Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan wants more

Turkey’s Erdogan is again setting his sights on his ultimate goal: changing the country’s political system to one that he completely controls, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

How can one explain the expressions of perplexity and gloom that seem to say that nothing has changed? Where is the joy and relief that was expected to follow the 1 November early elections that ushered in the 24th parliament since the founding of the Turkish Republic?

Even the Turkish lira began to slump again, after a brief rebound against the dollar, when the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) regained the majority it had lost on 7 June. Of course, there is the mounting spectre of terrorism, but surely that, on its own, cannot account for the general despondency that observers have noted.

Wasn’t there a strong turnout at the polls, even in the tense areas of southeast Anatolia that have once again become a byword for military clashes and curfews? Didn’t a large majority of voters place their ticks on their ballots next to the JDP light bulb, signalling to all at home and abroad that they have renewed their confidence in that party?

Indeed, the media — at least the pro-government media — broadcast interviews with voters saying how, over the past 13 years, they could not find an alternative, how the other parties were too weak and not in touch with their concerns, and how the leaders of those other parties simply lacked charisma. So where are all the smiling faces?

Strangely, the mood even appears to have infected the victors. In their wins of yesteryear, their jubilation and triumph would last for weeks. Today, though successful, they seem anxious, as if they are afraid to face what is worrying them.

Western officials did not shower President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with hearty best wishes, as he had expected. Reactions from Washington and European capitals were reserved, to say the least. When the White House, presumably Ankara’s number-one ally, conveyed its congratulations, it also expressed its strong concerns over the mounting attacks against the press in Turkey in spite of Turkey’s claims to be a democracy.

When asked if he thought that the Turkish elections were held in a free, fair and transparent atmosphere, US State Department spokesman John Kirby said, in his press briefing of 6 November, that the US administration was waiting for reports from international monitoring organisations, and especially the final report from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), before offering an assessment.

The response implies suspicions of electoral foul play. In that same briefing, Kirby reiterated the administration’s concerns over the “troubling pattern of targeting media outlets and other organisations that are critical of the [Turkish] government.”

Meanwhile, the state-run TRT Arabic broadcast shared dozens of congratulatory telegrams sent by officials in the Arab world. These were duly read out, even if the majority of the senders had little connection to democracy.

Among them were Hamas leaders Khaled Meshal and Ismail Haniyeh, and Yusef Al-Qaradawi, the Qatari-based Egyptian cleric and spiritual guide of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, who referred to Erdogan as a man of faith.

Still, one has to commend TRT, Anatolia News Agency and all those other state-run media for the pains they took, even at the height of their exultation, to filter and process dozens of analyses and commentaries taken from the international media.

These efforts brought to Turkish readers choice snippets and quotes taken out of context, all serving to prove that the results of the 1 November polls confirmed the consummate wisdom of their president and JDP founder who was determined to spare the republic the ills of a coalition government and deployed his unparalleled brilliance as a political strategist toward this end.

Naturally, there has been no discussion in the pro-government media of the ruling party’s strategies of polarisation and fear mongering. For months, the Turkish public was reminded again and again that if they did not vote for the JDP their country would descend into a pit of turmoil and anarchy similar to the Syrian quagmire, or it would revert to that dark era of political assassinations and property confiscations. The alarmist claims were disseminated by every cog in the JDP machinery.

Even Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu caused a stir when he warned of the return of “white Toros” murders if voters did not return him at the head of a one-party government. The term refers to a model of a Renault car that was used in the forced disappearances of dissidents, mostly Kurds. The victims were believed to have been subjected to torture and other brutalities and, after their disappearances, were never heard from again.

European and American newspapers, of course, picked up on such campaign tactics, but very little of their commentary made it through to TRT and other denizens of JDP’s growing “media pool”, which also made no mention of the criticisms of Erdogan’s drive to concentrate more power in his hands.

Erdogan still has his sights firmly set on that ultimate goal and nothing will divert him. He is determined to engineer the conversion of the Turkish system of government from a parliamentary one (in spite of the fact that this decades-old system brought him to power as prime minister 13 years ago) to a presidential one.

The brave Turkish people have just had their word on this subject, he declared. The fact that more than half of the voters did not support it makes no difference to him or to his obedient media chorus, which has chimed in louder than ever with odes to the marvels that the presidential system will bring to the country.

Also, to add some argumentative weight to the call, the media provides examples of countries that have adopted the presidential system and forged their way to progress. They also stress, perhaps to reassure people that Erdogan’s drive is not without precedent, the fact that former Turkish presidents, including Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel, also sought to introduce the presidential system. Little room is given to the question as to why these leaders failed in this, let alone their motives for pursuing it in the first place.

Speaking of which, if the presidential system would be a unique “Turkish honey”, as Erdogan described it, why did he not urge his JDP cofounder and predecessor in the president’s seat, Abdullah Gül, to pursue that delicious dream? In fact, when Edogan was prime minister would he have let Gül preside at cabinet meetings as he has done six times since becoming president 14 months ago?

Nor has he or any other key JDP figures pointed out that if the parliamentary system had been abolished during his tenure as premier, he would not have been able to claim credit for his great economic projects, which were a major reason for his continuation as prime minister for 12 years.

Of course, such logic hardly matters. President Erdogan wants to have all the strings of power in his hands. But that dream might not be so easy to achieve. All quarters of the opposition refuse to even consider the subject. They argue that it is not very high on the public’s list of priorities,.

But Erdogan is not to be deterred. Just last week he said that he would turn to the people again — meaning that he intends to call for a referendum. That statement could be a sign that he feels certain that he will get what he wants.

Otherwise put, it suggests that some backroom deals might be struck within the coming weeks to win over opposition MPs and obtain the 330 votes needed to approve a bill to put a proposed presidential system to a general referendum. The most likely opposition candidate for such a deal would be the rightwing National Movement Party (MHP), the closest in ideological outlook to the JDP.

In all events, given the executive’s growing grip on the press, the machinery of government and the judiciary, a general referendum will most likely return a “yes”, crowning Erdogan as president, prime minister, party chief and even parliamentary spokesman.

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