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18 July 2018updated 28 Jun 2022 2:03pm

President Erdogan’s republic of fear

Turkish parliament has been stripped of crucial functions and many state institutions dissolved.  

By Diego Cupolo

After the inauguration of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a new era has begun in Turkey. Some have called it “the Second Republic”; others have described it as “institutionalised autocracy”. But all agree that Erdogan now leads with unprecedented power and few constitutional constraints.

On 9 July, the 64-year-old conservative nationalist assumed an executive presidency of his own design, initiating a new system in which the parliament has been stripped of crucial functions and many state institutions have been dissolved.

Erdogan’s reforms were narrowly approved in a 2017 referendum (by 51 per cent to 49 per cent) marked by voting irregularities. The result enabled the president to extend his rule for another five years – he was prime minister from 2003 to 2014 – a mandate unlike any given to a Turkish leader since the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (who served from 1923 until his death in 1938).

Erdogan’s power grab has been welcomed by the 52.6 per cent of voters who backed the Justice and Development Party leader in the 24 June presidential election, which international observers said lacked “conditions for contestants to compete on an equal basis”. Yet the other half of Turkey’s polarised electorate has been marginalised by its unexpected landslide defeat.

The foremost opposition candidate, Muharrem Ince of the social democratic Republican People’s Party (the party of Atatürk), ran an energetic campaign, attracting huge crowds to his rallies. But the stature he earned was squandered on election night. Ince was absent from the airwaves, seemingly unwilling to deliver a concession speech. Instead, he conceded defeat via a WhatsApp message to a journalist.

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To those who regarded Ince as their best hope of change, his actions felt like a betrayal. Opposition parties have since reverted to their traditional infighting, leaving Turkish voters profoundly troubled by an uncertain future. For many the outcome is clear: Erdogan’s next term will be a continuation of his last – only worse.

The mass dismissals, arrests and repression that followed the July 2016 coup attempt against the president will be extended indefinitely. Turkey’s recession-stricken economy will continue to struggle and the lira, which has fallen by 20 per cent against the US dollar this year, will further depreciate. Dissent will be punished yet more severely. Presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas of the left-wing People’s Democratic Party remains imprisoned, along with more than 140 journalists. In a country where 90 per cent of the media is pro-government, pressure will increase on the opposition outlets that survive. Among them is the Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s oldest quality newspaper, where Cigdem Toker, an investigative journalist, is facing fines amounting to 3m Turkish lira (£470,000) for reporting on the distribution of public-sector contracts. “For the few journalists that remain, it has not been easy, especially in the past few years, to direct critical questions to the government about their actions,” Toker told me.

She has vowed to continue reporting but, like others, Toker believes the opposition Republican People’s Party is failing to mobilise voters to act as a counterbalance to Erdogan’s presidency. “The problem is structural and chronic,” she said.

Observers regard the Turkish economy as the only true check left on Erdogan’s rule. As much was proved this month when the president’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, was appointed finance minister, and international investors responded by pushing the Turkish lira to record lows. Few predict significant economic reforms before municipal elections scheduled for March 2019.

“The idea that Erdogan will veer towards moderation without being forced into a corner is, I think, fundamentally fanciful,” said Howard Eissenstat, a senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

“What do we see immediately [after the election]?” Eissenstat continued. “We see a further consolidation of control, an expansion of the purge… and that’s Erdogan. That’s who he is. He’s not going to become less of Erdogan because he’s got more power.”

And that power is unparalleled. Erdogan can now hand-pick cabinet members, as well as Supreme Court judges and prosecutors. Prospective state employees must also apply directly to the presidency. Job security for the nation’s many civil servants, police officers and teachers is increasingly tied to political loyalty. Following the recent firing of 18,632 state workers, including 8,998 police officers and 6,152 military personnel, a leaked document suggested some were sacked based on the schools they attended or critical social media posts. A total of 130,000 workers have been dismissed for alleged links to terrorist groups since a state of emergency was declared following the coup attempt.

Journalists will also now need to apply for press credentials through the presidential palace in order to work legally. One government tactic has involved denying credentials to oppositional voices, and then jailing unaccredited reporters who continue working for allegedly creating “terrorist propaganda”.

One such journalist is Amberin Zaman, who writes for the Turkish online newspaper Diken, from Washington, DC and has not visited Turkey since her press card was cancelled last year on the grounds that she was “a threat to national security”.

The space for critical discourse, she told me, was shrinking, making it even harder for opposition leaders to reach voters. “What can people do other than resign themselves to these circumstances?” Zaman said. “The hope of change through democratic means is becoming an increasingly remote one and that, of course, is extremely worrying.”

Diego Cupolo is the author of “Seven Syrians: War Accounts from Syrian Refugees”

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This article appears in the 18 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact