Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spent nearly a decade trying to destroy the image he once championed, that of a democratic reformer who wanted closer ties to Europe and who vowed to end Turkey’s post-World War II history of heavy-handed interference by the country’s once-powerful armed forces.
He has succeeded in defanging the military – the guarantors of the Turkish Republic’s secular institutions as created by modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – while at the same time emulating countries such as North Korea and Iran by jailing or forcing into exile hundreds of journalists and human rights activists for offences ranging from acknowledging the 1915 Armenian Genocide by the Ottoman Empire or calls for better treatment of Turkey’s 20-million-strong Kurdish population.
Erdogan has purged hundreds of thousands of Turkish citizens who he considers complicit in a botched coup attempt in July 2016 by a small number army officers, who he linked to the exiled cleric and erstwhile Erdogan boogeyman, Fethullah Gülen.
Erdogan’s decision to call snap elections for June, nearly 18 months ahead of schedule, caught many in Turkey and in the international community completely off-guard and will put him on-par with other autocratic rulers like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, and China’s Xi Jinping in the sweep of absolute power that he will enjoy if, as expected, he wins a snap poll recently announced for this summer.
After speaking to the head of the ultra-nationalist MHP party, Devlet Bahceli, who is expected to form an alliance with Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party in the parliamentary polls. By moving up the date for the elections, Erdogan hopes to prevent new political parties from being eligible to run and find himself significantly emboldened with little opposition in the government to check what would amount to near-dictatorial powers.
His decision to scrap the original election date that was scheduled for November 2019, follows a constitutional referendum that Erdogan pushed through in April 2017. By narrowly winning the referendum, Erdogan solidified his position as the sole head-of-state by eliminating the office of prime minister and stripping the national parliament of its many checks-and-balances on executive power.
Once elected as president, the 64-year-old Erdogan will be able to rule Turkey largely by presidential decree and without parliamentary oversight. He will also be in a position to appoint 12 of the 15-member Constitutional Tribunal, the highest legal body for constitutional review in the nation of 81 million people.
.Erdogan had, in recent months, rejected calls for early elections, citing economic instability in the country as Turkey is currently suffering through a major devaluation of its currency, the lira.
Government spokesman Bekir Bozdag told the press on April 18 that snap elections had been authorised by the ruling AK Party and later chastised the EU for treating Turkey unfairly and denounced Brussels’ criticism of Erdogan and the Islamist AK Party’s moves to drifting away from the rule-of-law.
EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn offered a sober assessment of Erdogan’s decision to call snap elections, saying Turkey was taking “major strides away” from the European Union as it moves towards authoritarianism.
The question now is whether the electoral result is open to surprises, given rising and unemployment, a slowdown in the economy, an ever-widening trade deficit, and increasingly fraught relations with the West. None of these factors has deterred Erdogan’s legion of loyalists, with Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci saying the new presidential system, with Erdogan in the role of an all-powerful executive, would project economic “predictability and sustainability”.
Few expect any viable candidates to emerge as a challenge to Erdogan. Former President Abdullah Gul could try to hive off some of his fellow, disaffected AK Party members who have grown tired weary of Erdogan’s leadership and mishandling of the economy.
Unlike Erdogan, Gul has a good working relationship with his counterparts abroad and is well-liked in Europe and the US and is seen as the architect of AK Party’s early economic success a decade ago and has the conservative Islamist credentials that could appeal to some of Erdogan’s religious base. But he is also staunchly pro-EU and a strong supporter of Turkey’s commitments as a member of NATO, which could garner him some support from the besieged liberal and secular sectors of society in Istanbul and Izmir.
There are, however, no guarantees that Gul will run and few expect that his potential candidacy will be anything but a minor inconvenience for Erdogan’s campaign prospects.
The upcoming poll now leaves Erdogan in a position to continue his 15-year campaign to ultimately destroy Turkey’s once-strong ties with its NATO allies by cozying up to Putin and Tehran; to continue supporting known terrorist groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood – whose ideology matches Erdogan’s views on Israel; to continuously bully Europe with threats the he might inflame the migrant crisis as a way to leverage political and economic concessions from Brussels, and to continue provoking neighbours Greece and Cyprus with military provocations that could end in an all-out war in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The greatest casualty of all will most likely be the death of Turkey’s democratic institutions as there will be no legal means to stop Erdogan in his assault on the key pillars of the modern Turkish Republic that he once claimed to champion.