Published: January 2019
With the June 2018 general elections in Turkey, President Erdogan could extend his power further by abolishing the post of prime minister and merging it with the presidency, an important provision of a narrowly approved popular referendum in 2017. He has already served as president since 2014 and as prime minister from 2003-2014. When asked by reporters about the wisdom of such a constitutional change, he compared his move to Adolf Hitler, who first became reichschancellor at the end of the Weimar era in 1933 before merging the presidency with the chancellorship after president Hindenburg’s death one year later. The Hitler comparison is certainly not mincing words. Dictatorial powers are undergirded by the imprisonment of hundreds of journalists deemed critical of his government, and the sacking of 160,000 officials like judges, academics, army and police officers, who were deemed too close to Fetullah Gulen, the imam and former Erdogan ally, who was accused of plotting the military coup against Erdogan in July 2016. To understand the descent into authoritarianism in Turkey, a look into its history is relevant.
Turkey takes up much of what is known as Anatolia, and is the site for what is among the oldest civilizations in the world. Anatolia is regarded as the center of origin for Indo-European languages. Gobekli Tepe in southeast Turkey is the site for the oldest known man-made religious structure, a temple that was built in 10,000 BC. Catalhoyuk is a large Neolithic and Chalcolithic settlement in southern Anatolia that dates back 7500 to 5700 BC. The earliest recorded inhabitants have been the Hattians and Hurrians dating back to 2300 BC. Indo-European Hittites came to occupy Anatolia around 2000 – 1700 BC forming the first empire in the region. The Phyrgians, another Indo-European people, replaced the Hittites around 1180BC, who were replaced by Cimmerians in the 7th century BC. Then came the Medes around 590BC.
Starting from 1200BC, Aeolian and ionian Greeks settled the western coast of Anatolia, founding cities like Miletus, Ephesus, Smyrna and Byzantium. Turkey was conquered by the Persian Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BC, but the Greek city states soon began to rebel against Persian rule, and beat back the Persians under Alexander the Great in 334 BC, which Hellenized most of the Middle East including Anatolia. The Roman Empire conquered Anatolia in the first century BC, who ended up deepening the Hellenization of Anatolia, resulting in the displacement of ancient Anatolian languages. The Parthians came to dominate eastern Anatolia throughout Roman occupation, thus challenging Roman rule around the edges of the empire.
When the Roman Empire split in two, Constantine I chose Byzantium (today’s Istanbul) as capital for the East Roman Empire in 295, which came to outlast the Western Roman Empire by about 1,000 years. The East Roman Empire became the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire experienced challenges to its rule through the Sassanids, the successors to the Parthians. The greatest challenge to the Byzantines came with the Seljuk Turks, who descend from the Caspian and Aral seas and started migrating to eastern Anatolia in the tenth century. In 1071, the Seljuks defeated the Byzantines in the Battle of Manzikert, thus beginning a Turkification process, converting the Christian empire into Islam. The Seljuks themselves were defeated in 1243 by the Mongols, and the Mongols established Turkish principalities, which gradually evolved into the Ottoman Empire, which defeated Byzanz/ Constantinople in 1453. Further Ottoman conquests were successful like the capture of Algeria and Egypt in 1517. As the Ottoman Empire expanded the rising Portuguese sea power was perceived as a threat, even as Ottomans continued to benefit from flourishing trade with Asia. By the 1600s, the Ottomans established a presence in the Balkans, thus challenging the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg Empire for supremacy.
The rising fortune of the Ottoman Empire ended in the late eighteenth century, when the newest military, technology and commercial advances increasingly came from Europe. The Tanzimat reforms of the nineteenth century, which was about copying many of the western advances failed to catch on. The empire shrank in size, military power and wealth, which was aggravated by a severe economic crisis and debt default in 1875. The declining fortune of the Ottoman Empire resulted in a rise of nationalist sentiment, undermining further the central power of the Empire. The sultanate was weakened by a 1913 coup d’etat, which placed the Empire under the control of the Three Pashas. The death knell of the empire came in World War I, when the Ottoman Empire joined the losing side of the war, the Central Powers. The Armenian genocide, which was about the resettlement and killing of millions of Armenians from Anatolia to Syria, happened throughout the war, and came from the resentment of Turkish-Muslim nationalists, who blamed the losing war effort on the “treacherous” Armenians. The rising nationalist spirit played out in the form of racial and ethnic hatred against the Other, as Turks increasingly believed that Anatolia is reserved for Turks. Nationalist sentiment was ironically reinforced by US president Wilson’s post World War I vision of national self-determination, which linked ethnic-national identity with a given territory, which resulted in forced resettlements of different populations. The victorious British and French enforced the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which would have partitioned the Ottoman Empire successor states into British, French, Greek and Italian spheres of influence.
