Politics | Centralization and authoritarianism: ‘Erdoganized’ Turkey

Centralization and authoritarianism: ‘Erdoganized’ Turkey

Salman Rafi Sheikh January 5, 2017 3:27 AM (UTC+8)
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Almost 200 people have died in recent months in Turkey, particularly in Ankara and Istanbul, as a result of terrorist attacks including blasts, suicide bombings and shootings.

The New Year’s Eve attack in Istanbul has left almost 40 dead and injured 69 others, making it one of the deadliest attacks of its kind in Turkey. It came three weeks after twin bombings in Istanbul that killed at least 45 people, mostly police officers.

Turkey is certainly feeling the pinch of the war being fought in the country next door. Although its own policy vis-à-vis Syria has changed from meddling and intervention to ‘constructive engagement,’ the ghost of its previous interventionism has only started to haunt it. Terrorist attacks are only a reflection of it.

Yet, it is this very uncertain security situation that has allowed Turkey’s president to invoke the theory of centralized political system. Erdogan has carefully built, over the last year, the narrative of achieving political stability through a strong presidential-centralized political system. The system would supposedly allow Turkey to get rid of the menace of “coalition governments” that marred Turkey’s development in the 1990s, and enable to tackle terrorism more effectively (as if Turkey has not had an absolute majority government since 2002).

Erdogan has spent more than a year advocating the need for presidential system—a need that became, ironically enough, relevant only when he himself became the president.

His efforts bore fruit last Friday when a parliamentary commission approved constitutional reforms that would substantially increase the powers of the Turkish president, turning the otherwise constitutional head of state into a potential ‘king,’ a throwback to the Ottoman era.

The constitutional changes would give the president executive power over Turkish law, allowing him to form a government independently of parliament and appoint his own aides, ministers and deputies, while abolishing the post of Prime Minister.

Erdogan was reported to have said that July’s failed takeover by a group within the military is a proof that the nation would be more stable if ruled from the presidential palace, or by him to be specific.

“God willing, this will be the start of a new era,” Erdogan said during a rally in Istanbul shortly before his party introduced the bill in Ankara. “Are you ready for all of this?” the president asked a crowd of flag waving supporters, who responded with a resounding “yes.”

There is “growing support” among the people for a system change, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on his plane to Moscow earlier in December, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency.

Parliamentary debate on the bill is due to begin in January 2017. if it garners the support of at least 330 deputies in the 550-seat assembly, a referendum will follow in spring.

Although Erdogan’s party is short of the required number of votes, with only 317 seats, Erdogan has been making constant attempts at garnering the support of Turkey’s ultra-nationalist party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), to see the plan through the parliament.

MHP is known for its hard-line nationalist views and strongly disfavors the inclusion of ethnic minorities, particularly the Kurds, in Turkey’s mainstream politics.

For almost 20 years, the MHP has been led by one man, Devlet Bahceli, who turned it towards a conservative and narrow definition of nationalism.

Bahceli’s long reign has given him time to acquire powerful friends, even in unlikely places. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the nexus of newspapers and television channels that support him have recently emerged as supporters of Bahceli, defending the embattled leader against the disquiet in his own party.

The approved 21-article legislation has followed two months of secretive negotiations during a state of emergency between the ruling Justice and Development Part and the opposition Nationalist Movement Party, whose leader owes his position to the support Erdogan continues to provide.

As such, the AKP is banking on the 39 seats held by MHP, and ruling party officials and some nationalists say the proposal will pass, despite opposition from the main-opposition Republican People’s Party, easily.

The other party most opposed to the legislation has already been cleared off the face of the parliament.

Pro-Kurdish lawmakers and lawmakers from HDP, who command a bigger bloc than nationalists in parliament, have been sidelined and authorities jailed their leadership in November on terrorism charges—moves they have criticized as a political witch hunt.

Together the AKP and MHP have enough seats in parliament to pass the bill. This alliance has made people crack a joke that says Bahceli made a “presidency-for-presidency deal” with Erdogan: Erdogan will become the all-powerful president of Turkey under a new constitution, whereas Bahceli will keep his seat as the president of the all-weak MHP.

While the bill is yet to be passed, Turkey’s political and security environment coupled with Erdogan’s emergence as a hero out of the crisis that hit Turkey on July 15 indicate that the path is clear for Erdogan to transform Turkey’s political system.

However, notwithstanding the official narrative, it is also a fact that ever since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared last year that “there is no Kurdish question, just a terrorism problem,” there has not been a single move or initiative to start a new political project to address the root causes of terror. The only project put forward is the one amending the constitution to change Turkey’s political system to an executive presidency.

Whether this systemic change would contribute to stability or not is moot. What is apparent and has been duly enshrined in the proposed legislation is that Turkey’s president will have more powers in his hands than any other authority in the country, that Turkey’s current political set up will undergo a fundamental transformation and that the new ‘Erdoganized’ Turkey will have minimum space for ethnic minorities to be in the mainstream politics. Will another crisis follow this marginalization?

Notwithstanding the transformation and its possible consequences, the other important question is: were the referendum to fail, will Erdogan’s party itself be able to survive the moral and political crisis that would ensue?

For Erdogan and his party, this is a dicey situation. Suffering from a ‘stability-instability’ paradox and making attempts to get rid of it, the Turkish society is unwittingly heading towards yet another paradox, creating new political and economic problems and sowing seeds of ethnic radicalization.

Salman Rafi Sheikh
Salman Rafi Sheikh is an independent journalist and a research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com
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