Will Ukraine’s president follow Erdogan’s emergency powers playbook?

Will Ukraine’s president follow Erdogan’s emergency powers playbook?
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
By Ben Aris in Berlin, William Conroy in Prague December 6, 2018

Following the attempted coup in Turkey in July 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wasted little time in declaring a state of emergency to deal with the crisis. The move granted him sweeping powers. However, over the next two years, as observers kept pointing out that it was time to lift the emergency regime, the parliament, under the sway of Erdogan, kept extending it. Only after Erdogan locked in most of his newly acquired powers, by becoming Turkey’s first executive president thanks to the June 2018 presidential election, was the state of emergency ended.

Populist Erdogan went into the presidential vote looking a little vulnerable in the polls, but the extra power provided by his emergency, and authoritarian regime, together with his crushing of critical media, dominance on the airwaves and bullying of the opposition, secured him a first-round victory. Given recent events in Ukraine, now is a good time to ask if that country might be headed for something like this Turkish scenario?

There are lots of questions left over from Erdogan’s electoral victory. He used the state of emergency to purge the government and all state institutions of any public servants who could be linked to “Gulenist elements.” Erdogan quickly blamed his one-time friend and ally, self-exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, for masterminding the coup attempt and fired tens of thousands of state workers, including bureaucrats, teachers, soldiers and police officers, while jailing enough media representatives to give Turkey the unenviable reputation of the world’s biggest jailer of journalists. Many businesses which had owners that in some way could be connected to the Gulenist network were, meanwhile, confiscated by the state.

Erdogan claimed victory in the presidential poll two weeks before the details of the voting statistics were released, meaning there was no breathing space for a statistical check for vote rigging. These mathematical checks have been used to good effect in both Russian elections as well as the Turkish general election in 2015 and the crucial April 2016 referendum in Turkey that paved the way for turning Erdogan into an executive president, or “Sultan” as his enemies like to dub him. They showed quite conclusively that the poll results were tampered with.

Following the Kerch Strait crisis, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko has given himself similar powers to those Erdogan enjoyed under his emergency regime.

Martial law
The confrontation in the strait was the first open military clash between a Russian military unit and Ukrainian military personnel since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Naval vessels in the chokepoint that leads from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov clashed on November 25. Tensions between Moscow and Kyiv have since flared.

A day after the confrontation in which Russia seized Ukrainian vessels and sailors, Poroshenko took the unprecedented step of ramming a bill through parliament giving him emergency powers. Martial law was imposed on the 10 regions that share a border with Russia. He has since claimed that 80,000 Russian troops—equivalent to a third of Russia’s standing army—are massed on the border and that an invasion could come any day. Poroshenko has also done the international rounds, calling for Nato to beef up its naval presence in the Black Sea and for the West to direct new sanctions at Russia.

His claims have been met with more than a little scepticism. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas pointedly said that “both sides” need to deescalate the tensions, while his predecessor Sigmar Gabriel said that “Ukraine is trying to drag us into war”. 

A provocation?
bne IntelliNews has questioned whether the naval clash might have been a provocation mounted by Poroshenko to boost his flagging ratings in the polls ahead of the presidential elections due on March 31, 2019 (the same day, as it happens, that Erdogan, under rising pressure from the onset of a recession some analysts attribute to his economic mismanagement, will try to get the voters out for local elections that will test his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and its nationalist allies). There is no conclusive evidence for this, but others—especially in Ukraine itself—have posed the same question. Even Poroshenko’s supporters admit that he is likely to take advantage of the situation for his own political gain.

Martial law effectively suspends the rule of law and gives the president unfettered powers. The Ukrainian constitution is explicit that elections cannot be held when the country is under martial law. Initially, Poroshenko asked for 60 days of martial law, which would have caused the elections to be delayed by at least a month.

Martial law allows the president to seize assets, ban political parties and take control of the media. The possibility of extending the martial law period by decree is also granted him. Poroshenko has said that he “hopes” he won’t have to use that power, that but he has not explicitly promised to end martial law after the 30 days it was eventually established for expires at the end of December.

"[Martial law] is being introduced in Ukraine's newest history for the first time and just for 30 days... I declare that we will be able to limit ourselves to the said measures, and their continuation, I hope, will not be necessary," Poroshenko said at Ukroboronprom state concern's delivery of military hardware to various military units in Kyiv region last week, Interfax Ukraine reported.