The Early Days of the Republic of Turkey, 1923-1950
Turkish nationalist sentiment was channeled by the successful military general, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who sought to overthrow the terms of the Treaty of Sevres and led the Turkish War of Independence from 1919 to 1923. After decisive victories over Greek troops, Ataturk was in a strong position to declare Turkish independence, which was formally recognized by the other powers in the Treaty of Lausanne. Most importantly, the establishment of the Republic of Turkey allowed Ataturk to abolish the Sultanate and the Ottoman Empire. Ataturk wanted nothing less but the abolition of the old ways, which means an adoption of western customs in civic, social and political life, the transfer of political power from the caliphate to the General Assembly (parliament), prime minister and president, the enforcement of laws by independent courts, the secularization of political life, the relegation of religion to the private sphere, the equalization of rights among men and women, the adoption of a Latinized script of Turkish to facilitate literacy (1928), the advancement of science, technology and education, religious instruction to be taught in Turkish (rather than old Arabic, which only priests understood), the Turkification of society (i.e. only speaking Turkish, having a Turkish name, giving Turkish names to cities) and the pursuit of state-controlled economic policies with the state controlling tobacco, cotton, banks and railways (the latter of which only built in the Turkish era).
Ataturk had also envisioned a multi-party democracy, even though between 1925 and 1945, Ataturk’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) was the only party represented in parliament. Ataturk, a military general, also gave enough power to the military to “preserve the constitution”, which later generals interpreted as allowing them to commit coup d’etats against democratically elected governments, including the CHP, which the generals later felt no longer represented Kemalism as they participated in competitive politics. Given the variety of political reforms, it is not surprising that every successor to Ataturk regards himself as following the spirit of Ataturk, even when political opponents and the military accuse those later leaders for falling away from Ataturk.
With regard to the economy, Turkey developed industrial capacity in the 1920s and 1930s, as Ataturk believed that without economic development it would be difficult to push through his social reforms. The question was how this could be done, especially with the backdrop of the Great Depression beginning in the late-1920s. Ataturk chose a state capitalist strategy, rolling out two five year plans beginning in 1929, and deciding strategically which industries to invest in. State investments created the railroads and aviation industry. One has to consider that free market policies would not have worked as the private-sector was either very small or non-existent and foreign investors are unwilling to invest in another country during the Great Depression. From the 1950s onward, however, the NATO integration of Turkey and the rise to leadership of more liberal leaders resulted in a classical capitalist development strategy.
Beginning in 1937, Ataturk’s health markedly deteriorated as his heavy alcohol consumption produced liver cirrhosis. There were two strong potential successors. One was the liberal economist Celal Bayar, who first became economy minister in 1921 and then prime minister in 1937. He advocated for a mixed economy and the nourishment of a private sector. The other was Ataturk’s right-hand man Ismet Inonu, who served as prime minister prior to stepping down in 1937. He was a statist, who believed in the Five-Year Plan and holding most of the land in state property. When Ataturk died in 1938, Inonu was elected as second president. Bayar initially stayed on as prime minister, but resigned his post in 1939, citing deep disagreements with Inonu on policy. Inonu’s major challenge as president was how to position Turkey during World War II. Having served as a general in the Ottoman era, Inonu was determined to keep Turkey neutral during the war, and only declared war on Nazi Germany in February 1945, when the end was near.
