What Next for Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkey?

Turkish President Erdogan and British Prime Minister Theresa May

Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called a snap election for June; made a state visit to the UK in May, and remains defiant at home and abroad.

Turkey also puts into effect a wide range of changes to its political system and its constitution following last year’s contentious referendum.

So what next for Turkey?

The Turkish Political Landscape

The Turkish political system is made up of an executive and a parliament. The president is an elected position (the executive), as is generally the rule for members of parliament.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the current president of Turkey following the election of 2014, having served as Prime Minister from 2003.

Representing the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a movement which he founded in 2001, Erdogan considers himself and his party to be socially conservative.

The Turkish parliament is however, dominated by conservative parties, and the closest rival in terms of size and representation is the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

The leader of the Turkish parliament is the Prime Minister, who is directly appointed by the President. An interesting fact is that the Prime Minister does not have to be an elected member of parliament.

2018 however heralds in massive political changes in Turkey following a contentious referendum in 2017 to change 18 different parts of the Turkish constitution.

Those changes include the abolition of the role of Prime Minister, and increasing the number of parliamentary seats from 550 to 600.

The result was tight, with 49% voting no, and 51% siding with yes.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP)

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) have had a meteoric rise to supremacy in Turkey. Founded in 2001 as a break-away grouping from several conservative parties, there have only been three leaders, Ahmet Davutoglu, current prime minister Binali Yildirim and founder and current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The party, whilst persistently accused of having an Ottoman and Islamic identity and beliefs, follows a pro-western agenda, with a progressive approach to economics and pushing for Turkey to join the European Union.

Despite this, the AKP keeps an open dialogue with the Egyptian based Muslim Brotherhood, a trans-national group of Sunni Islamist origin.

In 2012, another conservative up-start movement, the People’s Voice Party decided to disband, with the majority of its members merging into AKP. Originally founded by Numan Kurtulmus, Erdogan had proposed the idea of a party merger with Kurtulmus in line to take up an office of state.

Erdogan had previously intimated that Kurtulmus could potentially lead the party in the future and thus the country. Having served for three years as Deputy Prime Minister, Kurtulmus is currently the Minister of Culture and Tourism.

The Rise and Rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Erdogan, prior to entering politics in the 1990’s was a professional football player for Kasimpasa, one of Turkey’s top clubs based in Istanbul, who have since named their stadium in honour of him.

After his footballing career, Erdogan entered politics, becoming mayor of Istanbul in 1994 representing the Islamist Welfare Party.

Into the 2000’s, he abandoned his previous Islamist political beliefs in order to found the more moderate, progressive Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Erdogan has presented himself as a moderniser in Turkish politics, often to much protest and recrimination; in one instance leading to the attempted Coup in 2016.

Many of his critics liken his leadership style to that of Authoritarianism, and much of his leadership has borne those opinions out.

Despite his insistence on modernisation and conservatism, Erdogan is still dogged by accusations of holding deep-seated religious views, and attempting to impose an Islamist agenda.

Throughout the last decade, Erdogan has also been accused of suppression of the media, and censorship, with the internet and state television output tightly controlled by the authorities.

Turkish Opposition Politics

The Turkish political system is so fluid and fractious, that any viable opposition party in the modern era is only effective in coalition with other, mostly smaller parties.

Since the rise of Erdogan’s AKP, no single opposition party has been able to poll above 28% in any national election.

Whilst this is not sufficient to win power, with the way the parliamentary system works in Turkey, such a percentage of the national vote generally translates to the same percentage of the 550 seats in the Grand National Assembly (rising to 600 seats from the 2018 general election).

Despite this, and with parties entering elections in coalitions, these pacts remain into the parliamentary term, with minority parties voting with each other, but still not yielding enough cross-party support to be an effective opposition to ruling party initiatives and legislative votes.

2016 Attempted Coup D’ Etat

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The Coup begins to fail as protesters take to the streets of Istanbul

Late on the evening of 15th July 2016, factions of the Turkish military staged an attempted coup against Erdogan’s government.

Calling themselves the ‘Peace at Home Council’, they launched their offensive on several fronts, most notably – and visibly – in the cities of Ankara and Istanbul.

