The Turkish illiberal democracy: a march towards the “One Man State”

Back in 2011, when the Arab spring started and spread across the countries of North Africa and Middle East, many scholars thought about Turkey as an example of coexistence of Islam and democracy, referring to this country as a source of inspiration in the democratization process of Middle Eastern societies. Indeed, in 2004 the European Commission established that Turkey “sufficiently” fulfilled the Copenhagen criteria and suggested that accession talks  to the EU could have started. “These criteria require a candidate country to have achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities, as well as the existence of a functioning market economy market economy and the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union.”. Although it’s clear that Turkey has never completely fulfilled these criteria, especially in relation to rule of law and human rights, it has been proved to have a considerable geo-political dimension thanks to its unique location, its identification with one of the world’s best-performing emerging markets and its well-established tradition of co-operating with the West.

Since the very beginning of their mandate and “golden era” in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) promoted significant progress on the democratization path (the struggle against military tutelage on elected civilian governments, the start of peace dialogues with the Kurdish movement and the approval of reform packages with regard to freedom of expression and cultural rights), together with an improvement of Turkey’s relations with neighbouring countries and a very high economic growth, and contributed to create an optimistic perspective about the future of the country. The second term of AKP (2007-2011) was marked by the most significant shift in modern Turkish politics, with the return of autocratic tendencies as soon as the EU accession process reached a stalemate and foreign policy moved towards an eastern-oriented pattern. In fact, the approval in 2010 of several governmental amendments to the 1982 Turkish Constitution has started a period of “de-democratization” and a shift toward autoritarian maneuvers, among which: restrictions in freedom of speech and freedom of press, the erosion of civil liberties on multiple fronts and a growing number of politically motivated imprisonments.

The third phase (2011-now) is in strong contrast with the past reformist era: the democratic impetus has been completely abandoned in favour of a different form of government defined as “hybrid regime”, a regime no longer considered in a state of transition toward democracy, but rather finding itself trapped halfway inbetween authoritarianism and democracy. Gaining the centre of the political scene, the AKP finally succeeded in monopolizing power in effectively silencing any meaningful opposition to its supremacy. The most problematic issue is both the failure to protect civil liberties and the ever-increasing restriction of basic individual freedoms. This has eventually led to the Gezi Park Protests in 2013, maybe the most important mobilization of urban masses in Turkish history and the symbol of the collapse of the “Muslim Democracy” paradigm. After having violently crushed the protesters, the AKP government has implemented harsh security laws, which have led to a growing level of police brutality, to the worrying deterioration of freedoms and to a very high number of politically-motivated court cases against activists, in particular academics, journalists and members of political organizations targeted as opposition figures.

This “reversal” from democratic governance into one-man rule, which is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s main purpose, has created general dissatisfaction even among the AKP voters. Turkish society has faced a growing level of polarization and a worrying escalation of terrorist attacks, which are seriously undermining one of the main income sources for Turkey, tourism. Tourism accounts for 6.2 percent of Turkey’s economic output and 8 percent of employment: the statistics show that the number of visitors to Turkey declined 34.7 % year-on-year to 2.48 million in May 2016, especially with regard to Russian and German visitors.

Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian war is surely one of the main reasons which explains the growth of terrorist attacks in the country. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, President Erdoğan has pushed for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in favour of a Sunni government composed by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Syrian branch, which is perceived to be more inclined to cooperate with Ankara’s government in both political and economic terms. As a matter of fact, Turkey shares 822 km of borders with Syria, hosts more than 2 million refugees and has been accused of allowing the infiltration of foreign fighters joining Daesh. Daesh itself is posing a big threat to the stability of the country: the recent June 28th airport attack, the January 12th attacks in the Istanbul Sultanahmet district and the March 19th attacks in Taksim Square area, all match the typical Daesh pattern to attract international attention by targeting foreign civilians instead of military targets, preferred by Kurdish rebel groups. Furthermore, in the last year the Kurdish armed struggle has scaled up to a level unexpected by the government, severely setting back any peace negotiation as the increasing authoritarian tendencies and the escalating Turkish violence against Syrian Kurdish exacerbate the conflict.

But the terrorist attacks, whoever the perpetrators were, contributed to build Erdoğan’s image as the sole and unique leader who can drive the country towards the stability: his party’s government played the “security card” to win elections, threatening the society with a greater instability which can possible bring to a civil war.