Multi-Party Rule, 1950-2002
The end of World War II resulted in increasing pressures on Turkey to adopt a multi-party democracy. In 1930, Ataturk had encouraged Ali Fethi Okyar to develop a second party next to CHP, but he disbanded the party again, claiming that it was too Islamist. In 1946, Inonu permitted the first democratic elections, but it was not a secret ballot, as there were onlookers in the voting booth ensuring that the voters elect the CHP. The first free and fair elections occurred in 1950, when the CHP was defeated by the economically liberal and socially conservative Democrat Party led by Adnan Menderes (1950-60), who became prime minister, while Celal Bayar became president. The transition to multi-party democracy happened in the context of an unstable party structure (unlike in other western countries, where the big parties, once founded, would endure) where military coups can result in the dissolution of an old party and the founding of new parties. Additionally, the center-left CHP could not dominate Turkish politics especially after the 1970s, as their regional stronghold in the richer portions of Thrace and the western seaboard of Anatolia provided an insufficient electoral basis for power.
Menderes reign meant a greater focus on the private sector, agricultural mechanization, and investments in transport, energy, education, health care, insurance and banking. The economy flourished with the aid of the US Marshall plan and the integration into NATO, the US-led security alliance. However, a backsliding economy in the mid-1950s resulted in Menderes hoping to distract from economic problems by orchestrating the Istanbul pogrom, which was about destroying properties of the Greek ethnic minorities. Even worse, as public criticism against his administration increased, he instituted press censorship, arrested journalists, suppressed opposing political parties and brought universities under his control, thus setting a precedent for Erdogan to emulate 60 years later. Toward the end of his reign, the government established the Commission of Inquiries, consisting of Democrat Party MPs, which was charged with the authority of judges to prosecute individuals, thus undermining the rule of law. These policies created substantial military resistance. A military junta at the level of colonels initiated a coup d’etat in 1960. Menderes and two high-level cabinet ministers were condemned to death and executed, while the president Bayar was sentenced to life imprisonment, although he was pardoned in 1966.
The military junta appointed general Cemal Gursel as prime minister and president. Remarkably, Gursel, who initially was skeptical of the coup and was put in charge by the coup plotters below his rank, was a very self-restrained leader, approving of freeing of imprisoned students and journalists, permitting previously banned newspapers. Gursel retained the presidency until sickness made him resign in 1966. He returned the premiership and cabinet to civilian control in 1961, which returned a relative majority to the CHP, as the Democrat Party was banned and later scooped up by the Justice Party (AP) (1961-81). The former president Inonu became prime minister, but could not hold onto power for long. The 1965 elections delivered an absolute majority to the AP under Suleyman Demirel. The AP made strong gains on the western coast, being supported by smallholder peasants, small commercial and industrial groups. Demirel was a political talent, who was discovered by Menderes, serving as high-level engineer in the 1950s.
The AP retained a relative majority until the 1973 elections, when the CHP attained a relative majority of one third of the vote. Henceforth, the political party system became increasingly splintered, forcing the two larger parties to form coalitions with the smaller parties and making government terms short. Demirel himself served as prime minister in five different time periods (1965-71, 1975-77, 1977-78, 1979-80, 1991-93). Bulent Ecevit, another political talent, who followed Inonu as chairman of the CHP in 1972, served many different times as prime minister (1974, 1977, 1978-1979, 1999-2002). Ecevit’s notable action has been the invasion of Cyprus in 1974 in order to “protect the Turkish Cypriots”. Both Ecevit and Demirel dominated state politics in the 1970s, usually with changing majorities and coalition partners. The 1977 elections delivered an even greater majority to the center-left CHP, but the lack of a coalition partner meant that the CHP lost a vote of confidence and had to return power to a coalition of right-wing parties led by the AP. The inability to provide a stable government, an economic crisis linked to rising inflation, and incommensurate interests between small and big business, business and landlords, rural and urban, resulted in increasing political violence, which organized in the extreme left and the extreme right and resulted in the deaths of thousands of people.
