All The Presidents Men: Turkey’s Rapid Descent Into Authoritarianism


It is no secret that Turkish democracy is going through a difficult period and the country has been slowly descending since 2013 into authoritarianism. Turkey has placed itself in an awkward situation as the current Justice and Development Party (AKParti) administration deals with both an unstable situation in neighbouring Syria, increasing clashes against the Kurdish PKK in the South Eastern provinces and polarization of Turkish society.


These issues have had a significant impact on the domestic situation, but there has been one issue that has the ruling party preoccupied. One of the promises of the June and November elections by the AKParti is a push for a new constitution and the implementation of a Presidential system. Prime Minister Davutoğlu has set a timeline for six months for the constitution commission to come up with a viable framework for the implementation of the new Turkish Constitution. However, the AKParti and President Erdoğan are very determined to make the switch even if this means calling another snap election or sending it to a referendum.


This talk of a new constitution comes at a time in Turkey when there has been a systematic assault on free speech. Turkey’s controversial law: Article 299 of the penal code for ‘Insulting the President’ carries a prison term of around four years if the content is deemed offensive and published in the media including Twitter and social media platforms. Around 30 Journalists are in jail and around 100 more citizens have been detained for posting, and tweeting about the President. Turkey was ranked by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) as the world’s top press jailer in 2012/2013 but although Turkey has been replaced by China and Egypt for the top spot, the number of journalists and bloggers jailed has steadily increased in 2015.


It comes at a time when there is a violent conflict raging in the South Eastern regions of Turkey with an absolute blanket ban on coverage (besides pro-government media). 1200 academics that signed a petition calling for an end to the conflict led by the Turkish State against the Kurdish dominated regions, have been vilified by the pro-government media for ‘spreading terrorist propaganda.’ As such many have lost their jobs, are facing legal proceedings and have had their lives threatened by hardcore nationalists. “Treason” and “traitor” has made its way back into the political lexicon and is being unabashedly used by AKParti ministers and nationalists alike. Whether the conditions are right to create a new constitution, with the continued conflict in the East and the social divide that permeates Turkey is yet to be seen but it is highly unlikely that the commission will come up with a solid ‘democratic’ constitution particularly as the AKParti insists on the change to an executive presidency. It is more likely that its failure will be used as a mechanism for an election.


The Turkish judiciary is also under severe strain. Many members of the opposition have accused the judiciary of bowing to political influence and maintaining the political status quo. The arrests of Cumhuriyet editors Can Dündar, and Erdem Gül on charges of being members of a terrorist organization and leaking confidential documents have caused international outrage in the EU and Journalistic circles. They are both facing possible life imprisonment for these charges. While all sides agree that the current constitution that was implemented during the 1980 Coup d’état needs to be changed, the AKParti push for an executive presidency has met severe resistance by opposition parties.


However, the opposition is in disarray. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) cannot gather more than 25% of the majority vote and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and the Nationalist Party (MHP) have been under serious political strain as they have been hemorrhaging support due to a series of political blunders. The head of the HDP Selahattin Demirtaş’ (who in many circles is seen as the real opposition leader) calls for Kurdish autonomy and his visit to Moscow after Turkey shot down a Russian jet in December, have alienated his voter base in the West of Turkey. If an election were to be called now, the HDP and MHP would fail to meet the 10% threshold needed to sit in Parliament, which would give more seats to the AKParti. Such a move would give them a very dominant position to hold a referendum or even change the constitution through parliament.


President Erdoğan’s push for a ‘Turkish Style’ Executive Presidency has many querying what he will do if given this political power. While he has stated that it is not a means of political ambition, his critics are disputing otherwise. However according to polling, a majority of Turkish citizens still maintain that a parliamentary system in the best for Turkey. The AKParti has yet to release its format for what will constitute the President's powers in this switch to an executive presidency but time will tell whether the AKParti and President Erdoğan can change the electorate's mind.


Turkey’s position both regionally and domestically is delicate and precarious. The economy is looking rather shaky due to a reduction in investment and tourism due to bombings in Ankara and Istanbul, and populist policies such as increasing the minimum wage have been implemented despite sufficient GDP growth. The concern is whether Turkey can put its own house in order in terms of its economic policy and healing social division before initiating a shift to a new constitution. However it appears that if the constitutional commission is not successful Turkey will face another election (the third in two years). This time however the AKParti will possibly gain a solid majority and may not need a referendum to change the constitution. However the AKParti has a hard sell ahead of them. Without the ending of the conflict in the country’s South East, a change in regional priorities in Syria and healing Turkey’s social polarization, the possibility of Turkey returning to its previous secular democratic format is looking less and less likely.


Iain MacGillivray was the January-June 2016 Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email publications@youngausint.org.au for more information.

Image Credit: Mstyslav Chernov (Cropped) (Wikimedia: Creative Commons).

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