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Opinion

June 30, 2018
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Erdogan’s return

Opinion

June 30, 2018

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The election commission in Turkey announced on June 25 that the incumbent president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has won the first round of presidential elections. For opposition parties, it was not easy to accept such an announcement and they hesitated before finally conceding defeat. The official sources are assigning around 53 percent of votes into Erdogan’s account. Meanwhile, his closest rival Muharrem Ince polled just 30 percent of votes.

The re-election of Erdogan has significant importance, mainly because now a new constitution will be promulgated that will enable the president to arrogate extraordinary authority and powers to himself. Such concentration of power is always detrimental to democracy regardless of whether it is in the hands of a president, prime minister, or even a chief justice. A balance of power is the key for the success of democracy. Most autocratic leaders use various excuses to hold a complete grip over all powers so that nobody can challenge their decisions.

Perhaps this was the first time in the history of Turkey that both presidential and parliamentary elections were held at the same time. According to official sources, the ruling party and its allies have won over 53 percent of votes in the parliamentary elections whereas different opposition parties have won 45 percent of votes. The turnout in the recent elections has been reported to be as high as over 88 percent. If that is the case, it is an impressive achievement because even in the most developed democracies a turnout of over 5o percent is considered good enough.

According to the constitution in Turkey, if no candidate wins over 50 percent of votes in the first round, the top two candidates contest the final round. The opposition in Turkey was initially of the opinion that the victory announcement by the president was premature, as a win with 53 percent votes is not a landslide victory and till the final tally is released a swing of just three to four percent of votes may precipitate the need for a second round. Such protestations have died down and the victory for Erdogan is now final.

Interestingly, Turkey has for the past two years been under a state of emergency that was imposed after the failed coup or putsch in July 2016. Even for the election, the state of emergency was not lifted or relaxed. Under these circumstances, the entire state machinery has been reported to be working under the direct influence of the president and the opposition found itself under tremendous stress. During the past two years, Turkish President Erdogan has used the attempted coup to fortify himself against all dissent.

During the past two years, thousands of journalists, lawyers, teachers and other professionals have been detained under the pretext of being supporters of the coup-plotters. All media groups have been targeted and the entire democratic mechanism has been badly affected, which has tarnished the transparency of the elections. Since the emergency rule could not be extended for a longer period of time, Erdogan decided to hold elections much before the due date of November 2019. Taking advantage of the elections under emergency, Erdogan – who has ruled Turkey for over 15 years now – has been able to cement his position for another five years at least.

Now, with a constitution in the offing, the president will directly be able to make appointments on top government positions, including those of all ministers and vice presidents. The president will have the right to interfere in the legal system of the country, and will also be authorised to impose a state of emergency at any time that he deems appropriate. Although there are many other countries in the world that practice a presidential system – such as America and France – perhaps nowhere else does a president enjoy so many unrestricted powers as Erdogan is going to wield in Turkey.

Whenever a leader usurps that many powers, the most common excuses are economic and political. On the economic front, they claim that such powers are important to better the lot of the people by making drastic economic decisions. On the political side, the most common pretext is an imagined or real state of rebellion in some areas of the country that can supposedly be dealt with by placing all powers in the hands of one strong leader. The resultant ‘strongman’ promises to eradicate all enemies of the state while, in most cases, those purported ‘enemies’ are the one who are either demanding their fundamental rights or challenging the unchecked use of force.

Erdogan has also given the same reasons to crush the Kurdish aspirations for regional autonomy and local self-rule. The Kurdish population has been targeted by successive governments in Turkey. And now, with sweeping powers vested with the all-powerful president, the omens are not good. Just like most such regional issues, the Kurdish problem is a dispute that can be resolved through peaceful negotiations. Demanding equal treatment is a fundamental right of all nationalities, including Kurds. But almost all Turkish governments have denied these rights and considered their demands as anti-state. This has weakened democracy in Turkey and Kurds have been relegated to the level of second-grade citizens.

After winning the recent elections, Erdogan has repeated his old promises, including the one regarding the elimination of terrorists. He has also announced that he will continue incursions into Syrian territories so that the refugees can safely return to their homes. It is worth mentioning that Erdogan was prime minister for 11 years from 2003 to 2014 before assuming the office of president. Thanks to the new constitution, his next tenure will end in 2023 and, then again, he will be legally allowed to contest for another term.

If he manages to do that, he may rule over Turkey till 2028 and that will make him the longest-serving ruler of modern Turkey with a tenure track of over 25 years. Before the recent elections, he had made sure that almost all electronic and print media houses provide minimum coverage to opposition parties. All over Turkey, there were floods of banners, flags and posters of the ruling party, so much so that the opposition media was almost invisible. Surprisingly, even after doing all this, the victor’s votes were slightly over 50 percent.

This confirms that despite tall claims, the president was not as popular as had been projected. Most opposition leaders contend that the ruling party is almost bordering on fascist tactics that is harmful to democracy. If a single party or person aims to remain in power for a quarter of a century and tries to crush all opposition, the future of democracy doesn’t look auspicious. With the new constitution in place, even the office of the prime minister is likely to be scrapped and all the authority and power of both the offices will converge to the president.

The appointments of topmost judges will also be done by the president, ensuring that his diktats are not declared illegal by the courts. The army is already under the thumb. So, after almost 100 years since the revolution staged by Kemal Ataturk and his group, Erdogan has emerged as the most powerful ruler. During the first 80 years after the revolution, the Turkish Army overshadowed democracy, never allowing it to function for long and with the required decision-making powers. During the last 20 years or so, the tide has turned and the people of Turkey, who were sick and tired of repeated military interventions in politics, have been supporting Erdogan against the wishes of the army.

Had democracy been allowed to function in letter and spirit during the 20th century, it would have been well-nigh impossible for Erdogan to subdue the judiciary along with the army. If you deviate from democracy, the entire society pays the price and even when the army’s dominance is curtailed, the new civil leadership makes almost the same mistakes.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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