Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has not hidden his aspirations. The powerful president of Turkey is willing to do everything possible to cement his position and eliminate any opposition. He has proven to be a ruthless tyrant par excellence.
Identifying his domestic enemies, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has publicly drawn the battle line in recent months. The imprisonment of editors of the left-of-centre daily Cumhuriyet and lawmakers of the left-wing Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP) sent a message to all anti-Erdoğan powers in the country. ‘Erdoğan has long-standing grievances against both Cumhuriyet and the HDP,’ comments Elliot Ackerman, a writer for The New Yorker. He points to an incident in late 2014 that fuelled Erdoğan’s hatred for Cumhuriyet. ‘After Turkish border gendarmes unwittingly stopped Turkish intelligence agents from crossing the border into Syria with an arms shipment, Cumhuriyet broke the story, broadcasting video of the incident on its web site,’ Ackerman explains.
As a consequence, Erdoğan could not support pro-Islamist rebels inside Syria, which undermined Turkey’s influence in the Syrian Civil War for a brief period. A few months later, his Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) performed poorly in the national elections. For the first time since coming into power in 2002, the AKP fell short of a governing majority. Meanwhile, the HDP gained influence, as many Turks voted for it as a way to display their protest against Erdoğan’s political rampancy.
The AKP retook its majority in the November 2015 election, though the HDP has established itself as the most credible opposition party which makes the recent arrests so devastating for Turkey’s entire opposition. With sense of foreboding, Selahattin Demirtaş, chairman of HDP, criticised how Erdoğan used the state of emergency imposed in the wake of the failed July 15 coup d’état. ‘The government said that the state of emergency will only be aimed at the coup plotters. If the authorities start to ban speeches, demonstrations, or opposition media under cover of any operation against the putschists … we will understand that the use of the state of emergency is being abused,’ Demirtaş said.
One of Erdoğan’s goals is a constitutional referendum to create a presidential system granting him extensive executive privileges. His party, however, is 50 seats short of the necessary two-thirds majority in parliament to pass a constitutional amendment. The HDP’s 59 parliament seats are now in limbo given the imprisonment of several party leaders. The remaining non-AKP lawmakers can choose between dismissing Erdoğan’s plans and most likely accepting the same fate as the HDP, or agreeing to lift Erdoğan onto a sultan throne.
In fact, Erdoğan seeks the support of the 40 members of parliament from the nationalist Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (MHP) which is pushing the Turkish president to crack down on the main Kurdish organisations as well as the related Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK). When Erdoğan sought to find a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish question through negotiations with the PKK, from summer 2009 to summer 2015, he was condemned by MHP and its leader Devlet Bahçeli. But after the peace process ended and as Bahçeli faced an intra-party challenge, he allied himself with Erdoğan.
This means that the Turkish president could come very close to ratifying a new constitution and that the entire Turkish ‘right’, including Islamists, conservatives and nationalists, are behind him. This new grand ‘national front’ elevates Erdoğan to a new level of popularity he has never enjoyed before. A new survey by the polling firm Genar suggests that more than 60 per cent of the electorate supports him.
‘For the next six months we can expect to see a strongman, right-wing and nationalist programme from Erdoğan,’ Soner Çağaptay, director of the Turkey Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told AFP. The constitutional change would mean Erdoğan ‘would be crowned head of state, head of government and head of the ruling party’.
The likes of Cumhuriyet and HDP have to pay for being on the forefront of the anti-Erdoğan opposition. They are the most prominent victims, but by far are not the only ones. As part of the state of emergency, which will last at least until mid-January 2017, Erdoğan is able to unilaterally issue decrees. So far, he has shut down about 200 media companies, hundreds of organisations and clubs. Thousands of journalists and academics are in jail. Over 100,000 public officers have been either fired or arrested. Their names are always publicised as a form of public shaming.
Erdoğan wants to assume a position that surpasses Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s and burn down the pillars once built by the founding father of the Republic of Turkey. ‘Erdoğan, vows to build a ‘New Turkey’, bravely standing up to coup-plotters and their imaginary Western enablers,’ writes The Economist. His current rhetoric, including accusations of ties between journalists and terrorist groups, is intended to justify the excessive actions against alleged ‘enemies of the state’.
Initially, the promise of stability was the foundation for Erdoğan’s success. He still holds on to that promise, even though the year 2016 seems to be reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s, when Turkey suffered two military coup d’états and descended in total chaos for the most part. ‘There are of course differences between the 1970s and today,’ writes Mustafa Akyol. ‘In the past, communism was the main enemy of the National Front, while today, it is a broader spectrum of foes, including the Gulenists, leftists, liberals, the PKK and its regional affiliates, and the Western powers allegedly using all these groups as ‘pawns’ to weaken or even destroy Turkey.’
Erdoğan’s actions in the aftermath of the failed 15 July coup d’état have hurt Turkey’s intellectual core and forced a war against groups and milieus that are not willing to support him. But this policy has also led him to a new height of popularity, which makes any change of course in the near future highly unlikely.