Turkey was effectively an authoritarian state before its landmark June 24 elections and polling day did no more “than consolidate an authoritarianism that was already in place”, Howard Eissenstat, an expert on Turkish affairs, said in an interview published on June 26.
The decisive victory of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to become Turkey’s first executive president—constitutional changes have also done away with the role of prime minister, while diluting parliament’s powers—caused Erdogan’s defeated main rival, Muharrem Ince of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), to warn that Turkey has now “fully adopted a regime of one-man rule.”
Eissenstat, an associate professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, told Reuters in an interview that Turkey can no longer be regarded as a democracy. Looking at the implications of the poll outcome he added that “Turkey was effectively an authoritarian state before the election. It remains one today. Through the [constitutional] referendum last year and these elections, [Erdogan] has put into law what was already the practice. I don’t see the election as doing more than consolidating an authoritarianism that was already in place”.
The executive presidency formalises sweeping powers for Erdogan but given Turkey’s prolonged state of emergency, introduced after the July 2016 attempted coup, he has actually been able to rule by decree for nearly two years already.
One setback for those who would like to see Erdogan rule with entirely unhindered power was the result of the parliamentary vote which means Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) can only control parliament in a coalition with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Its leader, Devlet Bahceli, on June 26 gave Turks an example of what they can expect from the ultra-nationalists by publishing a hate-list of 70 columnists, academics, journalists and polling company managers whom he accuses of producing false and malicious statements and incriminating claims against his party members.
On June 27, Reuters reported sources as saying Erdogan could give his nationalist allies cabinet posts. The MHP, founded by an ex-colonel involved in a 1960 military coup, is hostile to the Kurdish political movement. Its base is seen as closely tied to the “Grey Wolves”, a nationalist youth group that fought street battles with leftists in the 1970s.
Asked about the broader regional implications of Erdogan’s win and whether he is trying to rebuild the Ottoman Empire, Eissenstat responded: “I don’t see any fundamental change in Erdogan’s approach to either foreign or domestic policy because of the elections, which means that he’ll continue to press the Kurdish YPG [People’s Protection Units] in Syria and against its sister group, the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party], in Turkey, and to the extent he can manage it, against its strongholds in Iraq as well. Turkey and the United States both categorise the PKK as a terrorist organisation, however, while Turkey not unreasonably views the PKK and YPG as interchangeable, the United States has a de facto alliance with the YPG in Syria. In the past weeks, Turkish forces have launched operations against PKK forces in Iraq, which was certainly popular for the election, but is also part of a broader ‘get tough’ policy that Erdogan has followed since 2015.
“A lot of people talk about Erdogan’s ‘Ottoman ambitions’ and, certainly, Erdogan believes that Turkey should retake a leading role in the Muslim world and indulges in a fair dose of Ottoman nostalgia. But I’d be careful about pushing the metaphor too far. Erdogan’s sense of Ottoman history is, after all, pretty fuzzy and no good guide for understanding his policy decisions. He does, however, have a distinctive foreign policy vision. Like most Turks, he believes Turkey has a larger historic role to play and should walk larger on the world stage. Second – and again like most Turks – he believes that Western nations have been diffident friends and that Turkey should take a more independent line. Erdogan sees Turkey as playing a leadership role for Muslims, to be sure, but under his leadership Turkey has also increased its role in Southeast Asia, the Balkans, and sub-Saharan Africa. His relationship to the West in all of this is a bit more complex: he still takes Turkey’s ties to Nato, for example, seriously. But he doesn’t trust the West and believes that the United States needs to be confronted. This helps to explain his growing engagement not just with Russia, but also with such states as Venezuela.”
Eissenstat called on “the West [to] recognize, first off, that Turkey is not the country it was and likely will not be again. Second, Western leaders need to be unified in addressing some basic rule of law issues in Turkey, for example the detention of US and European citizens there on political charges, or unsavoury acts abroad, such as the Turkish security forces’ confrontations with anti-Erdogan demonstrators in Washington in 2016 and 2017. This does not mean that ties should be broken. Turkey remains a Nato ally and there are ways in which meaningful cooperation can and must continue. But Turkey is no longer a democracy and it is not likely to be a friend to Europe and the United States. The West should seek cooperation where cooperation is possible. But there will be no reboot to the old days of close friendship and the relationship is likely to remain contentious despite our diplomats’ best efforts.”
The associate professor said he saw Erdogan’s relationship to secularism as pretty complex, saying: “[He] resents the way secularism was imposed under the republic, but nonetheless has subsumed many of the assumptions and expectations of the Turkey he grew up in, which was devout and secular simultaneously. In many ways, he’s more “social conservative” than Islamist, at least when it comes to domestic issues. There is also good evidence that despite the AKP’s efforts at broadening the place of Islam in the public sphere and its support for religious education, secularism is alive and well in Turkey. This may change over years or decades, but we have not seen radical shifts in thinking yet – and the AKP has been in power since 2002.”
Turkey has become familiar with a worrying pattern in which it experiences low magnitude earthquakes more frequently than usual. Since last autumn, ... more
Four Turkish MPs, one from the governing AKP and three from the pro-Kurdish HDP, have been diagnosed as having coronavirus ... more
The French foreign minister on June 24 called on France’s European Union partners to hold urgent talks on the bloc’s future relations with Turkey. Paris and Ankara have this week exchanged tense ... more