Feb 18, 2021
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan calls for a new “democratic” constitution to replace the existing document drafted by the country’s generals following their last blow in 1980. “I believe our new constitution will reflect the popular will and crown the objectives that we have set for the 100th anniversary of our republic ”, Erdogan said in a February 10 speech.
He instructed his own party to get to work and called on opposition parties to join the effort to craft a text by 2023, the centenary of the modern republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. 2023 is also the time for the next presidential and parliamentary elections. As his popularity wanes, Erdogan faces the prospect of defeat for the first time since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.
And as the resumption of the June 2019 municipal elections in Istanbul demonstrated, even with a system so decidedly rigged in Erdogan’s favor, defeat can become irreversible when the opposition unites against him. As such, Erdogan’s speech on amending the constitution – it has already been amended 19 times – is considered straight out of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s playbook. The goal is to rewrite the rules once again in its favor. It is also to divert attention from growing discontent with high prices, rising poverty and unemployment, and rampant corruption. Either way, it sounds hollow. Repression continues to grow. Tens of thousands of people have been locked up on specious terrorism charges. Torture in detention is back with a vengeance. In 2020, Freedom House classified Turkey as “not free” for the fifth consecutive year.
Part of Erdogan’s current dilemma is his own doing. The executive presidential system introduced in the last constitutional overhaul of 2017 was supposed to make it omnipotent. Technically speaking, it’s got a hold of it. To be re-elected in the first ballot, the president must win 50% + 1 of the popular vote. Recent opinion polls consistently show Erdogan to score below this number. His popular alliance pact with Devlet Bahceli, leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), would not be able to garner a majority in power in the 600 members of the Turkish parliament according to a January metropoll survey, an Ankara-based polling organization.
Any constitutional fix to resolve this problem requires a two-thirds majority. Erdogan and Bahceli together obtain 337 votes in parliament. So how does Erdogan manage to break through this apparent impasse while preserving a veneer of legitimacy? How far will he go to stay in power?
These are uncharted waters for modern Turkey. Opinion remains divided. Many insist that Erdogan’s days are numbered and that he will lose power in the next election. Others warn that his weakening hand is nothing to cheer about. If anything, it will propel him into more cruelty. Erdogan, 66, will die in power, they say.
Nicholas Danforth, historian and senior researcher at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy which closely follows Turkey, said: “Erdogan broke the mold of Turkish history. The country has had many authoritarian rulers, but it is the first to democratically come to power. Therefore, it is particularly difficult to say what this story might mean for the future. ”
Danforth continued: “There are a lot of conflicting clues. On the bright side, Turkish autocrats have a relatively good resignation record. In 1950, to everyone’s surprise in Turkey and abroad, [the then president], Ismet Inonu, lost an election and relinquished power after a decade as dictator. Of the many dictators who claimed to guide their country towards democracy, apparently he was one of the few who really thought so. ”
“The Turkish army was also, again by comparison, quickly reverted to civilian rule after the country’s coups. That doesn’t mean he ceded power completely, of course, but he was keen to preserve the machinery of competitive elections. The downside to this, however, is that these coups have led Erdogan and his supporters to believe that the only real threats to Turkish democracy come from violent military interventions, ”Danforth observed.
The basic mechanisms of free and fair elections, starting with an independent media and judiciary, have long been compromised. But Erdogan, a classic populist authoritarian, would clearly want to preserve the aura of competition.
“I don’t think Erdogan has the slightest taste for becoming ‘fully authoritarian’ less because of Western ties than because the veneer of democracy is too important for his own legitimacy with his base,” said Howard Eissenstat, professor. associate of Middle Eastern history at St. Lawrence University. “Erdogan aims to ‘put his thumbs up’ on the sidelines of the elections in order to win. When you have the judiciary and election officials, elections are much easier. ”
Erdogan’s current plan of action is to break the tripartite alliance between the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the right-wing conservative IYI (Good Party) and the pro-People’s Democratic Party. Kurdish (HDP), who united in the 2019 municipal elections.