In 1980, the military had enough and carried out a coup under General Kenan Evren. The military junta banned all trade unions and political parties, suspended the constitution, abolished parliament and declared martial law. Ecevit and Demirel were both banned from running for office. These measures were much harsher than in the 1960 coup. The junta justified its act by invoking the preservation of the Kemalist tradition of state secularism and the unity of the nation. Economically, foreign investors were hopeful about the military takeover. The foreign exchange rate was floated, foreign investment was encouraged and a land reform project to help develop southeast Anatolia was implemented. General Evren led the National Security Council (1980-82) and then became president (1982-89). Evren’s takeover was condemned later on in his life, as a court sentenced him to lifetime imprisonment in 2014. He died barely a year later in a military hospital.
With regard to the 1980 coup, the junta did not grant civilian premiership until 1983, when Turgut Ozal from the Motherland Party became prime minister. Evren and the military leadership trusted Ozal, and appointed him deputy prime minister in 1980. He was the dominant figure in Turkish politics in the 1980s, and became the first partisan, non-military president since Celal Bayar in 1989. Ozal died four years into his presidency, presumably by poisoning, even though there never was a formal investigation into his death. His death was likely linked to his desire to negotiate a peace treaty with the PKK (which was founded in 1978), the Kurdish militia organization which commits terrorist attacks to create a Kurdish state in southeast Anatolia. After Ozal’s death in 1993, the peace talks with the PKK were put on ice. Ozal defined a strictly neoliberal policy, and cracked down on coal miner strikers, fitting in line with the broader neoliberal sentiment that began in the UK and US.
With the 1980 coup, the center-right regrouped with the Motherland Party (ANAP) and the True Path Party (DYP), which won elections until the mid-1990s, when the Welfare Party (RP) under Necmettin Erbakan, an explicitly Islamist Party began to win an election, thus setting the stage for the merger of the center-right (economic liberals) and the Islamist conservatives in the early-2000s. Actually, the Islamist political parties go back to the 1970s, when the National Salvation Party under Erbakan even served as junior coalition partner, but they were banned by the military in the 1980 coup. Islamist parties captured the sentiment of the rural countryside, which harbored suspicions against the western-oriented cosmopolitanism that Kemalism reflected, and generally benefited least from economic development.
For the center-left, the 1980 military coup was devastating. It could regroup as Populist Party (HP), Social Democracy Party (SODEP), the Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP) and the Democratic Left Party (DSP), but it rarely gained a relative majority in the elections, and only briefly had the prime minister post (Erdal Inonu in 1993) when Suleiman Demirel was elected president and the SHP held the seat warm for Tansu Ciller to succeed him, and when Ecevit led the DSP to a coalition government in 1999-2002. The SHP served as junior partner in a coalition government with the True Path Party in the early-1990s, but was soon supplanted by the re-founding of the CHP, which contested the 1995 elections. The CHP under Deniz Baykal was decimated in the 1999 election, as the left-wing voters switched to the DSP and the nationalist Kemalists switched to the MHP.
The 1990s marked unstable governments and the return of Demirel and Ecevit in the top positions, as a 1987 constitutional referendum allowed them to return to politics. Unlike Menderes who was executed in 1960, these two politicians were allowed to live. The 1991 elections returned Demirel as prime minister in a coalition with SHP, and after Ozal’s death the parliament appointed him as president, from which he retired when his term expired in 2000. Ecevit sat in jail after the 1980 coup, became the chairman of the DSP and re-entered parliament in 1991. By the late-1990s, the two center-right parties, ANAP and DYP, were a spent force, and the DSP became the biggest party in the 1999 elections with the nationalist MHP becoming the second largest party, which resulted in a DSP-MHP-ANAP coalition government led by Ecevit. Ecevit’s task was to stabilize the Turkish economy to make it amenable to join the EU, but a financial crash in 2001, the defection of DSP MPs, who did not like Ecevit’s rule, allegations of corruption and Ecevit’s poor health destabilized the government, resulting in snap elections in 2002. In the 2002 elections, the DSP was eliminated from parliament and the center-left became absorbed by the CHP, which thereafter never generated more than a quarter of the national vote, and mostly along the more developed western coast of Anatolia. Ever since the 1980 military coup, the center-left Kemalists were not able to dominate the political system, and they could not check Erdogan’s power grab since the 2016 military coup.