“The Sultan did very well”
There are those detractors who behind the scenes mutter that “Sultan” Erdogan “did very well” out of the state of emergency brought in shortly after the failed coup d’etat.

There are even those who claim the attempt to topple Erdogan was staged in order to give the president and his henchmen the chance to purge key opponents and dissidents—but no evidence of such a conspiracy has ever come to light.

Today thousands of those detained during the two-year emergency regime remain behind bars. And “mini purges” that, for instance, have lately picked up academics go on. Turkey even managed to attract international outrage by detaining the head of the country’s branch of Amnesty International, while its arrest of Turkish-German dual national journalists has led to some lively stand-offs that have sorely tested relations with its main trade partner, economic superpower Germany.

Erdogan also used his expanded powers to reshape Turkish politics. Prior to the coup attempt, Erdogan’s power structures had steadily worn down the influence of Turkey’s armed forces—traditionally heavily influential in the governance of Turkey—over many years. Erdogan’s AKP also gradually boosted its control of the police and security services in the years leading up to the coup.

Erdogan’s nationalist ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), whole-heartedly backed the move for a referendum on creating a near-all-powerful president. Nothing was left to chance when it came to rooting out any remaining elements that might stand in the way of reshaping Turkey’s constitution. For instance, thousands of police were arrested in an operation against an alleged “secret structure” within the police force.

The result of the referendum—a very narrow Yes vote contested as suspect by opposition voices—even expanded Erdogan’s power base further by allowing him to retake the leadership of the AKP while simultaneously serving as president.

In May 2017, evidence of how far Erdogan was going in the use of his emergency powers to quell any signs of protest came with an Ankara ban forbidding press events, group singing and the shouting of slogans in public places after sunset.

Also following the referendum victory, Erdogan introduced a huge credit guarantee fund that backstopped loans to companies. Government largesse helped the stock market surge to an all-time high and turbo-charged economic growth to as high as 7.4% in 2017, a rate that even exceeded that of China. Planet Business, holding its nose at the rather questionable goings-on on Planet Politics, was sucked in to support the president thanks to the free cash on offer. But economic overheating set in and Turkey is now paying the price for its superficial boom with the full-scale currency crisis that broke out in the summer.

The Turkish trampling of rights in the past two and a half years deteriorated to the point where Brussels warned Turkey that its “slide to authoritarianism” and “trouncing of human rights” meant that Ankara’s application for membership of the EU is de facto cancelled if not de jure. Barbs not bouquets were thrown at a late November "High-Level Political Dialogue Meeting" between top officials from Brussels and the Turkish government in Ankara.

Under the new constitution that has created a presidential republic, the position of prime minister has been abolished, parliament now has a greatly diminished role in the governance of Turkey and Erdogan has immense powers in appointing and dismissing officials and members of the judiciary. His son-in-law has been made finance minister and he has even essentially taken personal control of the country’s sovereign wealth fund.

Bit off more than he could chew?
But did Erdogan bite off more than he should chew? As he warmed up for his executive presidency, Erdogan made it clear to the markets that he thought he should have a key, and possibly the key, voice in monetary policy. That’s one factor that sent Turkey’s overheating economy careering into what seems set to be a painful recession.

The local elections next March will test how many of the polarised electorate are sticking with Erdogan despite his bad economic performance. The markets are becoming increasingly worried that in the search for vital votes, the Erdogan administration will backslide on monetary and fiscal imperatives, thus worsening the ills of the economy in the longer run.

Erdogan made ‘good’ use of his emergency powers and, while it is impossible to show they were decisive in getting him elected to the post of executive president, they clearly made it easier.

Question facing Ukraine
The question now facing Ukraine is to what extent Poroshenko will avail himself of his expanded powers. In the worst case scenario, he could cancel the presidential elections indefinitely and rule by decree. However, given the strength of civil society in Ukraine—there have already been two popular revolutions since 2000 that ousted a president—it is highly unlikely that he would do anything so crude. But it is more than possible that the elections will not be held on time in March as Poroshenko buys more time to improve his position until such a point where he feels confident of winning.

The temptation to stack the administration with place-holders and interfere with the local media in the run-up to the vote will be strong. Engineering a scandal to discredit the current front-runner Yulia Tymoshenko and ordering an investigation is another possibility that would be easy to organise. Tymoshenko’s nickname is the “Gas princess” from the time she ran Ukraine’s energy ministry. Her personal wealth is estimated to be in the order of $350mn.

None of the painted black scenarios are a given, but Poroshenko has put himself in a position where he has at the very least expanded his options.