Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1328, (19 - 25 January 2017)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1328, (19 - 25 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan sees the finish line

The atmosphere in Turkey is souring further as Erdogan’s goal of becoming president-for-life edges within reach, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Turkish parliament debate the proposed constitutional changes
Turkish parliament debate the proposed constitutional changes

A strange atmosphere envelopes daily life in Anatolia. It is not the tranquil haven that the government-run mainstream media would have people believe. Tension and turmoil form the broad unofficial headlines, beneath which hover the whispered questions of “What lays in store for us tomorrow?” and, before that, “How do we make ends meet today?”

The picture is bleak and offers little hope in sight for large beleaguered segments of the population whose future is filled with roads that lead straight to prison, either the “F-Types” that are already overstuffed with thousands of inhabitants deprived of due process and trials, or the larger one that is in the making.

The de facto one-party state is tightening in repressive grip on what was formerly a vibrant, democratic polity. Political space has been narrowed around the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its militias, the blare of its propaganda machine and the ubiquitous pictures of the Reis, or leader. It is as though Ankara and Istanbul are Baghdad and Tripoli in the days of Saddam and Gaddafi.

On hand to provide a thin facade of plurality to the transition is the ultra right National People’s Party (MHP) whose autocratic geriatric leader, out of unbounded gratitude for having been snatched from the jaws of a party rebellion, offered his services to lend a gloss of legitimacy to the constitutional amendment process intended to tailor the legal framework of the state to the AKP-affiliated president and his grand designs. Bahceli’s rewards for this will be ephemeral, as the signs are that dissent has already begun to rear its head in his party again. MHP Deputy Chairman Atilla Kaya resigned two weeks ago (4 January) due to differences over Turkey’s conversion to a so-called presidential system.

Perhaps the brawls that erupted in parliament last week as MPs were voting on some of the articles of the constitutional amendment bill best shed light on the nature of the ugly game in Ankara. The fracas was triggered by voting irregularities on the part of AKP MPs who were caught taking selfies of themselves casting their ballots in the voting booth, in violation of the constitutional provision that the vote on amendments must be conducted by secret ballot. It wasn’t the first time AKP MPs were caught cheating. Punches were hurled and flower pots flew to the accompaniment of fusillades of colourful curses. President Erdogan, meanwhile, rushed to the defence of the AKP members, once again breaching that constitutional provision that he swore to uphold and that requires him to be an impartial and non-partisan president. Following Friday prayers last week, he graced a group of handpicked journalists with an interview in which he squarely laid the blame on the secularist opposition, championed by the Republican People’s Party and its 133 votes. He would have included the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in his invective, but that was difficult since he had already arranged to have the HDP co-chairpersons and MPs thrown into isolation in high security prisons several months ago.

When Erdogan points a finger at a party, that is the time for that party to brace itself for a wave of assaults against its offices and personnel, as occurred with HDP offices across Turkey on 18 December. Polarisation, tension and civil strife is his way of pushing through an amendment intended to legitimise his constitutional breaches and entrench him as president-for-life. Or as Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), put it in the HRW’s recently released World Report 2017, “Instead of building on the cross-party unity opposed to the coup to strengthen democracy, Turkey’s government has opted for a ruthless crackdown on critics and opponents. With hundreds of thousands of people dismissed or detained without due process, an independent media silenced and Kurdish opposition members of parliament in jail, Turkey has been plunged into its worst crisis in a generation.”

As criticism of this sort from abroad has increased, Erdogan has worked out a handy routine to shrug it off and further generate hatreds at home. It draws heavily on conspiracy theorising, anti-Western tropes and fancy. So in yet another one of those palace meetings with village muhtars, Erdogan once again railed against “those who want to establish a new world at the expense of our role and voice”. Sometimes those evil schemers “use terrorism as a pretext to stir domestic strife and cause economic crises and political chaos and support coups, as we have seen… terrorist organisations are a puppet in the hands of the powers that support them. We know very well their purposes for which they use them. I say that if we are unable to break that puppet, we will not win against those forces that control them.”

With such a spirit of defiance against all critics, which in the ruling party’s lexicon is synonymous with conspirator and traitor, Erdogan and the AKP are set on ushering in democracy which, they say, can only be attained through a strong presidential system. So argues Binali Yildirim who has been assigned the post of Turkey’s last prime minister before the constitutional amendment bill is passed. It matters little that this jars with that mainstay of the pro-regime media organs, which holds that Turkey is already one of the world’s “greatest and freest democracies”.

To illustrate his irrefutable truth, a Cumhuriyet headline last Saturday announced, “the government sets up social media monitoring unit. 60,000 people under surveillance.” The article cites the CHP MP Baris Yarkadas (Istanbul), who delivered a report to parliament on the state of the media in Turkey, as saying that the Social Media Monitoring Unit was “keeping 60,000 people under surveillance” and that the police assigned to that unit “filed reports against 17,000 people, are trying to establish the names and addresses of 45,000 people, and took 3,500 into custody and arrested another 1,500 for what they wrote on social media.”

Yarkadas added: “This frightful truth is an indicator of the mounting repression that is taking place in advance to the referendum [on the constitutional amendment bill].”

Such is the climate in which the constitutional amendment process is unfolding, a climate defined and created by the state of emergency declared 20 July, five days after the attempted coup of 15 July (or as CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu put it in a speech 8 January, the “real coup of 20 July”). To enhance this atmosphere, Turkish authorities issued a month-long ban on open-air meetings, demonstrations, marches and any other public gatherings. The grounds cited were “security” and “safety of property”, but the real reasons are obvious. Erdogan is cracking the whip, pushing AKP rank and file from party headquarters down to party lackeys in the provinces to pick up the pace in the feverish race to empowerment.

The campaign of the rulers in Ankara has driven the country to a dangerous brink. Observers agree that Turkey is sliding headlong into a political chasm from which it will not emerge easily. One of the chief indicators is the sharp decline of the Turkish lira against the dollar, triggering fears that the economy will revert to the phenomenon of “dollarisation” that was put to an end with the floating of the lira before the AKP came to power.

If parliament approves the constitutional amendment bill, ushering in what has been termed “the partisan presidential system”, this will not lead to stability. In view of the autocratic and irredentist imperialist ambitions that drive that project, which harks back to the Middle Ages, this can only pave the way to greater polarisation, tension and conflict.

While it is true that the large segments of society that oppose Erdogan’s dictatorial ambitions face huge restrictions, pressures and threats, they continue to show tremendous courage as they pray for a miracle significant enough that MPs change their position and keep Erdogan from winning the 330 votes he needs to bring the constitutional amendment bill to a referendum.

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