Binali Yildirim made a statement to the nation saying that the military action was being ‘taken outside the chain of command’. Citing that only part of the military was involved, he went on to say that those responsible would ‘pay a heavy price’.

Despite this, the “council” had overrun the state TV news broadcaster TRT, and reportedly at gunpoint, TRT’s lead news presenter appeared on air.

He said; “It is the wish and order of the Turkish Armed Forces for this statement to be broadcast on all channels of the Turkish Republic…

“The governance of the State will be undertaken by the established Peace at Home Council. The Peace at Home Council has taken every action to ensure that it fulfils the obligations set by all international institutions, including the United Nations and NATO. The government, which has lost all its legitimacy, has been dismissed from office.”

The offensive also came from the air, with Turkey’s parliament building suffering substantial damage, as well as strikes on the presidential palace in what are thought to have been attempts to assassinate Erdogan. In any case, Erdogan was not present at the time, he was holidaying in the South of Turkey.

Government buildings and major infrastructure were also targeted, with bridges destroyed and other transport links cut.

Of immediate concern to western observers, and most notably the Pentagon, was the security of Incirlik Air Base. The base has been shared between the Turkish Air Force, the US Air Force and on occasion the RAF, since 1954. In the modern NATO era however, the US Air Force stores around 50 tactical nuclear weapons there.

The factions cut power to the base, forcing it to operate on back-up resources. The base was put on the US Military and NATO’s highest alert level and went into an immediate lock-down. Any civilian employees on the base were swiftly ejected and all military personnel off-base were recalled.

A no-fly zone was imposed over Turkey, resulting in the downing of numerous Turkish Air Force jets which could not be identified by forces loyal to Erdogan.

The Aftermath

Ultimately, forces loyal to Erdogan regained control, and with it, power.

Landing at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, having managed to evacuate from his holiday residence in Marmaris just moments before coup-rebels arrived, Erdogan addressed cheering crowds.

He told the world; “In Turkey, armed forces are not governing the state or leading the state.”

What only became known later was that as Erdogan returned to Istanbul, some rebel forces were still in the air and attempted to intercept, unsuccessfully, Erdogan’s private Gulfstream jet.

The Coup appeared to have started collapsing before Erdogan’s arrival back in Istanbul, with crowds gathering before sunrise in the centres of major cities, against the orders of the Coup leaders.

Matters were determined to have come to a conclusion when coup-loyalists who were holding the TRT television station, seemingly surrendered of their own accord. The Turkish army headquarters had also been surrounded by police forces, where a possible ‘last stand’ took place and a small skirmish ensued.

The dust settled on the extraordinary scenes, broadcast around the world from that 24 hours in Turkey.

Over 300 people lost their lives and countless thousands were injured. Untold millions of lira worth of damage was done to buildings and infrastructure.

Erdogan did not delay in exacting his revenge. In the days that followed, a state of emergency was declared in the country. Initially set to last for three months, Turkey to this day, remains in a state of emergency.

40,000 people were detained, including a large number of soldiers and judges. Although official figures are hard to come by, it is also estimated that over 160,000 government employees were also dismissed for their links to the long-exiled Gulen movement.

Ultimately, the Coup was deemed to have failed because of disorganisation in the ranks of the rebel forces. Their inability to control the media, having only taken the state TV broadcaster TRT, resulted in anti-coup coverage on almost every other output across the country.

Further, it is believed that word of the impending coup had been leaked, forcing the rebels to execute their assault some six hours before they anticipated.

Turkey’s Place in Europe & EU Membership

Turkey has long sought membership of the European Union, with talks for such going back as far as 1987, when it first applied to become a full member of the political bloc.

Through the 1990’s, talks progressed at a slow pace, however a Customs Union agreement was signed and at the Helsinki summit of the European Council of December 12th, 1999, Turkey was recognised as an official candidate nation for full EU membership.

Membership negotiations officially commenced in 2005, and again, progressed at a slow pace, before coming to a complete halt as a result of Erdogan’s reaction to the 2016 attempted coup. The EU had initially come out in support of Erdogan in the immediate aftermath of the coup attempt, only to withdraw support entirely once the full extent of his response and continued state of emergency became apparent.