Ahmet Davutoğlu’s May 5th resignation from the role of Prime Minister just confirms Erdoğan’s ever-increasing race for power. In the parliamentary system, the current one in Turkey, the Prime Minister is the effective head of government while the President is just a neutral political character without any decision-making power, representing the head of the state.  Forcing Davutoğlu to resign, Erdoğan wanted to push aside a man who was challenging his authority and whose political ability was becoming dangerous for the realization of his plan, which is to combine both the executive and the legislative powers under a super-presidency that would be more efficient of a “double-headed” system. Despite the fact that he was considered one of the president’s closest political allies, Davutoğlu’s fall from grace was not surprising when looking to his political behaviour since he became president in 2014 (when Erdoğan chose him over Abdullah Gul). The tensions between Erdoğan and Davutoğlu have increased during the June 2015 elections when the AKP lost the parliament majority and the former Prime Minister proposed to form a coalition with two opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), an agreement that Erdoğan did not want, insisting on early elections. The deeply polarized Turkish society went through a snap election on November 2015, which finally gave reason to Erdoğan with the AKP regaining its parliamentary majority and the tension between the two historical allies seemed to be lightened.

last year has been marked by an increasingly polemic Davutoğlu expressing his disagreement with many Erdoğan’s moves: the first split between the two former allies emerged when, at the beginning of his mandate as Prime Minister, Davutoğlu proposed a “transparency package” aimed at tackling corruption. But he encountered Erdoğan’s opposition who, having already dealt with a corruption probe involving his son as well as several key people of his cabinet while prime minister, attacked the proposed legislation which was withdrawn in February 2015. Davutoğlu proposed to resume peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to end the ongoing battle in the south and south-eastern provinces of Turkey, while Erdoğan posed himself on a more aggressive position. The pre-trial imprisonment of academics and journalists who criticized government decisions was another important point of divergence between the President and the Prime Minister, as the more moderate Davutoğlu opposed the measures undertaken as a violation of civil rights. Recently, on March 20th, Davutoğlu signed a deal with the European Union to stem the flow of refugees making their way to Europe across the Aegean Sea in return for visa-free travel to the EU for Turkish citizens and the acceleration of Turkey’s EU membership process. Erdoğan did not show much interest to the issue and he was always pursuing a harsh politic line towards Europe: his public statements towards Europe are often aggressive and intimidating and he is very famous for his anti-western rethoric in general, especially when it comes to the refugee deal. But surely the most important discrepancy was that Davutoğlu was resisting the shift of the Turkish Parliamentary system into an executive presidency, which, as we remarked before, is Erdoğan’s main purpose.

The coup de grace was the anonymous diffusion in late April of the “Pelican Files” (Pelikan Dosyası), an anonymous blog entry, written in the tones of a true loyalist of Erdogan,  of 27 detailed points of conflicts between Erdoğan and Davutoğlu followed by the decision of AKP’s Central Executive Committee to revoke Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s authority to appoint provincial and district chairmen of the AK Party’s local branches, a move that reduced Davutoğlu’s power over the party in terms of issuing and implementing decisions and solidified Erdoğan’s influence. These joint events led to the dismissal of Davutoğlu from premiership, as his place was given to one of the co-founders of the AKP, Binali Yildirim, the long-time transport minister since the beginning of Erdoğan’s presidency, who has been elected on May 22 as the new leader of the AKP and therefore as the prime minister. Yildirim perfectly corresponds to the description of the man Erdoğan was looking for, a man who would not pose any kind of threat to his ever-increasing authority: he will support Turkey’s transition from a parliamentary republic to a presidential system but at the same time he could also be the last prime minister of Turkey.

Erdoğan’s rhetoric towards the West, especially after Davutoğlu’s departure, has made Turkey a really difficult interlocutor for EU and US policymakers, who need Turkey to handle the Middle East conflicts, the fight against the Daesh and the migration flow towards Europe. It has been noted that Turkish policymakers are trying to understand the limits of their own influence: they are fully aware that Turkey is an indispensable partner for Western leaders and they are pushing for a tentative change in the balance of power. As we remarked before, the Turkish political model is no longer inspired by Western democratic values but is rather moving towards the “Russian model”: a centralized political system where state interests prevail over individual interests and rights and where freedom of expression and media can exist only to serve the state.

The position of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who’s responsible of the refugee deal, clearly symbolize the dichotomy between Erdoğan’s lovers and haters: she is forced to make concessions (a revision of Turkey’s anti-terror law was not accepted; Merkel failed to defend Jan Böhmermann, a German comedian, against Erdogan’s calls for prosecution over an insulting poem; Turkey will receive from the EU about 6 billion euros in aid, in addition to possible visa liberalization for Turks) because there is no alternative but to be acquiescent with Erdoğan’s plan. Indeed, when in September 2015 the German government decided to open the doors to asylum seekers, the dramatic rise of immigration led to a friction within the German coalition and contributed to growing support for the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party. This is why Berlin needs to keep the agreement with Turkey in place, even at the price of making unpopular decisions. But, even if the deal is going to work, it creates the problem of whether Turkey fits the criteria of a “third safe country” for refugees. First of all, Turkey does not recognize non-Europeans as refugees but  most of them are coming from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and they have to face uncertainty regarding their legal situation. Often, asylum seekers and refugees find themself in detention and detention conditions for asylum seekers in Turkey are in most cases unlawful. Furthermore, both the internal conflict and the indiscriminate attacks may pose a threat to the lives of refugees in the country.

Domenica Zavaglia

L’Orientale University


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