AKP Rule, 2002-Present
In 2001, a group of former Islamist Welfare Party (RP)/ Virtue Party (FP) and center-right ANAP and DYP politicians joined forces and founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who himself was a mayor of Istanbul (1994-98) on the RP ticket before joining the FP after the RP was banned. A secondary figure in the AKP has been Abdullah Gul, who co-founded the AKP with Erdogan. The consolidation of the center-right and the Islamist parties simplified the messy party structure that dominated politics in the 1960s, 1970s and again in the 1990s from 5-6 parties down to 3 until 2015, when the Kurdish HDP entered the political arena, and concentrated the Kurdish vote, which previously went to the AKP. Political party consolidation in the early-2000s is the opposite trend to most western European political systems with proportional representation, as Green and new left and right-wing parties joined the party structure beginning in the 1980s. Party consolidation also was the premise for Erdogan’s power grab since 2016.
Erdogan has been the most important political talent in the circles of conservative Islamist politics, but the Kemalists were concerned about the threat to secularism, which such Islamist political movement would produce. The constitutional court banned Erdogan’s RP, which forced the Islamists to converge around the FP. When Erdogan recited a poem by Ziya Gokalp, which included the verse that “minarets are bayonets and the faithful our soldiers”, the courts in 1999 sentenced him to a ten month prison sentence (he served four months) for inciting violence and religious hatred. The imprisonment forced Erdogan from the mayoral office and he also could not stand in the general elections in 2002, even though he was the party leader. The electoral coalition worked out splendidly for the AKP, which promptly became the biggest political party, winning in all regions except Thrace, the west and south coast and the Kurdish provinces in the southeast, producing 363 out of 550 seats obviating any need for a coalition government, the first time since 1987. Abdullah Gul became prime minister.
The new AKP government with the help of the main opposition CHP promptly lifted the political ban on Erdogan, who could run for a seat in the March 2003 by-election, which made him prime minister of Turkey. Similar to the early years of the republic under the CHP and in the 1960s under the Democrat Party, the AKP became the undisputed and dominant force in Turkish politics. The 2007 and 2011 elections increased Erdogan’s vote share (although by 2009, allegations of voter fraud benefiting the AKP began to be documented), and in 2007, Abdullah Gul became president, thus handing full control over the top offices to the AKP. The law no longer allowed Erdogan to be party leader for a fourth time, so he ran for president. In 2014, Erdogan became elected president (the first to be won by popular vote rather than parliamentary approval after a 2012 constitutional change), which is generally a ceremonial role, but with Ahmet Davutoglu and later Binali Yildirim as prime minister he appointed loyal party officials to lead the cabinet, and was an activist president. Davutoglu, however, was forced to resign in 2016 as he opposed the constitutional changes to eliminate the post of prime minister and merge it with the presidency. Yildirim had no such qualms to support Erdogan’s power grab. Yildirim is now speaker of the parliament for the AKP, funneling the votes for Erdogan’s policies. The lack of charismatic party-internal rivals have helped cement Erdogan’s claim to power, even as he surrendered the premiership in 2014.
The main draw to Erdogan’s leadership has been his mixing of Islamist identity politics, such as allowing women to wear the headscarf in public service jobs or reaffirming his Muslim faith as important part of his identity, with growth-oriented economic policies that bring down inflation, pay down debts to the IMF, attract foreign investment and even expand labor protection laws. Foreign direct investment was $195 billion from 2003-2018 compared to $15 billion in the 80 years prior to 2003. (As it turns out, one of the risks of Erdogan’s development model is the high reliance on private sector debt, which is at the basis of the current financial crisis.) The economic basis for the AKP electoral support were increased social, health and educational spending in the countryside (which tended to be neglected in previous phases of economic expansion), i.e. regions outside of Istanbul, as well as business and growth and development in the “Anatolian tiger” cities like Konya, Kayseri and Gaziantep. Only the unraveling of the growth miracle in the late-2000s, the end of the EU accession talks, the rise in the unemployment rate (reaching more than 10%), the suppressed Gezi Park protests, the revelation of corruption scandals beginning in 2013, and the discontent over Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian civil war started to produce an electoral backlash in June of 2015, which for the first time allowed a Kurdish Party (HDP) based in southeast Turkey to cross the 10% threshold, enter the Turkish parliament and, thus, rob the AKP of a governing majority.
