The Fall of Turkish Democracy

Erdoğan: President for one term, or president for life?

Griffin Sonnemann-Creed, Columnist

In the modern day and age, the Middle East is often perceived as a backwater, ultra-religious region of the world. However, one state has stood out among the rest for being one of the few functional democracies in this war-torn area. The Republic of Turkey, founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was founded on the principles of secularity, equality for all, and democracy. However, these may all be wiped out in the coming years.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the current president of Turkey and has had a long and troubled history with politics in his country. Originally elected as the mayor of Turkey’s capital, Istanbul, his religious leanings led to him being stripped of his position and banned from government posts after reciting an Islamic poem calling upon Muslims to take up arms to unify Turkic nations. In response, Erdoğan created a new political party, the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, and in English, the Justice and Development Party). When the party’s leader, Abdullah Gül, was elected prime minister, he annulled Erdoğan’s ban from holding public office and stepped down from his post.

With freedom to pursue his political agenda once more, Erdoğan was elected prime minister in 2003, serving under Gül, now the Turkish president. At first, Erdoğan’s agenda looked to be fine. Under his government, relations with the Kurdish population improved, infrastructure was built, the country’s democratic process improved, and workers’ rights were improved through bills signed into laws. Turkey returned properties to Christians and Jews seized in the 1930’s, during the republic’s founding. Despite his many controversial opinions, such as personal denial of the Armenian Genocide, or his view of women as mothers, Erdoğan was generally improving the country. However, it seems that this was all a facade.

In 2014, Erdoğan was elected Turkish president, officially becoming the country’s head of state. Despite this, vocal opposition was massive. Erdoğan had a background in Islamic parties and secular parties were opposed to his presidency. In spite of this, he was elected president. While the first two years of his presidency were tame, Erdoğan then began to embark on a campaign of government reform and consolidation of his power, as well as a complete change of foreign policy.

The Turkish government began to lock down on civil rights. Internet sites were blocked. Journalists were silenced through threats or imprisonment. The state took control of several Turkish media channels. In response, in 2016, an abortive coup d’etat was launched by factions within the Turkish military, citing the erosion of secularism in the country, as well as the loss of human rights and a degradation of Turkey’s international position. However, due to Turkey’s history of military coups, immediate suspicions were raised. The coup was shot down within a day, and only had several thousand men supporting it, with minimal equipment typical for a Turkish military coup; many prior coups often had most of, if not the entire military fighting against the government. Members of Erdoğan’s cabinet accused both Fethullah Gülen, a politician in opposition of Erdoğan, and even the United States. Erdoğan immediately used the coup to broaden his powers.

Days after the Turkish abortive coup, Erdoğan declared a state of emergency and granted himself emergency powers, gradually extending the allotted time for a state of emergency. He then embarked on a massive purge of the Turkish government. Judges, teachers, military officers, and some opposing politicians were imprisoned without fair trial, being declared as enemies of the state. Turkey then seized control of numerous news agencies and further silenced the press and the people, even banning sites such as Youtube and Twitter. In particular, Erdoğan banned Wikipedia in 2017 over a minor issue – vandalism of his page, when his profile picture was changed to one of a cockroach. Turkish free speech has come to an end.

However, Erdoğan’s attempts at consolidation do not end there. In April 2017, he passed a bill which prevented the Turkish legislature from investigating both the coup attempt and charges of corruption levied against him. He then held a referendum which would massively change the Turkish government. The post of prime minister would be abolished, with the president inheriting the powers of both the presidency and prime minister, becoming the strongest executive power. Using his newfound powers, he then began campaigns against the Kurdish population in Turkey, using the military to silence protests and even to support the Islamic State against Kurdish fighters in Syria.

In the end, Erdoğan is an obvious threat to Turkish democracy. Through the widening of his executive powers, he has inaugurated an effective dictatorship, veiled by a democracy. The crackdowns on intellectuals and judiciary figures in the government, and their replacement with friendly figures, has already shown signs of the destruction of opposition parties. Even Erdoğan’s seizure of power, with his merging of the prime minister and president, show similarities to Hitler’s seizure of power nearly 90 years ago. Thus, the proud nation of Turkey, grounded in secularism and democracy, falls back to autocracy once more.