Today’s episode of What in the World focuses on how Turkey became a dictatorship. You can find the full episode for free here:
In April of 2017, a mandate to keep Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in power until 2029 passed, effectively making him a dictator.
This move didn’t come out of nowhere. Erdoğan has been slowly consolidating power since his political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), won a solid majority in their parliamentary election and appointed him prime minister in 2003. To his supporters, he has brought Turkey years of economic growth, but to his critics he is an autocratic leader intolerant of dissent who harshly silences anyone who opposes him.
This is a distinct turn from the direction Turkey was headed, beginning in the 1960s with the secularizing and modernizing reforms of then-leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and up to recent years with the 2004 invitation to apply to become a member of the European Union.
An all-powerful presidency, Erdoğan argues, is “a guarantee that the political instability that used to plague Turkey will not return.” Erdoğan believes that by curtailing the military’s power and consolidating political power that he will create a stable Turkey.
The Turkish military has a history of considering itself the “guarantor of Ataturk’s secular republic.”
The Rise of Islamic Politicians
Erdoğan himself was a key part of the rise of Islamic politicians in secular Turkey. In the 1970s and 1980s he became politically active in Islamist circles, becoming an active member of Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party.
Erbakan’s father was one of the last Islamic judges of the Ottoman Empire, whose religious courts were replaced by a secular legal code in 1923 under Kemal Atatürk. He established a pro-Islamic party in 1970, at a time when religiously based political parties were banned in Turkey. He re-established and renamed his party several times.
Erbakan was briefly imprisoned in the 1980s and was prohibited from political engagement from 1980-87. In the 1990s, he became a leader of the pro-Islamic Welfare (Refah) Party, which was formed to combat what some saw as arrogant corruption among the leaders of the established parties.
In 1994, Erdoğan was elected mayor of Istanbul on a Welfare Party ticket, and in 1995 Erbakan became the country’s first Islamic prime minister. This was the first time an Islamic party ever won a general election in Turkey, and it shook the secularist establishment. In 1998 Erdoğan was convicted for inciting religious hatred, forced to resign, and sentenced to 10 months in prison. Erbakan was also forced to resign from his position, as were the rest of the Welfare Party members holding office at the time. The Welfare Party was banned entirely.
Political analysts warned against this coup at the time. A Western intelligence source said, “If [Turkey’s] pro-secular elite does not reach some kind of peaceful accommodation with the Islamists, some of these people could eventually take up arms against the state.”
Erdoğan was released from prison in 1999, and in 2001, when Erbakan’s Virtue Party was banned, Erdoğan broke with Erbakan and helped to form the AKP. Part of their split was due to the belief of the AKP that Turkey should join the European Union, a move Erbakan saw as an abandonment of their Islamic roots.
In 2003, the AKP won a solid majority in the parliamentary election, and appointed Erdoğan prime minister. At first it seemed the AKP would continue the liberalization of Turkey, passing five reform packages including protection of minority rights and the judiciary. Negotiations to join the EU began in 2005. However, shortly after, these negotiations slowed as other European countries were unwelcoming to the idea of Turkey joining.
In 2007, Erdoğan called for an early election in response to tensions between Turkey’s secularist parties, including the military, and the AKP over an Islamist party holding power. The AKP won with 47% of the vote. The AKP’s candidate for president assumed office against the military’s wishes.
The Istanbul police, meanwhile, uncovered an alleged plot to overthrow the government. Given that Turkey has a history of coups, this seemed plausible at first, but in time it became clear that the evidence of such a plot was flimsy or even entirely fabricated. This was used as an excuse to jail or purge those who opposed the AKP, including senior military commanders. This was, arguably, Erdoğan’s first attempt to consolidate power and lay the groundwork for the authoritarian dictatorship he currently oversees.
In 2008, when a legal case against the AKP nearly passed in Turkey’s Constitutional Court, Erdoğan sought to change the law. In 2010 a referendum to give the AKP greater control over which judges were placed in court was introduced. This amendment, combined with other constitutional changes regarding children’s rights, freedom of residence and the right to appeal, passed by a wide margin.
IN 2013, the largest street protest in Turkish history was ignited in response to a government announcement to tear down Istanbul’s Gezi Park and redevelop it into a shopping mall. Environmentalists camped in the park and were attacked by police, who used tear gas on them and burned down their tents. Erdoğan called the protesters “marauders,” and accused them of drinking alcohol in a mosque.
Later in 2013 a phone conversation implicating Erdoğan and his inner circle for corruption was leaked to the media. Erdoğan blamed the Gulenists, followers of US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, for the leak.
