On a critical note, when now Turkey’s heavily guarded strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan took oath of office after the May 28 2023 presidential rerun vote, what was he actually doing? Numerically, wasn’t he being sworn in for a third term? He was. But what does the country’s Constitution say? Doesn’t it prescribe a maximum of two five-year presidential terms? It does. So, what went wrong or right to provide for the proscribed third term?
From a simple arithmetic exercise of addition and subtraction, what made Erdogan’s second term equal to zero, so that another (third) one should be inserted to sort of fill the gap — the gap which was not there and thus becomes artificial? Could what one European Union diplomat once observed that on its democracy path, Turkey “takes one step forward and two steps backward” be right?
The opinion of that European Union diplomat, if put in a graph format, could perhaps better site a location of where and why Turkey is today on the democracy construction road. The product of a continuous process of taking one step forward and two backwards amounts to going farther and farther away from the destination.
May be, this is why Erdogan once remarked that democracy is like a tram car which one gets off after reaching one’s destination. So, to get a picture of how Turkey has grown into an entrenched one-man rule on a democracy construction road, we have to trek Erdogan’s governance style of consolidating rather than sharing power under the guise of building democracy. Authoritarian and democratic rule practices are diametrically opposed in terms.
As a member of the Welfare Party, Erdogan had already set his foot on the Turkish politics track towards the mid-9090s when he won the mayoral seat for Istanbul. His focus was on replacing the entrenched secular system. In the process, he was in 1997 accused of inciting religious hatred, facts of which are not a subject of this analysis. In the following year he was forced to resign and spent four months in jail – a third of the year period which contributed positively a lot to his political life.
Erdogan in 2001 founded the Justice and Development (AKP) Party –the party that adopted a median conservative path, knowing for sure that a head-over-heels Islamist entity, by then, could not work in Turkey. After AKP won power in parliament in 2003, he became prime minister, the post for which legal changes had to be instituted to overcome his imprisonment history impediment. To Erdogan, the game of amending legal requirements to achieve the desired goal, therefore, is somehow inbuilt. He has that instinct. He is smart.
It was now time for him to shine as Turkey sought membership of the European Union while reforms were put in place ranging from penal code amendments, freedom of religion and expression and education getting higher budgetary allocations. It would be an omission to let go then US President Barack Osama’s words to students during a visit to Turkey, where he talked of “productive” talks with Erdogan … respect for Turkey’s democracy and culture … (and) my belief that Turkey plays an important role in the region and in the world…”
Within the archived background of almost one coup every decade since the 1960s, Erdogan and the ruling AKP in the late 2010 won a constitutional referendum restricting military powers and changing presidential elections into a national, rather than a vote by parliament. That served for a kick-start. The Erdogan’s rule path took a different course after the Gezi Park construction public protests in 2013, attracting police action and subsequent government crackdowns. The game was now on.
In that same year, what has gone down in Turkey history as the December 17-25 investigation revealed a grand corruption scandal implicating Erdogan himself, his family and members of the AKP in cases of bribery, fraud and money laundering. Heads rolled as ministers and some other senior politicians resigned. Alleged bribe conversations between Erdogan and his son, which Erdogan trashed as international conspiracy to force him out of power, went viral on social media.
In the echoes of these investigations, Erdogan won the first presidential election held along the lines of a national vote. This was in 2014. By March 2016, Erdogan struck an agreement with the E.U. addressing regional migration issues. At this point in time it suffices to note that Turkey, in this agreement, became a sort of refugee resort with some emerging human rights cases on the domestic scene.
In three months’ time, July 15, 2016 to be exact, an incident to tilt Turkey to the present day took place. It was a coup, which we have now come to learn was a false flag. It was a planned to fail coup that left more than 200 people dead – the coup that Erdogan blamed on Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who at that time had already been living in self-exile in the US for seventeen years. Since then Erdogan literally turned all his guns on this former ally and members of the Hizmet (Service) Movement. He even put a price on Gulen’s head.
Erdogan turned into a polarizing figure, swaying perceptions of people by controlling the media as much as possible, restricting freedom of speech and expression and raising false charges against anyone he took for a dissident whether inside or outside Turkey. This was coupled with purges affecting thousands of people in the military, judiciary, media and academia. Even foreign NGOs were touched by the purges, not to mention followers of Gulen.
Come 2017, Erdogan secured an open voters’ go-ahead to establish the executive president form of government and abolish the post of a prime minister. With this weapon in hand, and after being re-elected president in the following year, Erdogan enacted across-the-board anti-media laws. Despite this effort, an AKP candidate, for the first time, lost the Istanbul mayoral seat.
This spelt real dangers for the ruling AKP in the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections because it is known that he who rules Istanbul rules Turkey. How did the government react? Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu was charged with “Insulting public figures” and sentenced to prison, effectively barring him from taking part in the polls. This left Erdogan with a clear path and so much confidence that during the election campaigns, he had enough courage to tell off opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu: “Nothing will never, ever happen to you because you criticize me.”
And with the state resources, the media, the Supreme Election Board (YSK) and state-owned news agency, Anadolu, at his disposal, Erdogan won the presidential re-run vote, irregularities in the registration, actual voting and complaints about the vote-counting notwithstanding.
In the final analysis: “What will happen in 2018? Have the opposition learnt a lesson? Before even dust settles on the polls, why are they already bickering? Will AKP ever be ready for fair and free elections? What could prevent them from coming up with another referendum towards 2018 to ensure that they remain in power? Could God, then, be the only hope for a delivering political change in Turkey in the interim? At the end of it all,Is the Erdogan/AKP rule a non-return path for life presidency in Turkey?” Those are the questions.