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Issue #1790      August 16, 2017

Fear and loathing in Turkey

The massive crackdown on the media, academia, opposition parties and civil society groups by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the failed July 2016 military coup has caused widespread anxiety. Equally disturbing was his decision, in the midst of this wave of repression, to steamroll a controversial referendum on changing the country’s political system. Umit Cizre provides the backstory.

Shortly after the failed coup attempt of July 16, 2016 in Turkey, I received a frantic text message from a lifelong friend, Lale Kemal. Lale is a prominent freelance journalist with an impeccable 37-year record of non-partisan reporting and analysis. She is an internationally known expert on Turkish civil-military relations, having written for Jane’s Defence Weekly since 1991. Now, Lale texted from Ankara, she was under arrest for her columns in Zaman, which, until its court-ordered seizure four months before the putsch and its closure soon thereafter, was one of the highest-circulation daily newspapers in Turkey.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Zaman was owned by men close to the influential Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is head of a conservative-nationalist transnational movement with schools and businesses inside and outside Turkey, and is now in self-imposed exile in the United States. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared the Gulen group responsible for the coup attempt. According to the government, Lale’s writings for the paper made her guilty, too.

Neither the precise course of the July 16 events nor the motive of the plotters has been truly clarified until the present day. At one point, the Erdogan government claimed that the Barack Obama administration and the CIA had backed the Gulenists in the endeavour. Erdogan’s own description of the coup attempt as “a gift from God” bestowed so that he could freely persecute Gulenists in the military is a clear contradiction of the official explanations. Regardless, it quickly became obvious that the government would use the foiled putsch as a pretext to undermine the rule of law, checks and balances, and civil rights and personal freedoms – inaugurating one of the cruellest episodes in Turkish political history.

The government launched an unhinged campaign of demonisation of anyone associated with Gulen, however remotely, as well as tens of thousands of others who could be viewed as opponents of Erdogan, including many signers of a “peace petition” decrying the ongoing war with the Kurds in south-eastern Turkey. It was much more than tarring and feathering: Lale was arrested, along with dozens of other journalists, on charges of membership in what the government and its mouthpieces now call Fethullah’s Terrorist Organisation, or FETO. Her journalist’s licence was revoked, her passport invalidated and some of her property confiscated.

Absurd as it sounds, academics, teachers, doctors and policemen – even another professor friend’s brother, who is conductor of a government-sponsored orchestra – have been similarly deprived of their livelihoods. In all, more than 100,000 people have been rounded up and summarily discharged from their jobs. Meanwhile, hundreds of Gulen-affiliated schools, media outlets and even hospitals have been closed down.

I had first met Lale while compiling Almanac Turkey 2005: The Security Sector and Its Democratic Oversight (2006), the first publication of its kind in Turkey, promoted by the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces and the Istanbul-based NGO, TESEV. As an expert on civil-military relations, with particular knowledge of military technology and procurement as well as offset agreements, Lale was a must for inclusion on the roster of writers. I asked her to contribute articles on the armed forces, gendarmerie and coast guard. But now, blown away by the irony that one of the staunchest advocates I know of democratic civilian control of the Turkish army was accused of instigating a coup, I found myself writing supporting documents for her lawyer. I also tried to draw attention to her plight via PEN (the international association of writers) and other outlets, but amid the hurricane that hit Turkey, she was but one innocent in the path of the storm.

Dual control

Against this heart-rending background of human suffering, President Erdogan judged the moment ripe to make changes to the Turkish political system that he had been promoting with considerable vehemence for years. He proposed 18 constitutional amendments that greatly enhance the powers of the president, staking his career on their adoption. He put the package to referendum, and on April 16, by a narrow margin of 2.8 percentage points, the Turkish public approved.

