whose consequences are likely to be even more catastrophic for everyone.