Turkey was also singled out by EU leaders for their role in the European migrant crisis, accused of allowing passage of migrants from countries such as Syria through to European countries in the north, most notably, Greece.

Relations with the EU became further strained when Turkey opted to change its political system, prompting the European Commission to omit Turkey from its budgeting for the next decade and thus treating Turkey as a neighbouring country and not a candidate nation.

President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier went so far as to say; “the way we look (at Turkey) is characterised by worry, that everything that has been built up over years and decades is collapsing.”

The 2018 Snap General and Presidential Election

The 2018 General Election is scheduled to take place on June 24th; the position of Prime Minister is abolished from that date, with the Presidency assuming the roles undertaken by the Prime Minister.

Erdogan chose to call early elections, with the current presidential and parliamentary terms not due to expire until November 2019, when the next poll was expected.

The AKP have allied themselves with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to create the ‘People’s Alliance’. The MHP were one of Erdogan’s main opposition; however by neutralising that risk, the likelihood of the other parties and alliances reaching the 50.1% of the vote needed to topple him is now very much unlikely.

This alliance by Erdogan forced the other four major players in Turkish politics to form the ‘Nation Alliance’, made up of; the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the İyi Party (İYİ), the Felicity Party (SP), and the Democrat Party (DP). Despite this, and with opposition out of the metropolitan areas to Erdogan’s Presidential system, it still seems likely that the Nation Alliance will fall short.

Though with that said, the parliamentary elections, which take place the same day, look likely to be a close run affair, and bringing Turkey closer to a ‘two-party system’ of politics.
There is the real possibility with all the connotations taken into account, that Erdogan could win the presidency for the People’s Alliance, whilst in the Turkish parliament, the Nation Alliance could hold the balance of power with a majority.

The one thing that is not in any doubt is that Erdogan is highly likely to win the presidency on the first ballot – meaning he will take with ease, the 50% plus one vote needed. In the unlikely event the presidential poll is closer, and Erdogan doesn’t reach the magic number of a simple majority, there will be a run-off election between Erdogan (assuming he’s the frontrunner) and the second-placed candidate, two weeks later.

If in some strange force of middle-eastern politics such an outcome was to occur, Erdogan would all but be guaranteed the Presidency in the second ballot, but the simple process of vacuuming up the residual votes.

The Middle East Institute’s Gonul Tol said of the upcoming elections, that religious rhetoric will still play a strong part of Erdogan’s campaign, despite his denials of being influenced by religion. He said; “Debate over the role of religion still weighs on Turkish politics. Erdogan has heavily relied on religious rhetoric and the ‘us versus them’ narrative to rally his base, which felt neglected for decades under the rule of the secular elite.

“Erdogan very often accuses the CHP of being anti-religious, referring to the party’s policies during the single-party era in the early years of the Turkish republic.

“If the CHP candidate runs against Erdogan in the runoff, Erdogan is likely to use the same narrative to turn the campaign into a clash of identities.”

The Future for Turkey

An Erdogan presidency under the new political structure of Turkey after the 2018 elections will be seen by many at home and around the world as a further power grab, allowing him to rule by decree.
The concerns of many political observers and international experts are that such a political system effectively renders the parliament powerless.

The new system would simply allow the president to veto any move by the parliament, and similarly, force through any changes or new laws as he or she sees fit.

The continuing presidency of Erdogan can be compared to that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has served as Russia’s President, then Prime Minister and then President again, before making constitutional changes to abolish term limits.

It can almost be taken as a certainty, that another term in office for Erdogan, barring anything unpredictable or calamitous, will almost certainly see further changes to the country’s constitution, but this time without going to the people.

One piece of legislation expected in the next Erdogan administration will be the abolition of term limits.

With Erdogan at the helm, armed with new legislative powers, and with no one able to stop him or vote him down, Turkey will within the matter of a day, go from an Authoritarian political system, to a totalitarian state.

What is most concerning, is that the state lies not only on the border of Europe, but also on the border of one of the most unstable places in the world today; the Middle-east.