The constitutional amendments are due to come into force after presidential and parliamentary elections to be held in November 2019. Assuming that Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP, by its Turkish abbreviation) prevail in these contests, as both president and party leader, he would retain dual control over the legislative and executive branches. But the latter would be much, much stronger. The approved constitutional amendments abolish the post of prime minister, a hallmark of Turkey’s parliamentary democracy, and replace it with one or more vice presidents. The president is to appoint the vice presidents, cabinet ministers, and also have the power to dismiss them as well. The president would be able to legislate by decree and, in effect, would have authority to dissolve the parliament and call both parliamentary and presidential elections. Most importantly, the president would have a larger role in the appointment of judges and prosecutors. The new system also opens up the possibility that Erdogan could seek two more five-year terms, extending his tenure, which commenced in 2014, to 2029.


Erdogan, in short, had already established himself as the most powerful chief executive since the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who was in office from 1923-38. Ataturk’s legacy of state-enforced secularism and Westernisation, or Kemalism, ruled formal Turkish politics for decades after his death. So why would Erdogan wish to institutionalise a reality that already fulfils his dreams? The follow-up query would be: Why would he depart from the legacy of Turkish centre-right parties, upon which, in its formative years, the AKP claimed to have modelled itself? When in power, the centre-right parties relied on informal practices rather than formal rules, altering no institutions but reshuffling their personnel, and ruling through communal and patronage networks rather than prescribed procedures.

One obvious reason is that in the early years of his party’s parliamentary majorities, when Erdogan was prime minister (and the presidency was a largely ceremonial post), the AKP shifted the balance of power that favoured the secular establishment led by the military, something that no actor on the right ever dared to try. The retreat of the secular establishment opened the space for him to make the most radical shakeup in Turkish history.

Politics of fear

Erdogan is the poster child of a new genre of world leaders who embody a major shift towards the decline of democracies. The leaders in this genre give voice to some fierce, deeply rooted resentment. In the US, it is the once dominant white conservative plurality’s indignation at the dislocations of global capitalism; in Turkey, it is the historical alienation of the conservative-religious masses, who felt excluded from key institutions as well as the decisions and benefits of the secular, Westernised regime. In the eyes of this restless base, the AKP governments have restored freedom of religion (for instance, ending the ban on headscarves in public-sector workplaces), delivered enviable economic growth that elevated their constituents’ social and financial standing, and made Turkey a big player in the region. This last effort, by opening up Middle Eastern markets, also serves the wellbeing of the rising conservative middle classes.

This politics of redress created a sizeable pious middle class ready to do whatever the AKP leader asked, but the downside is that it also produced the need to sustain the advantages of the new landscape for the party’s constituents. An argument could well be made that Turkey’s new Islam-friendly middle classes live in a state of constant insecurity, fearing that if the party loses its 15-year grip on the levers of power, its supporters will suffer at the hands of the victims of Erdogan’s own measures of recrimination.

Those measures are marked by a profound disregard for democracy; an interest in cracking social fissures wide open rather than healing them; an appetite for revenge on opponents; and an itch to send shockwaves rather than peaceful messages to the secular establishment and the West. Erdogan’s style of leadership has exacerbated the conflict between the secular establishment and the Islam-friendly conservative middle classes, the very conflict that birthed the grievances of Erdogan’s base in the first place. Moreover, it reproduced this fault-line, in a different modality perhaps, but with even more animosity and segregation than before.

Blazing a warpath

For Erdogan and his allied pundits, a strong and institutionally secure presidential system provides long-term insurance for the recently achieved status of the formerly aggrieved Islam-friendly social classes. It permits Erdogan to blaze his own warpath and attack his enemies without being undercut by democratic constraints like separation of powers, a free press and an independent judiciary.

These insecurities exist not only at the grassroots but also at the regime level. Erdogan’s design to impose a more centralised authority on the country by way of a presidency-on-steroids is not simply a mindless power trip or a manifestation of vindictive impulses towards perceived enemies. The wounds inflicted on thousands without due process suggest that the president’s increasing preoccupation with power and his antipathy for critics stem from a sense that his accomplishments are precarious.

Next article – The madman with nuclear weapons

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