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Erdogan's lust for power is destroying Turkey's democracy

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Wednesday, 1 February 2017


This is the first in a series of articles based in part on eyewitness accounts about the rapidly deteriorating socio-political conditions in Turkey and what the future may hold for the country.

During the past few months I interviewed scores of Turkish citizens who escaped from Turkey following the unsuccessful military coup, fearing for their lives. Many of them left their families behind, terrified of what to expect next. Although it has the potential of becoming a major player on the global stage, Turkey's brilliant prospects are being squandered because of President Erdogan's insatiable lust for power. He has used an iron fist to take whatever measure, however corrupt, to manipulate the rules and undermine the basic tenets of Turkey's democracy-freedom and human rights.

I have been puzzled for some time as to why Erdogan decided a few years ago to go on a rampage to systematically reverse the huge social, political, and judiciary progress he himself successfully championed. Had he guarded these reforms and protected human rights, he would have realized his dream of rising to the stature of Turkey's revered founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

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He has been serving first as prime minister and now president for 15 years. Nevertheless, his hunger for absolute power seems to have no limits, prompting him to take extraordinary and systematic measures to neutralize any source that challenges him, including the judiciary, press, opposition parties, military, and academia. He uses scare tactics to silence his detractors, and provides economic assistance and other incentives to his cronies to ensure their continuing support while playing his political opponents against one another to reap every ounce of advantage. Most recently, he pressed the parliament to amend the constitution to codify his dictatorial powers, which will allow him to serve two more terms ending in 2029.

Following the unsuccessful June 2016 coup, 3,228 prosecutors in the civil and administrative jurisdiction (including 518 judges) were relocated, reshuffled, or demoted from their positions. Furthermore, 88,000 policemen, journalists, educators, and other officials have been detained, and 43,000 arrested. In July 2016, the parliament approved a bill allowing Erdogan to appoint a quarter of the judges at the Council of State, and new judicial appointments will be carried out by the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), which is under the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry and by extension his own control.

Many attorneys were charged with belonging to the Gulen movement, which is deemed to be the sworn enemy of Erdogan, either through direct association or by having the most tenuous of ties. A lawyer who had an 18-year career in Kayseri had to flee Turkey because he and his law partners were representing schools connected to the Gulen movement. Due to that association, they were deemed suspicious by state authorities, despite the fact that the lawyers themselves were unaffiliated in any way with Gulen. Scores of lawyers were arrested and labeled as Gulenist just for having a common encrypted messaging app (i.e. WhatsApp) on their phones.

For Erdogan, the coup attempt was a "gift from God" that gave him the license to purge any individual or organization perceived to be his foe, particularly when his popularity was waning.

The thousands of officials who were arbitrarily removed have not been replaced, leading to obstructions in the legal process. Moreover, attorneys who have been arrested have been unable to obtain legal representation, as any potential lawyer would subsequently be accused of association with the Gulen movement, thus opposing the state itself.

Given the history of military coups, Erdogan decided to emasculate the military by discharging nearly 3,000 officers and issuing a decree that enabled his government to issue direct orders to the heads of all military branches over the head of the chief of the general staff. In addition, in August 2016 he appointed the deputy prime ministers and the ministers of justice, interior, and foreign affairs to participate in the Supreme Military Council (SMC), which decides on promotions of generals and other issues related to the Turkish military.

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Immediately following the military coup he enacted a state of emergency that allows the government to rule by decree and fire public employees at will. Security officials, terrorism suspects, and other alleged 'enemies of the state' can be detained for up to 30 days without charge, and the state is under no obligation to put them on trial. There are also allegations of torture and abuse of prisoners. In January 2017, the emergency law was extended again for three months.

To stifle his political opponents, in May 2016 he pressed the Turkish parliament to approve a bill stripping MPs of immunity from prosecution. This was widely perceived as an assault against minority Kurdish MPs who could be linked by the government to 'terror activities' and subjected to prosecution.

To codify the president's absolute powers, Erdogan moved (with the support of his AK party) to change the president from a primarily ceremonial role to the sole executive head of state, and eliminate the Prime Minister position. The new constitution will also give the president power to enact some laws by decree, appoint judges and ministers, create at least one vice-president post, and increase the number of MPs to 600 from 550. In addition, it lowers the minimum age for lawmakers from 25 to 18, which will secure the political support of the next generation.

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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All articles by Alon Ben-Meir

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