Ever since Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved from being prime minister to president of Turkey in 2014, the country’s politics have continued an alarming drift towards autocracy. Erdogan has taken his strong party identity and command-and-control style with him – and is seriously eroding the nation’s checks and balances on personal power.
Turkey’s various presidents have been men of party political and military backgrounds alike. Though it would be naïve to suggest that none of them had any pre-existing political agenda, the record of direct party political manoeuvring is scant.
The previous president, Abdullah Gül was often condemned for his uncritical ratification of legislation passed by parliament, but in general he made an effort to stay above party politics – Gül and Erdogan shared a background in the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP). Gül’s predecessor, former constitutional court judge Ahmet Necdet Sezer, was a firm check on the early years of AKP governments.
But things are different now. The structures that hold back the increasing authority of Erdogan and his party have been under attack for some time – and Erdogan may be on the brink of finally overwhelming them. He is quite openly manouvering to concentrate power in his person rather than the office he holds, and he has been doing so for some time.
The Gezi Park demonstrations in May and June 2013, for instance, were sparked in part by his arrogant statements on municipal issues in Istanbul, blithely overriding the governor, mayor and city council.
When a massive corruption scandal broke in December 2013, Erdogan became combative. Wiretaps were released implicating AKP ministers, Erdogan and their sons in wide-scale embezzlement. Erdogan first dismissed the wiretaps as forgeries, then held them up as evidence of a conspiracy.
But ultimately, any “conspiracy” against him clearly failed, as 25 police officers and various others were arrested in raids against those who instituted the wiretaps in the first place.
This was just one of many failed attempts to rein Erdogan in. After the wiretap scandal, he not only bounced back, but campaigned to great effect in the municipal elections of March 2014, sometimes appearing simultaneously in different places by way of a hologram. And despite the previous year’s upheavals the AKP won a majority across the country.
Neither Erdogan’s overreach nor evidence of corruption moved the electorate against the AKP. The verdict seemed to be “they steal, but they work hard,” in contrast to previous more secular-minded governments which were also accused of corruption, but were not seen to be working for the good of the country.
And while the AKP certainly benefited from heavily favourable coverage by the state broadcaster TRT, the charisma and personal power of Erdogan himself was also a major factor. Any attack on Erdogan simply seems to galvanise his supporters behind him.
Rallying the troops
Now Erdogan is president, not prime minister, he is meant to be on a much tighter leash. Article 101 of the Turkish constitution makes it explicit that the president must sever all connections with their party. But Erdogan is not just flouting this core requirement; he is openly campaigning for his party in the run-up to the 2015 general election.
Erdogan has also been giving a series of lectures to “muhtars”, village and neighbourhood officials who are elected but not affiliated with political parties. Since these officials have local influence and a role in registering voters, recruiting them to a party political agenda is also against the law.
Most shockingly of all, Erdogan has actually started asking the electorate to return 400 MPs for the AKP, which would provide the AKP government with the majority it needs to unilaterally amend the constitution. For the president to make this plea at all is illegal.
Regardless of what happens in the election, substantial damage has already been done. The previously ceremonial chair of the presidency is rapidly being turned into a powerful executive post, drawing influence and authority from a Parliament subservient to the person rather than the institution.
It is not inconceivable that if they were elected, 400 AKP members of parliament (out of a total of 550) under the de facto leadership of Erdogan could vote to rewrite the constitution and overnight make his currently illegal electioneering legal – and along with it, his radical effort to gather ever more unaccountable power for himself.