Originally, Erdogan had advocated for a pan-Muslim agenda including Turks and Kurds and he initiated a peace talk process with the PKK (the armed Kurdish organization in southeast Turkey) in 2012, but the increasing success of the Syrian Kurds in their fight against ISIS emboldened the Turkish Kurds in their quest for greater respect and regional autonomy. The Turkish government continues to take great interest in Syrian affairs, opposing he Kurdish YPG, which shoulders the brunt of the fight with ISIS, and the Assad regime. Turkey took an ambiguous position on ISIS, as they secretly hoped their fighting would weaken Assad and the Kurds. But from 2015 onward, Turkey took a more hostile stance to ISIS, as they organized terrorist attacks inside Turkey. The YPG continued taking more territory from ISIS being explicitly helped by the US and the EU. To prevent YPG domination along the Turkish-Syrian border, which could embolden the PKK in their independence struggle against Ankara, Turkey provided arms support to the Free Syrian Army and allowed it to use Turkish territory as a safe zone and base of operation. In August 2016, the Turkish military invaded and occupied the north of Syria, then in early 2018 expulsed the Kurdish base in Afrin. ISIS has been decimated in Syria, and the country is currently divided among the Syrian Army under Assad, the Free Syrian Army aided by the Turks and the Kurdish YPG.
The HDP, formed in 2012, as an electoral coalition of the far-left Turks and Kurds, capitalized on the discontent about the AKP. The June 2015 elections shifted the AKP’s strategy vis-a-vis the Kurdish issue from conciliation and negotiation to conflict and suppression. The predictable further loss of the Kurdish vote to the AKP would be compensated by increasing turnout among ethnic Turks, who agreed with tougher policies on the Kurds, thus stealing the votes from the nationalist MHP.
The collapse of coalition talks led to snap elections in November 2015, but the context of voting changed. In August, the collapse of PKK-Turkish government talks resulted in an outbreak of violence in the southeast of Turkey, which deteriorated the security situation for voting and depressed the vote for the HDP. In the November vote, the HDP lost 21 seats, while the AKP gained 59 seats, thus restoring the governing majority to Erdogan’s AKP. Erdogan saw himself emboldened to deploy the Justice Department to prosecute high-ranking HDP officials, imprison, exile, revoke immunity and/or ban them from office. His administration’s reasoning is that HDP is close to the militant PKK, which the Turkish government classifies as a terrorist organization, even though some HDP officials call for a resumption of bilateral peace talks and condemn PKK violence (while others remain silent on PKK violence). The former party leader Selahattin Demirtas, who contested the 2014 and 2018 presidential elections, sits in jail as of November 2016.
Erdogan’s increased power was also made possible by the gradual institutional weakening of the military, which carried out two coups (1960, 1980) and two interventions that brought down the existing government (1971, 1997). When the AKP’s Abdullah Gul was nominated as president in 2007, the military considered another strike against the AKP to safeguard the Kemalist heritage, but this time, their intervention could not take off the ground. The public bureaucracy was staffed with AKP loyalists, the military general staff lacked broader support for a coup (which was restricted to a memorandum written by chief of general staff Yasar Buyukanit warning about the rise of Islamism in Turkish politics), the EU an important negotiating partner with the Turkish accession talks opposed military intervention, and even the CHP opposition did not want a military coup. The failure of the EU accession talks given the slow pace of pro-market reform and preservation of human rights and the anti-Turkish spirit among many EU members unwilling to accept a Muslim country in their midst further emboldened Erdogan in his entitlement to authoritarian politics.
