Is Turkey on the Path Toward Putinization?

Even if Kurdish party makes headway in Sunday's election, it's hard to imagine Erdogan forfeiting plans for a super-presidency.

Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman
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Erdogan supporters wave flags at a rally in Istanbul, May 30, 2015.
Erdogan supporters wave flags at a rally in Istanbul, May 30, 2015.Credit: AP
Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman

On Sunday, Turkey will have its most crucial election since 2002, when the conservative Justice and Development Party, under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, came to power.

This time around, the People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, stands a chance at entering the parliament. This leftist Kurdish party, led by the charismatic Selahattin Demirtas, is shaking up the political status quo in Turkey with its progressive agenda, which includes extensive rights for women and gays. If HDP does get in the parliament, Erdogan’s ruling party, also known as AKP, will be forced to form a coalition government for the first time, providing a lifeline to what are currently Turkey’s opposition parties.

The success of HDP could not come at a worse time for Erdogan and his party, since this vote has actually become much more than just another parliamentary election. Rather, it is a mandate on the future of the Turkish state, or what AKP describes as a vote on the “New Turkey.”

Erdogan's party is seeking enough votes to transfer extended powers to the president. For AKP, this election means ridding the Turkish state of the vestiges of past military coups (though not the 10 percent electoral threshold, which was implemented by the 1980 coup and has been to AKP's advantage).

Caution, autocracy ahead

The problem is that many Turkish citizens see the quest to make the presidency more powerful as representing nothing short of a Putinization of the Turkish system, which will lead Turkey down the path to autocracy. Their fears are not unfounded.

During the past six months alone, numerous people -- including high school students, models, cartoonists and journalists -- have been sentenced to jail or financial penalties after their criticism of the president was defined as defamation. Since the Gezi protests broke out two years ago, demonstrators have often been faced with a massive police force and risk landing in jail on trumped-up charges. The message is clear: Turkish citizens loudly opposing Erdogan run the risk of punitive measures, as the law is increasingly being used to punish his critics.

Waving the Koran

Although the Turkish constitution calls for the president to be impartial, this campaign season has seen Erdogan regularly campaigning on behalf of AKP at daily “official ceremonies,” where he uses the stage to denounce his opponents. In fact, he could be close to breaking a world record, with 44 hours of his public speeches broadcasted live within one week.

More recently, with polls showing a continued decline in public support for AKP, Erdogan has completely ditched the charade of impartiality in an effort to bolster support for the less charismatic acting prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who officially holds the reins of the party. Further, in an attempt to capture more religious voters, Erdogan waves the Koran at rallies, accusing the secularist CHP party of being atheists and at times scorning the HDP for its openly gay candidate. All the while, his voice has become increasingly nationalistic in hope of not losing AKP votes to the nationalist MHP party.

In addition to bashing The New York Times as an enemy of Turkey, Erdogan has also accused a major Turkish newspaper, Hurriyet, of insinuating that, like ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, he too will face the death penalty. In response to this, Erdogan’s adviser, Yigit Bulut, said he was ready to take up arms and defend Erdogan to the very last bullet. Such statements cause worry not only among the opposition, but also among some moderate AKP members, who are finding it hard to keep Erdogan diehards in check.

The work of a stray cat

With the stakes so high, many Turkish voters fear AKP will win this election even if it has to resort to fraud. A look at the 2014 municipal spring election goes a long way toward explaining the source of this fear, given the strong evidence that AKP took the Turkish capital of Ankara by means of a manipulation of the votes and massive country-wide power outages on election night – which the Turkish energy minister, Taner Yildiz, blamed on the work of a stray cat that entered the power-distribution unit. With HDP on the border of the electoral threshold, even minimal voter fraud would be enough to ensure AKP has the majority it needs to continue to rule alone.

Erdogan’s drive to transform Turkey into a presidential system has created a dangerous political quagmire, with every possible outcome in the upcoming elections leading to more polarization among different parts of Turkish society. However, an HDP entry into parliament could mark a turning point – in which, for the first time in 13 years, Erdogan and his AKP party will realize they have played their cards wrong and will need to recognize that the majority of Turkish citizens do not see eye-to-eye with their politics.

Unfortunately, however, the growing authoritarianism of the last two years indicates that this seems unlikely to happen, as it is difficult to imagine that Erdogan will so quickly forfeit his plans for a super-presidency. Turkey, then, seems to be on the path toward an even bleaker future.

Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who has lived in Turkey and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @IstanbulTelaviv.

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