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The Final Test For Turkish Democracy

Turks first experienced parliament and constitutional experience in 1876. In the first Constitutional Monarchy the powers of the Sultan were restricted and the first parliament opened. However, Sultan Abdulhamid the II. closed the parliament after 18 months, citing the Ottoman-Russian war, and suspended the constitution. From that period until today, Turkish democratic march has always been exposed to intermittent tides.

This time in 1908 II. Constitution was declared and a new constitution was introduced. But the Union and Progress Government, which claims to ‘bring freedom,’ received all the power on its own. He established an oppressive administration by defining the right to life for the opponents. The administration of the Unionists continued until the disintegration of the Ottoman state.

The invasion of the First World War started and the Ottoman state broke up. The National Struggle was initiated under the leadership of Ataturk. This fight carried out Turkey’s new parliament which was founded on April 23, 1920 in Ankara. It was quite pluralistic, participatory and democratic, according to the First Assembly and its 1921 constitutional period. After the new Republic of Turkey was founded and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk became the president, the parliament began to become more symbolic. Atatürk has become the one man in a short time. He has eliminated those who might be rival. He oppressed the media,intellectuals, and made a series of top-down reforms to transform society.The hard-line reforms revealed the regime of “Kemalism”, which upheld a person and imposed a collective opinion. This time after Ataturk, İsmet İnönü – according to the fashion of the period – was declared “National Chief” and he controlled all the power. The cadre of the republic has set out with a democratic, participatory parliament, but turned into a one-party regime. After the Second World War, Inonu was able to keep Turkey away from fire. When the war became the democratic bloc, western democratic countries developed engagement. He himself encouraged some politicians to form an alternative party. In 1946, even if there was a shadowy election, the democratic process was opened. In the elections held in 1950, İnönü lost and the administration changed. Inonu was among the founders of the Republic of Turkey as one of the generals, but did not hesitate to quit the government.  

Due to the security concerns caused by the Soviets, Turkey decided to join the NATO in 1951. The NATO membership and E.U process helped Turkey to become part of the democratic camp. However, Turkish democracy has always encountered some interventions and hardly found a ground for institutionalization. During the initial years of his government, Mr. Menderes was very promising on democratization but later on he followed some authoritarian policies as well. He started to oppress the press and the intellectuals. In 1960 the Turkish democracy was interfered by a military coup. The Military executed the elected Prime Minister causing a huge devastation in Turkish politics.    Executions of Menderes and his friends wounded the Turkish society deeply, dividing and polarizing it into two main parts. Menderes has emerged as a hero after the executions, leading democratic and conservative people to a reactionary attitudes against the Kemalists. The tradition of military interventions led by the 1960 coup continued with the memorandum of decreasing civilian power in 1971, then with the military coup in 1980 and the postmodern coup on February 28th 1996. In 2007, General Yasar Büyükanıt, Commander in Chief of Turkish Military released a memorandum politically targeting the Erdogan government. The government returned the memorandum and this particular incident turned into a story that strengthened Erdogan and opened the way for him to become the only man. Military Coups and memorandums inflicted interruption of power to civilian rule and democracy in Turkey.

However, the ones on April 27 2007 and July 15 2016 arguably helped Erdogan to consolidate his power. In the province, Erdogan was able to become the only man in the party, and on July 15th he opened the way to become the only man in the country. With his own statement, July 15 coup attempt was a ‘gift from God.’  Erdogan culminated his efforts be the ‘one man of his country’ after the  July 15th coup attempt, which by many is resembled Hitler’s Reichtag fire that resulted in a similar authoritarian rule in Germany. He successfully silenced all his opponents, closed the newspapers, imprisoned the intellectuals and scholars in prison. He even imprisoned Kurdish opposition (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtas and his 20 members of the parliament.  Hundreds of HDP municipalities were appointed Erdogan’s trustees. He tormented the Kurds,   humiliated the Secularists and demonized the Service Movement, Alevis and other minorities. After July 15 coup attempt, the country created a full atmosphere of fear and oppression. The media, which he controls by 90 percent, presented himself as a “hero” and “rescuer” to the public. His supporters began to see him as a caliphate, a resurgent Ottoman, a powerful leader that shook the world. After July 15 coup attempt, Erdogan started to rule Turkey  as an absolutist “Sultan.”

