Authoritarianism in Ankara

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has now held power in Turkey for 13 years. Initially elected into the ceremonial role of President following a decade as Prime Minister, Erdogan has manipulated Turkish politics ruthlessly to the point where he rules almost single-handedly. His recently-passed constitutional reforms will transform Turkey’s government into an executive-Presidency, and will likely cement his rule for at least another decade. All the while, Turkey’s minority rights, press freedoms, education system, and even its military come under increasing authoritarian pressure.

The Turkish parliament, with notably little resistance save a few emotional protests from the bolder of Ankara’s marginalised opposition figures, has now passed Erdogan’s long-sought constitutional reform over the final hurdles needed to grant the President extensive executive powers. Although Erdogan insists that he will seek public approval of the new constitution in a referendum in the coming months, this step is not legally required, and results contrary to the President’s wishes may not be recognised. That said, it is expected that the vote will garner the support of around 60% of Turkey’s electorate. Unsurprising given the genuine support-base Erdogan maintans in the Sunni-Islamist sector of the population, coupled with his rigid control of Turkish media.

The reforms, which are now all but certain to be enacted, would dramatically alter the structure of governance in Turkey, where the president’s position is largely ceremonial and executive power is in theory held by the Prime Minister. The country will now shift to a presidential system, with executive power resting with President Erdogan, who will now hold the power to enact laws by decree. The proposed constitution also creates a Vice President role, and abolishes the office of the Prime Minister, currently held by Binali Yildirim, a key ally of Erdogan. Under the new constitution, the president would sit for a five-year term. Erdogan was already expected to run for a second term as president in 2019 when his current term expires, and govern again until 2024. Under the new constitution, he would assume executive power immediately, but the electoral clock would reset in 2019 and he would be allowed two more five-year terms, leaving him in power until 2029. Erdogan would now also be allowed to serve as the leader of a political party concurrent to his presidential service. Currently the president is expected to disavow links to his party on assuming office, however the government claims that reform will create a system of strong leadership, which they argue is needed to prevent a return of the fragile and coup-vulnerable coalition governments seen throughout Turkey’s recent history.

The centralisation of power under an executive president will probably increase stability and create a more agile, responsive government in the short term, but will critically undermine Turkey’s fragile democracy. Under the new constitution, impeachment proceedings against the president will be practically impossible, requiring several rounds of overwhelmingly-supported secret ballots. The removal of Turkey’s current- albeit limited – system of checks and balances, will allow Erdogan to further limit press and democratic freedoms, and will serve to tighten his grip on the nation. While this may stabilise Turkey in the near term, as the 62 year old leader ages, his autocratic-strongman style of rule may prove damaging to systems that have been made increasingly reliant on him as an individual.

The astonishingly rapid progress of the controversial reforms through the Turkish parliament is almost certainly driven by lawmakers’ fears that non-compliance would see them fall victim to the “purge” that has gripped the country since the failed coup d’état of July 2016. The impact of the failed coup has been dramatic; lawmakers have been jailed, media outlets silenced, and hundreds of senior ranks have been purged from the military, leaving Turkey facing an acute shortage of officers with which to man the nation’s armed forces.

Beyond the political and military impact of the purge, Turkey has seen a dramatic exodus of academic professionals. Over 5,300 academics were suspended and over 2,300 were fired for alleged links to the plot, while 15 private universities with supposed links to alleged coup mastermind and long-time state bogeyman Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric and former Erdogan ally, have been closed. While this “brain drain”, driven by fears of academic purging, will play directly into the hands of Erdogan’s populist strategies in his pursuit of power, in the long term it will have a hugely detrimental impact that may take decades to recover from.

Also of concern is the level of state propaganda that has been accepted by the population in the post-coup environment, especially within the education and media sectors. Since the failed coup, the Turkish government has closed more than 100 radio and television stations, newspapers, magazines, publishers and distribution companies. Within Turkish schools, curriculum material praising the counter-coup forces as heroes of the state have become the new norm.

Beyond the Ankara political scene, this authoritarian streak will hurt Turkey economically. The nation remains in a state of decline: the Turkish lira is expected to depreciate further in the coming months, partly due to political uncertainty and the growing terrorism threat facing the nation’s valuable tourist sector. As the referendum on the constitution approaches, Erdogan will be tempted to put pressure on the Turkish Central Bank to prevent the implementation of painful economic measures that could push his government out of favour with the population. This in turn will harm investor confidence, as economic necessity is seen as a lower priority than the political goals of the Erdogan camp.

Diplomatically Turkey has experienced a major reorientation under Erdogan. While early 2016 was marked by inflamed tensions between Moscow and Ankara following the downing of a Russian fighter jet that had briefly strayed into Turkish airspace, following several months of diplomatic tension, the leaders of both nations announced a sudden and unexpected thawing of relations. Turkey’s renewed closeness with Russia comes inconveniently at a time where relations with Western allies are under significant strain. Massive anti-Western sentiment was generated by the failed coup, in part due to the asylum provided by the U.S. to Fethullah Gülen. In addition to this, Erdogan accused several Western leaders of lackluster support during the late night confusion of the coup attempt.

Further straining relations is Turkey’s intervention in the Syrian conflict. Since entering northern Syria in August 2016 under the banner of Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkish forces have carved out a sizeable portion of territory with the use of both proxy Turkmen-Sunni rebel units, and later the full-scale deployment of several Turkish Battlegroups. This intervention has brought Ankara into conflict with U.S. supported Kurdish rebels in the Manbij gap region, further adding to the complexities of the regional conflict and intensifying the domestic conflict between Turkish Kurds and the state. Rex Tillerson, the Trump administration’s Secretary of State, has praised the Syrian Kurdish forces as being the U.S.’ “most valuable ally” in the fight against the Islamic State. Turkey, meanwhile, has criticized the U.S. for cooperating with these same Kurdish forces, which it labels as “terrorists”, and as such the current situation is likely to further strain the troubled U.S.-Turkish relationship. Moscow has seized upon this diplomatic cooling, and has closely cooperated with Turkey’s military in Syria through the provision of air support. While this hasn’t gone entirely smoothly, given the deaths of three Turkish soldiers in a Russian air strike in early February, both states have moved quickly to smooth relations, demonstrating the dramatic nature of Turkey’s strategic reorientation towards Moscow.

The past year has been marked by an increasingly authoritarian Turkish government under the freshly-solidified presidency of Erdogan. While a more authoritarian government may provide stability and administrative agility to Turkey in the short term, in the long term the nation will be vulnerable to the effects of entwining its fate with that of a single 62 year old man. The impact of the post-coup purge continues to be seen across all sectors, but most notably in the military. Under a now-unchallenged Erdogan, Turkey will almost certainly continue with its more ambitious foreign policy; a dangerous course given an increasingly overstretched military that has been left gutted and neutered by rounds of purges, fighting wars or multiple fronts.

Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently provides MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to a leading U.S. investment bank.

Photo credit: Mstyslav Chernov

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