Erdogan is leading a campaign to criminalize – and isolate – the HDP for its alleged cooperation with banned militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Hundreds of its leaders, including elected officials, have been locked up. The scale of the crackdown makes it unlikely that the HDP will consider dealing with Erdogan if he turns to the Kurds.
He tried to woo Head of IYI Meral Aksener, whose number of polls is increasing in part thanks to defections from the MHP and AKP. “Erdogan tested the waters to see if Aksener would play ball. She said ‘no,’ noted Berk Esen, assistant professor of international relations at Sabanci University in Istanbul.
The astute Aksener would rather be the opposition’s compromise candidate or prime minister in a strengthened parliamentary system, which the opposition is committed to restoring, rather than bury his career by teaming up with Erdogan. Kurdish support is the key to all of these plans. Any flirtation with Erdogan is probably nothing more than a tactic to strengthen his own hand.
“Outside observers tend to view the opposition as an inert monolith as change occurs within the opposition. There is incredible resistance against the regime, ”said Seren Selvi Korkmaz, professor at the Institute of Turkish Studies at Stockholm University and co-founder of the Istanpol Institute, a think tank in Istanbul. CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, long accused of fear of the monsoon, took resistance to a whole new level in a February 17 speech to parliament. He blamed Erdogan squarely for the deaths of 13 Turkish citizens held by the PKK in what appears to have been a botched operation by the Turkish military to save them. “You rude burp,” Erdogan retorted.
Caught between an economy in turmoil, an increasingly cohesive opposition and the hardening of American and European leaders, Erdogan is looking for a way out. Qatar’s cash injections or currency swap deals with China in return for Turkish silence on the plight of the Uyghurs will not be enough to sustain a country of 85 million people. “We are seeing a slow death by a thousand cuts for the Erdogan regime,” Esen said.
Shutting down the HDP, a measure Bahceli lobbied for and which is now on the table, won’t necessarily help tip the parliamentary balance in favor of Erdogan’s constitutional tinkering. According to Murat Sevinc, professor of constitutional law, even after the party’s ban, its 56 parliamentarians will retain their seats. And even if the Popular Alliance were to recruit enough opposition lawmakers to secure a two-thirds majority, it would still need to put the amendments to a popular referendum. “I don’t think they’re very lucky if they go down this path,” Sevinc said.
Erdogan could instead resort to gerrymandering. He could also lower the minimum threshold of 10% for a party to win seats in parliament to save its MHP partners, whose ratings have dropped to 7%. Changes to the electoral law do not require a two-thirds majority, Sevinc confirmed. But there is a catch. The changes do not come into effect until one year after their approval. This makes early elections a less attractive option.
The pessimistic camp argues that none of this really matters. “The law no longer matters, the electoral system no longer matters. He will do whatever he wants. He can rule by decree, ”said Timur Kuran, professor of economics and political science at Duke University. “The trajectory is no different from that of other dictators like [former Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak, ”added Kuran. “There are two scenarios. He clings to power and finally there is a bloody end. Or there’s the Bourguiba Ben Ali solution – a situation where a younger person around him knocks him down. Kuran was referring to the ousting in 1987 of the late Tunisian dictator by his Prime Minister, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, himself overthrown 24 years later in a popular uprising.
Either way, most agree that in the short term, Erdogan’s reform speech is just that. Things will get worse before they get better.
“Erdogan is not the kind of leader who will easily give up power. He will probably opt for more pressure. He will use all means to stay. Journalists are subject to physical attacks. The mafia has become vocal again. Polarization can turn into violent confrontation. Arbitrary arrests, even moderate ones, could begin, ”Korkmaz said.
Perhaps the most optimistic thing to take away, said Danforth, “is that Erdogan will almost certainly continue to hold an election.” They won’t be fair, but as long as they happen there is always a chance that he miscalculates and loses, or the fraud necessary to win will become too blatant to dismiss. At this point, Danforth speculated, “There’s a chance the right constellation of political forces will come together to convince him that he has no choice but to resign.
Eissenstat is less optimistic and he doesn’t think there will be early elections. “The overthrow of entrenched authoritarian regimes is so rare. Erdogan has time. It’s difficult to play events that last more than two years, ”he said.
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