The military was further weakened by trials and purges against so-called Ergenekron conspirators. These conspirators were replaced by junior officers, who were vetted for being loyal to the AKP. Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen-loyal judges alleged that conspirators in the military were responsible for an attempted coup against the Erdogan government in 2004. Gulen himself is a cleric, who has been in exile in the US since the late-1990s, and he funded a giant network of loyal judges, police officers and academics. For many years, Gulen has been a loyal ally to Erdogan, as both confronted the military as self-declared guarantors of Kemalist traditions, thus potentially challenging Erdogan’s leadership. 500 military and security officers were prosecuted and removed from their position. The rift between Gulen and Erdogan occurred beginning in 2012, when Gulen began to believe that the AKP and Erdogan became too powerful. Gulenist judges began corruption prosecutions against AKP officials, which came to the chagrin of Erdogan, who in turn ordered lists to be prepared to organize a purge against Gulenists in the Turkish civil service. In 2014 and 2015, the government ordered arrests of journalists and media executives suspected of links to Gulen. By May 2016, the Turkish government declared the Gulen movement as a terrorist organization.
The July 15, 2016 military coup against the Turkish government provided the opportunity to crackdown against the Gulenists en masse (even though the still exiled Gulen denies any links to the coup). Over 8,000 Turkish army soldiers or only 3% of the army were coup plotters, which indicates the quite successful recoloring of the army brass in favor of the AKP government. The chief of the general staff, the head of the intelligence agency, the head of the naval forces and the first army were government loyalists. The head of the coup plotters General Semih Terzi was killed at the outset of the coup, thus weakening the resolve of the plotters. The putschists failed to capture President Erdogan, who was in a beach resort in Marmara and got into an airplane, heading to Istanbul. They also failed in identifying the plane that flew Erdogan and could not shoot it down. Erdogan used Face Time to communicate to his supporters via a CNN Turkey broadcast to go on the streets and stop the military coup. Thousands of Erdogan supporters rallied on the street, blocking the putschist tanks from advancing, even though they were able to attack the parliament and presidential palace. When Erdogan arrived in the Istanbul airport, he was welcomed by cheering crowds, forming a human shield. By the morning hours of July 16, the coup was doomed, as loyalist troops and police surrounded the army staff headquarters where the coup plotters gathered.
The 2016 coup was the first coup in the history of the Turkish Republic, which had failed, indicating the weakening of the military as a pillar to undermine authoritarian rule. Once order was re-established, Erdogan declared a state of emergency. In a short period of time, 77,000 academics, soldiers, judges and journalists have been arrested and 160,000 were fired from their jobs for their alleged connections to Gulen (even if many of those fired are likely not affiliated with the Gulenists). Only 1,000 wrongly dismissed employees were reinstated in their job. The emergency situation of the coup gave Erdogan the justification to finally purge all of his political enemies, which includes the Gulenists, the military, the courts, the media and academia. In a recent speech, Erdogan joked that he cannot be a dictator, because the opposition leader Kilicdaroglu (CHP) is still free (without mentioning that with only a quarter of electoral support, the CHP can scarcely do damage to AKP rule).
With potential enemies in the civil service, military and civil society purged, Erdogan could push for a constitutional change that would merge the presidency with the premiership; allow that president to appoint and dismiss cabinet members according to his will; serve for two 5-year terms maximum. The parliament retains the right to make laws and pass the budget; impeachment against the president is only possible with a two-thirds majority; the size is increased from 550 to 600; the eligibility age is reduced from 25 to 18; military officers are banned from serving. Two thirds of the parliament needed to approve the constitutional change to send it to a referendum, and the AKP and MHP votes guaranteed that outcome (with CHP and HDP opposed). The 2017 referendum was narrowly approved by the public with 51.4% support, which is reminiscent of the narrow Brexit referendum. The big cities, the west and south coast, as well as the Kurdish regions in the southeast voted against the constitutional changes. The ‘Yes’ campaign received state-funded advertising money, while the opposition faced violence and campaign restrictions. The ‘Yes’ campaign did receive campaign restrictions in the other European countries with significant Turkish minority populations (like Netherlands, Germany or Austria). The US, China and Russia openly congratulated Erdogan for the electoral victory, though the EU under Jean-Claude Juncker criticized the “irregularities” in the referendum, but given that the EU continues to be dependent on Turkey for keeping the Middle East refugees out of the EU, there is not much foreign opposition against Erdogan’s power grab.
