In recent years, populism has been on the rise in democratic systems around the globe. But in Turkey, President Erdogan has been working to hollow out the country’s democratic institutions in an authoritarian power grab that is seeing the strong man become stronger.
While 2017 and 2018 saw many elections throughout the world and especially in Europe voice populist and anti-establishment sentiments, in Turkey there has been a consolidation of power by an Islamist party under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the elections of June 2018, Erdogan won a second term and gained new powers under a new system which had been previously approved by referendum. The results of this referendum, in April 2017, narrowly backed switching to a presidential system of government, significantly increasing Erdogan’s powers. Many believe this move, which has largely been seen as a power grab, has ushered in authoritarian rule.
Erdogan first came to power as prime minister in 2003 on the back of a sweeping electoral victory by the Islamist-based Justice and Development Party (AKP), of which he was a founding member. The victory was in response to a major economic crisis after many years of economic growth. Erdogan’s first two terms of government provided optimistic prospects for economic growth and joining the European Union. Events did not quite turn out as hoped.
By 2010, Turkey was heralded as a model country where democracy and Islam co-existed. Encouraged by his political success and popularity in the Arab world, Erdogan showed ambitions for the leadership of the Muslim world. He enacted great-power strategies that included establishing visa-free travel and economic partnerships with Muslim countries, starting with Syria and Lebanon. The period of Erdogan’s ascendency also coincided with international developments such as the 2011 Arab Spring and, soon after, the Syrian civil war. The Syrian conflict resulted in tensions along the shared Turkish-Syrian border and a huge influx of refugees into Turkey. It also inflamed Turkish sensitivities to the Kurdish question and, rather than being a silent observer, Turkey has embraced the opportunity the conflict presents to target the Kurds in northern Syria.
As leader of the AKP, Erdogan spent 11 years as Turkey’s prime minister before becoming the country’s first directly elected president in August 2014. The role of the president had previously been a ceremonial one, but it was not long before Erdogan converted it into an all-powerful position. In 2016, Erdogan became the target of an attempted coup. He survived significant casualties, and brutal retaliation by the government soon followed. The coup was arguably caused by Erdogan’s erratic foreign policy and growing authoritarianism. Concerned about the repercussions of the coup and the Erdogan government’s human rights record, the European Commission has noted: “since the introduction of the state of emergency, over 150,000 people were taken into custody, 78,000 were arrested and more than 110,000 civil servants were dismissed.” Indeed, the political roundups were wide-ranging, including more than 120 journalists and anyone suspected of being involved in what was credited as a Fethullah Gulen inspired coup attempt against Erdogan. Gulen remains in exile in the United States, which is refusing to extradite him, thus raising another source of tension between Ankara and Washington. Moreover, the results of the referendum appear to not only have boosted Erdogan’s powers but to have allowed nationalism to make a solid advance.
The sharp criticism from Brussels in the aftermath of the 2016 response to the coup raises questions over Turkey’s planned accession to the European Union. The European Commission’s 2018 annual report on Turkey’s progress towards EU membership said Ankara’s “broad,” “collective” and “disproportionate” crackdown after the failed coup attempt continued to raise “serious concerns.”
Turkey initiated accession talks with the EU in 2005, 18 years after first applying. While a series of factors slowed negotiations previously, notably the Cyprus issue and resistance in Germany and France to Turkish membership, since 2016 membership talks have all but collapsed. The European Commission’s report also notes the new low point in EU-Turkey relations after the promise of Turkish political and economic reforms a decade earlier have not been enacted. Moreover, hopes for an EU-Turkey free-trade deal and visa-free travel for Turks to the European Union look as remote as they have ever been.
Not mincing his words, the European Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who oversees EU membership bids, said: “Turkey continues to take huge strides away from the EU, in particular in the areas of rule of law and fundamental rights.” At the same time, Turkey makes it known that it has not lost its desire to join the European Union. In 2018, a Turkish government spokesman, Bekir Bozdag, said: “Turkey isn’t the one moving away from the European Union. The side that is not objective and is, unfortunately, biased and unfair, is the EU.”
Besides Syria, where Erdogan wishes to boost his credentials and “desire for peace,” an array of other tensions with the West in the Middle East remain. Most recently, Turkey has condemned the US decision to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Erdogan played the populist pro-Palestinian card in his condemnations, both at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and then at the United Nations. Erdogan also made his concerns known in the Netherlands and Germany during Turkey’s 2018 election, tapping into the diaspora communities in a dynamic and nationalistic way to help secure his victory at home. At the same time, the Syrian intervention remains heavily focused on curbing and containing the Kurds. In many respects, the electoral victory of Erdogan, the response to the attempted coup and the power grab in the referendum, provide a clear indication that his rule in Turkey will be firmer and more autocratic as it seeks to expand its areas of influence in a more decisive way.
Bruno Mascitelli is a professor of international studies at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. Before joining the university, he worked for the Australian government in the Australian Consulate in Milan for more than 17 years and upon returning to Australia he joined the US Consulate in Melbourne. His main areas of teaching and research include international business, migration, European studies and Italian political economy.
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