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Erdogan’s New Turkey: The Victory of Illiberal Democracy and One-Man Rule

Turkey’s snap election on 24 June 2018 was at the center of international news for good, bad and ugly reasons. Recep Tayyip Erdogan won at the first round of elections and became the 13th president, following his previous term in office since 2014. I have been arguing that the rise of authoritarian nationalism and populism continue to thrive on the weaknesses of ‘majoritarian democracy’ in Turkey, in a similar way across many countries around the world.

In the 2014 presidential election, Erdogan received 51.8 percent of votes while his main rival Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu garnered 38.4. Selahattin Demirtas, the candidate of pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), remained below the national threshold with 9.8 percent.

After the failed coup attempt in July 2016, a major step was taken by the referendum in April 2017 to change Turkey’s constitution leading to an all-powerful executive presidency. Although it was necessary to amend Turkey’s 1982 constitution, which was drafted by a military-controlled council following the 1980 military coupthe accepted changes in 2017 transformed Turkey to an illiberal democracy because all political powers have been amassed at the hands of one man, President Erdogan, with weakened checks and balances. It was clear with the 2017 referendum that the majority of voters (51.4 percent) decided to allow Erdogan to remain in power, possibly as late as until 2029.

When he came to power in 2002, I doubt any Turkey expert or ordinary person, except Mr. Erdogan himself, expected he would stay in power for three decades, as if Turkey is back to its Ottoman past when it was ruled by Sultans. The results of this month’s election confirmed that he cleared the path for turning a de facto one-man rule into de jure by increasing 0.8 percent of votes with the majority (52.4%) of his supporters.

In fact, Erdogan won this election in advance by design. The last election, like the last year’s referendum, was free but the most ‘unfair’ in its history. Turkey is still ruled by a state of emergency and there is no freedom of media: on the one hand, 90% of the media is under state control or business groups close to the government; and, on the other hand, one of the six presidential candidates, HDP’s candidate Selahattin Demirtas campaigned from jail.

The final result of the presidential and parliamentary elections indicate three emerging trends for new Turkey’s democracy and its political system: 

First, Erdogan had won the elections once again by operating within the political structure of Turkey’s democratic system.  When the ruling AKP formed the ‘People’s Alliance’ (Cumhur ittifaki) with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), it was a game changer. Interestingly enough, the MHP surprised everyone with its 11.5% votes in contrast to pre-election surveys, which showed the party well below 10 percent threshold. The reasons behind MHP voters’ unexpected support for Erdogan’s Presidency were the revival of Turkish-Islamic synthesis (TIS –Turk-Islam sentezi) and neo-Ottomanism.

The new version of TIS is a bad mixture of popular feelings related to Islam, nationalism and glorious Ottoman history that speaks to almost everyone in Turkey. Whether one is religious or secular, s/he is usually very proud of Ottoman past that the ‘Turks’ were never colonized by European powers and Turkish nationalism won against the European imperialism. Consequently, this explosive combination of strong Turkish nationalism and neo-Ottoman fantasies contributed to clearing the path for Erdogan’s one-man rule.

Such a mixture also put the People’s Alliance ahead of the other candidates, Meral Aksener (8.4%), Muharrem Ince (30.6%) and Temel Karamollaoglu (0.9%) from Nation Alliance (Millet Ittifaki), which was formed by four opposition parties opposition parties of People’s Republican Party (CHP), Good Party (Iyi Parti), Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi — SP) and Democrat Party (DP) on May 1. 

Second, following the revival of TIS and neo-Ottomanism, Erdogan’s authoritarianism is embedded in an ugly illiberal democracy. This interpretation is also supported by the global rise of populism, just like President Vladimir Putin in Russia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India, President Donald J. Trump in the U.S. In a global context, ‘illiberal democracies have become the norm more than the exception in many countries with different cultures and religions.

In the Turkish context, with the referendum in April 2017, the package of eighteen constitutional amendments was passed to abolish the post of prime minister; the president can keep ties with political parties, have the authority to draft the budget, declare a state of emergency; and issue decrees to appoint ministries without parliamentary approval. More importantly, the impartiality of the judiciary branch suffers the most, as the presidency will have broad authority over the high council of judges and prosecutors. In short, by eliminating the separation of powers and the impartiality of the judiciary, these changes have reversed Turkey into illiberal democracy and increase Erdogan’s authoritarianism. 

Third, the success of Erdogan’s one-man rule and consecutive tenure in power is a testament not only to his charismatic leadership and popular pragmatism but also the AKP’s move to post-Islamism. In the Turkish context, the idea of post-Islamism goes beyond the notion of a purely Islamic system of governance. The AKP’s post-Islamism includes neo-Ottomanism, nationalism and illiberal notions of democracy. In this sense, it seems to me that Turkey under the AKP rule and Erdogan’s leadership will continue to exploit post-Islamism for the next stage of regime change in ‘new’ Turkey that will challenge its secular and republican tradition.

Hence, Erdogan’s one-man rule will probably lead to a regime change if the opposition fails to keep the momentum of hope for a change in Turkish politics. The support of people during the election campaign and rallies showed that the other half of society (48%) is as strong as the AKP supporters but the election results proved how the society is polarized through ethnoreligious and ideological differences.

Nevertheless, there were two good outcomes of the last election: for the first time Turkey had a woman candidate for the presidency, and the pro-Kurdish HDP has passed the threshold of 10 percent in Parliament. The leaders of opposition parties need to learn from their previous mistakes and learn how to engage with an inclusive social democracy that promotes ethnic diversity and gender equality as part of people’s hope for new Turkey’s future.

They also need to realize that Erdogan’s real rival was not the leaders of opposition parties but the first president of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Erdogan wants to exceed the legacy of Ataturk, who hold the first three presidential terms between 1923 and 1938 when he died in office. It seems that Mr Erdogan prays to follow a similar fate by staying in power until he dies in office. The rest of us need to learn to be patient and respect each other’s views in a democratic society.

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