Turkey has been called many things- from the sick man of Europe, to the most progressive and liberal Islamic nation. But in the recent past, Turkey has been treading a dangerous path towards totalitarianism under recently re elected President Recep Erdogan. Hailed by his followers both at home and among the Turkish diaspora in Europe, Erdogan has been soaring high on a wave of populism. His recent re-election means that he will stay in power till at least 2023 as Executive President, a position he created to consolidate and centralise power for himself.
The 2017 Turkish Constitutional Referendum
The death knell for Turkish democracy was sounded in April 2017 with the Turkish Constitutional Referendum. The referendum was surrounding whether or not the people were willing to accept several amendments to the Turkish constitution that would bring about structural changes, abolish the position of the Prime Minister, and centralise several powers with one man- the President. One of these absolute powers was the authority to remove/appoint judicial heads, akin to Supreme Court judges and the CJI in India’s context. The Parliament also lost its ability pass a ‘no confidence motion against the President’. This would fail the litmus test for a democracy in any other part of the world today. Furthermore, it is very important to note the backdrop of the referendum. Barely 10 months prior to the referendum, Turkey witnessed a failed coup-d’etat. What was astonishing about this failed coup was that most of the senior leaders of the armed forces were not involved. Leading geopolitical analysts have suggested that the coup was orchestrated by Erdogan, as a false flag attack to give Erdogan a legitimate cause to declare a state of emergency and thereby crackdown on several Turkish institutions, similar to the Reichstag fire in which was later pinned on Hitler’s Brown shirts.
The ‘Kurdish Problem’
After winning re elections that guarantee him power till at least 2023, Erdogan said, “The winner is our democracy. The winner is service-based politics. The winner is superiority of national will. The winner is Turkey. The winner is the Turkish nation. The winner is all the oppressed in our region. The winner is all the oppressed in the world.” It is rather ironic that Erdogan would mention “the oppressed”, let alone “the oppressed in our region”. The Kurds are an ethnic group that constitute a resounding 18% of Turkish population, and number an approximately 80 Million people today. They mainly inhabit the South-Eastern region of the country that borders Syria. The Kurds have been the victims of systematic oppression at the hands of the Turkish state machinery for decades, which only further worsened after Erdogan came to power. The ethnic group is discriminated in various aspects of Turkish society. Their only representative political party, the Kurdish Worker’s Party, or the PKK, have been outlawed since the 1980s, and Erdogan has only intensified the crackdown on Kurdish political representation in Turkey.
Erdogan joins the growing list of ‘strongmen’ that are popping up the world over, from Donald Trump to the likes of Rodrigo Duterte. However, while Donald Trump’s unconventional diplomacy has surprisingly borne fruit, it is safe to say that Turkey has been playing with fire. Having one of the most powerful armed forces amongst the members of the NATO pact, Turkey has isolated itself after deviating from its NATO partners’ agenda in conflicts such as Syria and Iraq. While the Western powers have spent a good portion of the last decade trying to usurp Bashar Al Assad from power, Erdogan has often cooperated with Russia, and hence, indirectly with the Assad regime in its bid to meet its own strategic interests- the prevention of an independent Kurdish nation. As the situation worsened in Syria around 2014, independent Kurdish militias backed by foreign fighters took considerable territory in the north bordering with Turkey. This worried Erdogan, who wanted to prevent the Kurds within his own nation from linking up with the areas occupied by Kurdish militias in Syria such as the YPG.
Taking his war against the minority group beyond his own borders, the Turkish President announced Operation Olive Branch earlier this year in January, which aimed to ‘liberate territory controlled by Kurdish terror outfits’ in a corridor ranging from Northern Syria to the western border of Iraq. Turkey risked direct conflict with Russia not once but twice in the past 2 years. The first instance was when Turkish air defence shot down a Russian jet over Syrian skies. Russia’s response was minimal to say the least, knowing Putin’s lack of hesitance in responding to aggression. The second instance was the shooting of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov, who was assassinated by an off duty police officer while he was delivering a speech at an art exhibition. During the failed coup in 2016, the apparent dissident forces had surrounded Incirlik air base which houses strategic American nuclear warheads, a move which many experts see as an indirect threat from Turkey to the United States. Most recently, Turkey has seen its relations with Israel deteriorate over the Palestine issue as clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians have been on the rise. Turkey’s foreign policy lacks direction and looks more and more like a nation desperately trying to over assert itself.
Political intricacies aside, Erdogan has lead Turkey into a highly uncertain macroeconomic environment. In the midst of a currency crisis, by pressing the central bank not to raise interest rates, prices have continued to accelerate, leading to an inflation rate of 10.9% and highly reduced credibility for the central bank. To make matters worse, Erdogan hinted a week before the Turkish presidential elections that if he won this week’s vote, he would potentially further curtail the central bank’s independence, which would possibly lead to an even higher rate of inflation.
The currency crisis has fueled an unstable business environment. Over the last four months, the lira has lost approximately 15% of its value and plunged to a record low against the dollar. Turkey is highly dependent on cheap foreign credit due to its reliance on imports. Erdogan’s intractable stance towards monetary policy has yielded an overheated economy with a worrying current account deficit and a weak lira. Far from negotiating with the IMF, Turkey needs an independent monetary policy and a cease to Erdoganomics. Otherwise, Turkey’s diminished access to international markets and large pending fines from US investigators stand to leave the country at the brisk of a debt crisis.
All is not sombre, however. Recep Erdogan continues to be loved by a vast majority of Turks both home and abroad. The man enjoys immense popularity thanks to his charismatic character and constant appeals for Turkish nationalism to the masses. But Turkey’s slide to Islamo-Fascism is worrisome for many human rights activists and peace activists alike. In almost every aspect, Erdogan is the pole opposite of Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Ataturk gave birth to the Turkish Republic we know today. He liberalised the conservative Turkish society and Westernised the formerly Islam-centric education, while at the same time encouraging women to pursue studies and a career. Contrary to Erdogan, he had a particular disdain for imperialism and conflict. Thanks to him, Turkey stayed out of the Second World War.
Irrespective of which direction he takes Turkey in, there is no doubt that Recep Erdogan will go down as a man who shaped Turkey’s history to a large extent, for better or for worse.