The 2018 parliamentary and presidential elections were the first using the new constitution, and Erdogan promptly received 52% of the vote. If he gets re-elected in 2023, Erdogan will have served as president for 14 years, only beaten by the founder of the Republic Ataturk by length of tenure. His AKP lost 21 seats in the parliamentary elections, but given that the MHP, which had also approved of the constitutional changes, joined the People’s Alliance, Erdogan has a comfortable governing majority of 64% of seats in parliament. Erdogan declared that increased presidential powers would allow him to address the Kurdish problem in the southeast and restore economic growth (BBC 2018). As for the former, no talks with the Kurds are scheduled, and military strikes against Afrin and PKK posts in northern Iraq suggest further escalation of violence and killing.
As for the economic malaise, it is linked to a high current account deficit, which comes from private businesses borrowing money from overseas. The construction industry encouraged by the state made large investments into real estate even if that meant empty houses that could not be sold. The government continues to hope that construction projects in infrastructure and housing can restore economic growth and return international investor confidence. As foreign investors, who became skeptical of the rising private debts, started selling the Turkish lira in greater amounts, Erdogan interfered in the central bank decisions and prevented interest rate rises, lowering the demand for the lira, which contributed to rising inflation. Erdogan’s finance minister recently vowed to hunt down suspected onion hoarders, who are apparently responsible for rising onion prices (similar to Nicolas Maduro in bankrupt Venezuela). The lira crisis, in turn, made foreign investors skeptical about holding lira, which forced the Turkish government to hike the interest rate paid on government bonds, which increased from about 10% in mid-2017 to nearly 22% in August 2018 before it declined to 16% in November. Qatari investments in Turkey have somewhat relieved the pressure to devalue further, default on debt or even go to the IMF for loan assistance.
Public debt remains low at 28.3% of GDP, but private debt to GDP increased from 131 to 170% of GDP between 2011 and 2016. The domestic credit to the private sector as percent of GDP increased from 13 to 67% from 2003 to 2017. The coup and the crackdown on selected foreign assets made foreign investment even scarcer as they undermined confidence in the business climate. Finally, the improving US economy is associated with rising US interest rates, which tends to pull more global savings to the “safe haven” US economy and away from emerging markets like Turkey. It is an open question whether a full-blown Turkish financial crisis that would deplete Turkish foreign exchange and result in substantial debt default will have a contagion effect on the global economy as the big foreign creditor banks would be on the hook for defaults, and this time the interest rates of the big central banks (Japan, US, Europe) are already very low, which means limited tools to address a global financial crisis.
As for Turkish domestic policy, the continued crackdown on Kurds, the civil society, the news media or business “hoarders” and certainly the permanent agitation against enemies-imagined or real- permit Erdogan to further consolidate his power. Furthermore, the challenge to his rule will no longer come from the military. The only democratic hope is that he has not abolished the constitutional limitations to his rule, and the existence of a parliamentary opposition waiting in the wings for when a political or economic crisis can no longer be controlled by Erdogan gives reassurance that there could be a return to more normal democratic structures in the future. Ataturk’s legacy of western secularism and rule of law has a path dependence, which makes Turkey different from more classic despotic states in the Middle East. Alternatively, Erdogan will hold on to power for as long as possible (i.e. until his death), using some constitutional machinations to abolish the term limit like Xi Jinping did in China. He certainly is of similar age to Xi and Putin.
Turkey’s economic model 2002-2015: https://economics.mit.edu/files/11509
“The Military Institution, Ataturk’s Principles, and Turkey’s Sisyphean Quest for Democracy” https://www.jstor.org/stable/40262642
History of Turkey
History of the Republic of Turkey
Multi-Party Period of the Republic of Turkey
2016 Turkish coup d’etat attempt
Turkish constitutional referendum, 2017
Turkish currency and debt crisis, 2018
Turkish general elections before 1980
Turkish general elections after 1980
General election articles on Turkey (1946-2018)
Kemal Ataturk (Republican People’s Party)
Ismet Inonu (Republican People’s Party)
Celal Bayar (Democrat Party)
Adnan Menderes (Democrat Party)
Cemal Gursel (Military)
Suleyman Demirel (Justice Party, True Path party)
Kenan Evren (Military)
Bulent Ecevit (Republican People’s Party, Democratic Left Party)
Turgut Ozal (Motherland Party)
Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Welfare Party, Justice and Development Party)