Gulen himself was accused of leading a “parallel state;” the Gulenists of doctoring evidence and tapping phones. Gulan became enemy number one, and the focus of a sudden rush of conspiracy theories. Erdoğan increasingly turned to arch-loyalists while expelling members of his party who dissented, and pushed back hard against freedom of expression.
The progresses of the early days of Erdoğan’s rule were quickly undone as anyone critical of the prime minister was branded a traitor or terrorist.
In 2014, after the first ever direct election for head of state, Erdoğan was elected president.
On July 16, 2016, two dozen Turkish commandos ambushed the hotel Erdoğan was staying at with automatic rifles and grenades. Opening fire, they stormed the hotel, killing two bodyguards in the process. They were attempting to capture Erdoğan, but he had fled by helicopter on a tip and then was whisked onto a private jet to evade radar detection.
In Istanbul and Ankara, rebel soldiers blocked roads and bombed state buildings.
Erdoğan made a video call to Turkish television while up in the air, urging people to resist the coup attempt on the streets. His supporters responded in great numbers, flooding the streets. Some of them ran into gunfire on the Bosphorus bridge in an attempt to overpower the rebels, and others laid in front of rebel tanks to block their paths. 265 people were killed, and an estimated 1,400 injured.
At 3:00 pm the president emerged from Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, cheered by a crowd of supporters. The coup attempt had failed, and Erdoğan was to continue to consolidate power and become even stronger in its wake. He jailed dozens of journalists and arrested or dismissed thousands. He blamed Fethullah Gulen, leader of the Gulenists, for orchestrating the coup.
The Gulenists, religious followers of the US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, are a community of people that some consider to be a cult. Gulen promotes a tolerant Islam which emphasises altruism, modesty, hard work and education.
Gulenists are believed to number in the millions in Turkey. Their movement, called Hizmet (which means “service”), runs schools across the country and around the world, including in Turkic former Soviet Republics, Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Western nations including Romania and the US. Some believe they hold influential positions in institutions including police and secret services, the judiciary, and even the AKP itself.
The group presents itself as a “faith-inspired, non-political, cultural and educational movement” adhering to “sympathy, compassion and altruism” through projects ranging from private schools to poverty aid programmes.
“The Gulen movement is a perfect definition of a cult,” says Said Alpsoy, a conservative researcher.
After a visit with Gulen and his followers Alpsoy recounted, “When Gulen was eating an orange, he threw the peel on the ground. I watched as one of his doctors grabbed the peel and ate it. I realized from the body-language that this was routine. The soles of his old shoes would even be boiled and eaten by his followers…Once, after Gulen gave an emotional sermon, he cried a lot and the handkerchief with which he cleaned his nose was wet. A young student took that handkerchief and cleaned his own face with it, right in front of me. Also, the stones of the olives that Gulen ate were never thrown away. They were distributed as valuable gifts to lower-grade people in the movement.”
Gulen currently lives on an estate in Pennsylvania. Intelligence analysts have said it is highly unlikely he had anything to do with the coup, though some of his supporters were involved.
In April 2017, the referendum to consolidate Erdoğan’s power passed with 51.4% of the vote. This was the most sweeping program of constitutional changes since nearly a century prior, when Turkey became a republic.
The referendum entails the following:
-It turns Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential republic
-It states that the next presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in November of 2019
-It removes the office of prime minister and installs at least one vice president
-It makes the president the head of both the executive and state branches, and gives them new powers to appoint ministers, prepare the budget, choose the majority of senior judges and enact more laws by decree
-It allows the president to retain political party ties
-It enforces a new five-year tenure on the presidency with a maximum of two terms. Previous terms before the referendum do not count
-It states that the president alone has the power to declare a state of emergency or dismiss parliament
-It removes parliament’s right to scrutinize ministers or propose an enquiry
-Parliament will be able to begin impeachment proceedings or investigate the president with a majority vote by MPs. This would require a two-thirds majority
-It increases the number of MPs from 550 to 600
According to the BBC, “Erdoğan said the changes were needed to address Turkey’s security challenges nine months after an attempted coup, and to avoid the fragile coalition governments of the past.
The new system, he argued, would resemble those in France and the US and would bring calm in a time of turmoil marked by a Kurdish insurgency, Islamist militancy and conflict in neighbouring Syria, which has led to a huge refugee influx.”
In Turkey, where judicial independence has plummeted and which is now ranked only 151 of 180 countries in the press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders, what checks and balances other presidential systems like the United States have do not apply. This shift essentially makes Erdoğan an all-powerful president. Critics suggest this could “spell the death knell of democracy.”
US President Donald Trump called to congratulate Erdoğan the next day.
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