The separation of powers have completely disappeared. Approximately 4000 judges were removed from their posts in a night and imprisoned and eventually he took the entire control of the judiciary. After declaring State of Emergency, he bypassed the parliament’s legislation power. He confiscated the possessions of the opponents. Corruption spread like cancer. He turned the constitutional system from a parliamentary system to a presidential system. In the country there is nothing left in the name of balance and control. The economy collapsed, education ended, justice terminated, the country started to suffer from brain drain and capital started to flee the country. Because Erdogan’s opponents had no chance to live in the country.  Recently, the country is entirely experiencing a rapid collapse. Erdogan’s partner, Devlet Bahceli, the leader of Nationalist Movement Party (MHP in Turkish), offered a panic election due to a very deep crisis in the economy.  It seems that there are two potential motivations of this move. 1- Blocking of the election of the newly organized Good party(Iyi Parti in Turkish).2- Postponing the upcoming economic crisis after the election.

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Erdoğan re-enforced his power by establishing different alliances and developing different arguments every once in a while. July 15 coup attempt gave him a great power. Thousands of officers were purged by State of Emergency regulations. However this brutal policies resulted in a huge unrest in the society and it seems that it can’t be sustainable anymore.   As a result of the increasing economic difficulties, oppression, injustice, insecurity and hopelessness about the future, people rapidly started to question Erdogan. Even though the level of fear established in the country is so high, people have gained a serious reaction to the Government. Even though Turkish democracy had some failures in the past, Turkish people saw Erdogan dragging the country into a one-man regime. Erdogan started to think that he needed to get rid of this. Erdogan, who saw the developing reaction against his rule in the society, just pushed the button for the election.  It was late. 

What happens next? 

Erdogan cannot be elected as a President if a contestant elections would be held under an independent and impartial judicial supervision based on equal circumstances. However, the media is controlled by Erdogan. The Constitutional Court and the institutions such as the YSK consisted of its appointed loyalists and supporters. In the past unfortunately the illegal activities in the previous elections were not investigated and  but covered up. In the next election as well, it is everyone’s common concern that Erdogan can cheat on the voting and counting stages. Because judges, security forces are working like Erdogan’s militancy. Even if irregularities would be  detected in these circumstances, there is no institution or authority to deal with it. Unfortunately, the opposition has not given sufficient reaction to Erdogan’s authoritarian regulations and what his misconducts in previous elections. 

If the conditions for voting and counting processes do not change, Erdogan has no chance of losing!   If a fair, auditable and equitable electoral environment would be created and the election process would be tightly supervised by the observers, Erdogan can lose. If the opposition can get rid of the fragmentation and establish a democratic bloc against Erdogan, Erdogan’s possibility of being elected would be quite low. Now there is a strong expectation in the society that the other political movements would unite and save the country from the authoritarianism of Erdogan. Turkish society is aware of the fact that if Erdogan remains in power for a while he will see a complete break with democracy and his authoritarianism will become permanent. Erdoğan and his partner Bahceli have announced the election in a rush. So they aimed to pick up the opposition easily. For Erdogan it would be enough to prevent the Good Party from the election.  However, the secular CHP acted wisely and responsibly and has given 15 deputies to Good Party to join the election and to form a group in the parliament. Erdogan now looks like he is exhausted from this new development.  On the other hand, Felicity Party, (Saadet Partisi in Turkish), which comes from a political Islamist tradition is in strong opposition to Erdogan. Kurds will undoubtedly be the most important determinant of elections. Even its power in Parliament is limited, Kurds will determine who will be the new sultan of Turkey.  The Good party that addresses the nationalists is able to get serious members into the parliament, but its leader, Meral Akşener, will not be willing to take Kurdish votes in the presidential elections. If the Turkish political elite can find a candidate that can appeal to all sections of the society who respects the law, a democratic personality against Erdogan, Erdoğan can never find 50% in a fair election. That’s why the candidate profile in the presidential race is very important. In the second round, if the Turkish political elites nominate a candidate  that can get votes from  Kurds and the left along with from religious and conservative masses, he or she  can get votes from the AKP voters as well. There are not many people who carry this profile in the Turkish society. One is former president Abdullah Gul. However, due to a reaction to Mr. Gul’s candidacy he refused to run against Erdogan. The other is Ertugrul Günay, who comes from the left tradition, who made politics in the AKP and who stands out with his democratic and gentleman identity. If nominated, the Kurds and the left wing  electorates will vote for Günay with confidence. Religious and conservative people, including the AKP, will not worry about it. Turkey is going to an unusual, historic elections. These elections can cause Erdoğan become a sultan but also an opportunity to return to democracy! 

Associate Prof. Mahmut Akpinar, Political Scientist

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Mahmut Akpinar
Mahmut Akpinar
Dr. Mahmut Akpinar is a political scientist focusing on international relations and Turkish politics.
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