On Monday evening, the Turkish parliament approved the first round of constitutional amendments, overcoming the first hurdle in realizing Erdogan’s designs for a presidency alla Turca. When passed in full, the amendments will allow the future president to maintain the chairmanship of his party, while also swearing to impartiality. He will have the power to rule by decree on any given issue. The president, directly elected by a majority popular vote, will be able to dissolve the parliament or the cabinet, but the latter will not be able to impeach the president. In fact, realistically speaking, no future parliament would be able to bring an ex-president before trial either, as it will need 2/3 of the MPs to even propose an investigation. Even then, he would be tried by a supreme court, half of whose members he had appointed. Thus, what Erdogan calls the Turkish-style president will be the head of both the executive and the legislative branches, while also heavily influencing the judicial one. Surely, it is a dream come true!
Of course, it would seem surreal to a non-Turkish audience that a country can now be fully immersed in a constitutional debate, only five months after a failed coup attempt, amidst bombs exploding all over it, while involved in a transboundary war in Syria, as well as a continued civil war. Yet, this is only the gist of what’s been going on and over the years.
Turkey has been living under a state of emergency since late July, announced after the failed coup attempt on July 15th. Initially approved for a period of 90 days, the state of emergency was extended for a second three-month period on January 4th. Legally speaking, there are no limits to the number of extensions that the parliament can pass. The last round of emergency rule, targeting the Kurdish cities, lasted from 1987 to 2002.
Since the failed coup, Erdogan’s government, with its extended powers and jurisdiction, has passed 15 executive orders, shutting down 155 media outlets, 1,506 foundations and associations (including 2 soccer teams!), purging 61,510 public employees and 4,486 academics. Though the government claims that the measures are against the cabal behind the coup attempt – the Gulenists – a breakdown of the orders reveals a different pattern. After the first couple of decrees, the government’s targets have begun to include greater numbers from the opposition, mainly the Kurdish organization and its supporters. Kurdish-language TV stations, newspapers, and community organizations have been ordered to shut down, and 41 of the purged academics were signatories to a peace declaration, criticizing the Erdogan government’s violent and military tactics in the Kurdish cities.
Further, the decrees and the state of emergency now allow for arcane human rights violations, ranging from detention periods up to 30 days*, permission for police to access IDs of internet users, to allowing the police and prosecution to oversee private meetings between attorneys and clients. The opposition is in disarray, with the nationalists supporting the AKP and the Kemalists stick to their dysfunctional, redundant politics. The only viable progressive and oppositional party, the pro-Kurdish HDP, is under serious attack by the Erdogan regime, with its co-chairs Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas imprisoned, along with 9 other MPs and 69 mayors. The Kemalist CHP keeps on distancing itself from the HDP, from fear of being associated with “terrorists,” even though it still claims to be a left/social democratic party. The nationalist MHP fulfilled its duty: preserving the integrity of the state, lining up behind Erdogan and the AKP and aiding the consolidation of an anti-Kurd consensus.
So, it was relatively easy for Erdogan to ride the favorable political climate that followed the coup attempt, in accelerating this authoritarian turn. Citing what he calls the “cocktail terrorism” threat, he uses the Gulenists, Kurds, ISIS and most importantly the evil imperialists of the West to justify his ever more authoritarian regime. According to him, all these different groups conspire, coordinate and cooperate against the great success that is the Turkish Republic. Regardless of how convincing Erdogan’s justifications are intuitively, the truth is that Erdogan laid the groundwork for his own police state in March 2015, much before the coup and the “cocktail” terrorism took off. The main framework for Erdogan’s police state was approved by the parliament as part of a “domestic security package,” despite significant opposition from all political parties at the time. The new legislation greatly enhanced police’s rights and further restricted the already very strict measures on freedom of assembly and privacy. So, when the electoral balance of powers shifted in June 2015 in HDP’s favor, costing AKP its single-party government for the first time, the Erdogan regime put its extended powers into motion.
Resorting to its ability to mobilize the gendarme and police forces, the AKP escalated the resumption of hostilities in the Kurdish cities, following the breakdown of peace negotiations. The implicit plan was to lure the PKK into an armed conflict and thereby weaken HDP’s electoral support. Further, in the inter-election period between June and November 2015, this escalation of chaos and conflict strengthened the “stability” message that AKP wanted to send. Thus, it reemerged from the snap elections in November with an increased vote share, enough to allow it to form a single-party government once again. However, AKP’s short-sighted strategy of conflict-escalation also paved the way to the dilemma it now faces. The military’s renewed involvement in politics and its promotion to a partner-status in AKP’s political agenda were crucial in the development of the coup forces. The main generals leading the attempt were the ones that led Erdogan’s war effort in the Kurdish cities over the past year. Erdogan aided and abetted a monster – not only in his partnership with the Gulenists, but by his re-involvement of the military in his day-to-day electoral politics – that eventually tried to swallow him as well.
Now, the aftermath of the coup and Erdogan’s management of the situation on the night of the attempt, have presented him with a blank check to use and further expand the police state that he had already created two years ago. Ongoing terror attacks and developments that add to the political instability, reminiscent of the heyday of the Turkish deep state’s methods, such as the assassination of the Russian ambassador, provide Erdogan with a useful suspect to hit at every turn. The political opposition to Erdogan’s aggressive moves, culminating in the arrest of the HDP MPs, is fragmented. During HDP’s election campaign for the June elections, the possibility of a popular front was nascent. However, a year after the election cycle, it seems that we underestimated its fragility. The possibility of forming a broad-based opposition to Erdogan’s Turkey was short-lived. Furthermore, it seems we also underestimated the threat that HDP’s success in June posed to the fundamentals of the republic, with Kurds and leftists becoming a force to be contended with in the parliament as well. Old and new ruling classes united quickly in an anti-Kurd consensus and have been acting consistently with that for the past year.
The only way out of an all-Erdogan Turkey is to rebuild the consensus around HDP and democratic politics, and to forge a mass response. However, the rising violence and the attacks carried out by the PKK shoot-off Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK, a group advocating for Kurdish separatism, also known for its more militant and terror-type tactics) on the shady territory between the police and civilians hurt the chances of this fragile coalition. Erdogan may be moving swiftly to fully institutionalize his sultanate.
However, he faces a predicament: while he wants to swiftly make the necessary constitutional amendments, he needs to do so with a very shaky political coalition. The break with the Gulenists made Erdogan lonely in the bureaucracy. The purges now border on rendering entire institutions dysfunctional. Erdogan cannot afford to seriously confront the tacit coup supporters in his ranks, let alone simply question the head of the intelligence agency or the commanders-in-chief who had been alerted to the plot hours before and did nothing.
Moreover, his need to pass the constitutional amendments now forces Erdogan to enter an electoral cycle, when the Turkish lira lost 10% of its value against the dollar just in the first two weeks of 2017, and amidst bombs exploding in the country’s biggest cities every two weeks like clockwork. While Erdogan can seem to be consolidating his base through such crises, by blaming others, it is unclear how long voters will stick by his side. It is this window of opportunity that the left needs to seize now, which could be the last one for the foreseeable future.
* The law was changed from 30 to 7 days after this article was published.