Turkey's democracy in danger
Turkey’s strongman leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing unexpectedly spirited, across-the-board resistance to his plan to create a Putin-style superpresidency, a move that opposition parties warn could spell an end to parliamentary democracy and result in a virtual dictatorship.
Erdogan, the founding leader of the neo-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), has ruled Turkey in increasingly authoritarian fashion since becoming prime minister in 2003. Barred under party rules from seeking a fourth term, he switched to the presidency last August and has been manoeuvring to increase his executive powers ever since.
The strategy looks similar to Vladimir Putin’s successive shifts from the Russian presidency to prime ministership and back again, which have kept him in overall charge in Moscow since 2000. The now deposed Pervez Musharraf pulled off a similar trick in Pakistan, bolstering his presidential authority at the expense of the prime minister and Parliament.
Ever choleric, Erdogan appears oblivious to these precedents, and to his growing reputation for harsh crackdowns on popular dissent, street protests and independent journalism.
This week saw the jailing of two Penguen magazine cartoonists who dared to poke fun at him.
He is counting instead on his high profile and personal popularity among religious-minded working-class and rural voters to give the AKP a big majority in national elections on June 7. In theory, the necessary constitutional changes he wants could then be pushed through.
It was a surprise, therefore, when the sharpest recent criticism of Erdogan’s attempted power grab emanated from a senior colleague and fellow founding AKP member, deputy prime minister Bülent Arinç.
In an exceptionally blunt public outburst, he told Erdogan, in effect, to stop sticking his nose into the government’s Kurdish policy and mind his own business.
“His statements such as ‘I did not like that’ or ‘I’m not happy about that’ are emotional and are his own views,” said Arinç, the official cabinet spokesman. “The [Kurdish] peace process is being carried out by the government and the government is responsible.”
Erdogan hit back with trademark grandiosity. “I consult my people on every issue. I am the president,” he said.
Arinç has since backed down under pressure from Ahmet Davutoglu, whom Erdogan appointed to succeed him as prime minister. The exchange revealed deep unease in the AKP and the political establishment over Erdogan’s refusal to relinquish his role as Turkey’s leading man.
For Turkish voters and European Union and United States partners anxious for Ankara’s co-operation on Syria and jihadi violence, there is an increasing question mark over who is in charge. “The exchange between Erdogan and Arinç [concerns] the Kurdish issue only on the surface. Actually, it was about the powers of the president and the government,” said Murat Yetkin, a commentator for the Turkish daily Hürriyet.
“This seems a key issue for those watching political and economic developments in Turkey both inside and outside the country. Whose words should be taken into account to understand what Turkey says: the president or the government? If the president and the government were from different parties, this discrepancy could be understood, but they are of the same party,” Yetkin said.
Hopes that the Kurdish peace process would advance after a broadly positive statement on March 21 by the jailed Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, have been dented by the spat. The damage caused by the power struggle, however, is by no means confined to this issue.
There have been public rows with Erdogan over government economic policy, the leadership of the National Intelligence Organisation and a draft anticorruption law that Davutoglu was forced to shelve after the president, who has faced corruption allegations, spoke out against it.
“Erdogan’s priority is surely to get rid of any sort of discussion of corruption, which stands as a ‘red line’ issue for the head of the nation, who was alleged, along with his family, to have unethical financial relations with a number of wealthy businessmen,” analyst Serkan Demirtas wrote in Hürriyet.
The authority and credibility of Davutoglu, a former academic who owes his political career to Erdogan, are increasingly challenged. He vowed to restore party discipline following the Arinç row, saying he had met Erdogan and there was no disagreement on Kurdish policy or anything else. Those who anticipated “government chaos” would be disappointed. “We will overcome all troubled processes, as we have done in the past,” he said.
Opposition parties are having none of it. The government faces major internal divisions, according to Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, the leader of the secular Republican People’s party. “They have started blaming each other. This is what we will see more of in the upcoming period,” he said. Davutoglu, he claimed, was deaf to what was happening.
That may not be entirely true. Although Erdogan is doing what he does best – addressing large rallies countrywide, castigating his foes and critics and building personal support ahead of the June polls – tensions with Davutoglu look certain to worsen. They could reach crisis point over the expansion of presidential powers, which the prime minister has not endorsed. Davutoglu has spoken instead of the need to ensure the new constitution is based on “democratic and pro-freedom” principles.
A big test of character and grit is looming for the soft-spoken, instinctively conciliatory Davutoglu and for Turkish democracy as a whole. The outcome is far from certain. – © Guardian News & Media 2015