11 April 2017

Erdogan’s power grab makes Turkey less stable

By Mark Almond

Constitutions and their clauses often seem abstract and lifeless affairs. But the proposed changes to Turkey’s constitution are the subject of bitter dispute – because at heart it is the personality of the president which is going to be voted on this Sunday, not the minutiae of the new clauses.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is determined to convert his de facto domination of Turkish politics since 2002 into a de jure one. Already, as directly elected president and leader of the AKP, which has an absolute majority in Turkey’s parliament, he possesses the kind of absolute power not seen since the military dictatorship 35 years ago. But for the half of Turks who adore him, he also possesses a charismatic authority which no leader has had since Ataturk himself 80 years ago.

Erdogan’s domination of Turkish politics has been built on the fact that he has a voter base of roughly 50 per cent of the population, whereas his opponents are not only split between different parties but divided over issues like rights for the Kurdish and other minorities.

While ensuring a parliamentary majority for the AKP, this ought to make a Yes/No referendum more of a fair fight – especially given the sweeping scope of the powers which he is demanding, which would tilt Turkey away from parliamentary government and towards an all-powerful presidency.

But in reality, Erdogan’s opponents have been hamstrung when it comes to resisting him – especially since the failed coup last July. The arguments of those who want to deny Erdogan a sacrosanct constitutional monopoly on power are entirely reasonable – but in the atmosphere of political fear following the coup, IS terrorist attacks and a renewed Kurdish insurgency, reason is hardly the best way to appeal to the public.

Erdogan, meanwhile, is running not on his record, but by stoking up fear of what might replace him. Cling to me, he says, because without my leadership chaos will follow – as if quite enough chaos has not hit Turkey over the last few years.

The tragedy here is not just that Turkey under Erdogan is sliding into authoritarianism. It is that in the process, one of the brightest examples of economic and social progress in the Middle East is being snuffed out.

A decade ago, Erdogan basked in global approval. He was a model statesman, able to mix Muslim piety with market economics and a commitment to civil liberties. Some secular Turks still quoted his comments about democracy being a tram that you rode only until you got where you wanted – but they were routinely pooh-poohed.

While the checks and balances existed, Erdogan played within the rules – to everyone’s benefit.

When he needed respectability in the world’s financial markets to ensure stability in his early years in office, he relied on technocrats for economic guidance. High inflation was the scourge of Turkey in the years before Erdogan came to power. Keeping it under control was one of the pillars of his economic programme – a success symbolised by lopping six zeroes off the banknotes. Suddenly, everyday purchases no longer cost millions of lira.

But now inflation is well over 10 per cent and heading remorselessly higher. Over the last three years, Erdogan has repeatedly pressured the central bank to print money in the run-up to elections and now the referendum.

As a result, Erdogan’s appeal to the voters is not about the economy anymore. It is a frankly xenophobic one.

He argues that the world, especially Turkey’s Western allies, is ganging up on it as they did a century ago. Only a strong leader can save modern Turkey from the fate of the Ottoman Empire.

Erdogan and the AKP emerged from the world of political Islamism – a movement only grudgingly tolerated by the generals who saw it as their duty to enforce, via repeated coups, Ataturk’s secularist settlement.

Yet he poses more in the role of the heroic Ataturk fending off the British and French and their Greek lackeys than a pan-Islamic leader.

Indeed, such Turkish nationalism is deeply rooted. Schools have taught Turks to be suspicious of foreigners’ wiles. Of course, Ataturk really did expel the invaders and liberate Istanbul from an Anglo-French occupation which we in Europe have forgotten. But by recalling the past to garner votes, Erdogan ignores the changes in Europe and the world since the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire.

It is true that a win for Erdogan on Sunday is the most likely result. But it is telling that there are fears that Erdogan simply won’t tolerate losing – symptomatic of a deepening lack of faith in Turkey’s political system.

Does Erdogan’s track record justify claims that he alone can guide Turkey to a better future? That elective dictatorship is the only way forward?

Erdogan’s firm hand on the tiller of state has not steered Turkey into calmer waters. If anything, every accretion of power to him personally has coincided with growing instability. The economy is getting weaker.

The blowback of violence from Turkey’s neighbourhood is growing as both radical jihadis and Kurds attack Erdogan’s forces. And having made progress on admission to the EU – one of his main selling points to ordinary Turks a decade ago – his rants against Germany and the Dutch have scuppered hopes for Turkish membership.

This matters not just for Turkey, but for other countries too.

Back in 2011, when the Arab Spring arrived, the Turkish model of mixing democracy, sensible economic management and moderate elected Islamists seemed an example for Arab countries overthrowing dictatorships to follow.

But Erdogan’s power-grab leaves the Turkish model looking like a long, stony road from authoritarianism back to authoritarianism.

The souring of the Arab Spring from Libya to Syria has many causes, but the transformation of Turkey from an enlightened and open predominantly Islamic society into a closed and xenophobic one is a reminder that democracy is not guaranteed to produce liberty and pluralism.

Elected dictatorship is what the majority of Turkish people, battered by crisis after crisis, most probably want and will vote for. But whether they’ll be happy with another decade of Erdogan’s policy flip-flops and crisis-creation must be doubted.

Erdogan’s very success in monopolising power looks set to breed instability when Turkey needs the opposite. The new constitution could make another coup or political turmoil more likely, not less, once checks and balances are consigned to the dustbin. The more powerful Erdogan gets, the worse it gets for Turkey.

Mark Almond is a historian. His book "Secular Turkey: A Short History" will be published later this month