A united opposition, two decades of anti-incumbency, and an all time-high inflationary pressure on the economy, fell short of ousting Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in a high-stake national election.
Turkey’s Presidential election set the nation’s bodacious leader towards a third decade of power. The lira is dropping, inflation spiralling, economy debilitating and amidst the perturbation, the bogeyman orchestrator is blooming with a third presidential term in hand. For two decades, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been at helm of Turkey or Türkiye – both as Prime Minister (2004-14) and President (2014-Present). Being in power for two decades, as in most cases, is somewhat linked to or spawns authoritarianism in any nation’s leader. Erdoğan is no exception. In fact, Erdoğan is slick in the game of keeping his hand on power.
In 2017, the Turkish President called on the exigency of a political reform that would transform the then Turkey from a parliamentary system to a more centralised presidential one. In the same year, the Turkish public approved of the reform by voting in a referendum – by 51.4% to 48.6%. The 95 year old parliamentary system was to be replaced by the presidential one after the national elections scheduled in 2019. However, due to the prospects of an economic recession, Erdoğan decided to call the national elections 16
months ahead of schedule in July 2018. Erdoğan’s political prudence yielded him a second presidential term as Turkey headed into a new and consolidated political direction.
Ostensibly, the transformation was advocated by Erdoğan as the previous system had become “cumbersome and feeble, lacking the speed and flexibility required to response to rapid developments domestically and globally”. In other words, Erdoğan decided to push the accelerator on spontaneous and powerful decision making while braking democratic processes and virtues. The reform ceded virtually all power to the Presidency – to Erdoğan. Institutions with decades of experience in administration and management were replaced by cherry-picked loyal bureaucrats to Erdoğan. Turkey was now a state whose destiny depended on the whims of one man – Erdoğan.
If Erdoğan can change the whole political system of the country then he is very well capable of curbing basic rights of citizens, especially, journalists, writers and other thinkers. Since coming to power in 2002, Erdoğan’s AKP or the Justice and Development Party has tightened the government’s control on university and research councils. “The one-man way of ruling has permeated into all universities, even the most progressive ones,” says Canan Atılgan, a biophysicist at Sabancı University in Istanbul.
In recent years, Erdoğan’s regime took an anti-West stance and shifted from its secular roots towards conservatism. This was a reflection of domestic political developments, where Erdoğan built alliances with conservative Muslim parties to remain in power. He, like most Turks, harbors deep and justified resentment of American and European treatment over the past twenty years. But unlike many Turks, Erdogan is more anti than pro-western in cultural and emotional terms.
Türkiye’s relationship with the US hit a slump after it sanctioned Türkiye under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act) for “knowingly engaging in a significant transaction with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s main arms export entity, by procuring the S-400 surface-to-air missile system”. Since 2018, when the Council of European Union concluded that Türkiye does not par with the Copenhagen Criteria for joining the EU, talks on the subject have been at a standstill. The relationship between the EU and Türkiye further nosedived in 2019, when the Council of EU decided not to hold any EU-Türkiye Association Council meetings due to the latter’s ongoing tensions with the Republic of Cyprus and Greece. Greek-Turkish tensions have historical roots but currently hinge on sovereignty granted to the Greek Aegean islands by international agreements between 1914 and 1948, and the 1960 London-Zurich Accords establishing Cyprus’ independence. To add to the Erdoğan blitzkrieg, Türkiye chose to leave the Istanbul Convention countering domestic violence and has frequently not honoured the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.
Erdoğan’s incorrigibility for not condemning Putin’s war on Ukraine and blocking Sweden’s accession to NATO – are all parts of the same puzzle.
While the re-election of Erdoğan is bad tidings for the West, it is a dreaded threat to the people of Türkiye, especially the Kurds who make up a fifth of the population. Like any other authoritarian leader, Erdoğan aligns his authority with the so-called “nationalistic interests”. One of them being – combating terrorism. And for Erdoğan, political outfits advocating the rights of the Kurdish people are “siding with terrorists”. Hence, an unambiguous but intended proxy war against the Kurdish people is in the national interests of Erdoğan’s Türkiye.
For those Turkish nationals not Kurds, a 44% inflation and the plunge of the lira against the dollar are still there to entertain.
The torment borne by the Turkish people, today, can be substantiated by the journey of their leader to the Presidential Complex in Ankara. The President was born in a humble family and grew up selling lemonade. He attended an Islamic school before obtaining a degree in management from Istanbul’s Marmara University – and playing professional football. His education resonates with the contemporary conservative and pseudo-Islamic policies being pursued by the administration. Erdoğan embarked his political career by joining the Islamic Welfare Party in the 1980s, therefore, Islamic conservatism is fundamental to Erdoğan’s political acumen. As the Islamic Welfare Party’s popularity grew in the 1990s, Erdoğan got elected as Istanbul’s Mayor in 1994 and was at the helm of the city for the next four years. Istanbul being a city of religious, cultural and economic significance to the Turks, gave Erdoğan a national political recognition. However, it was not his work as Mayor but the racist and communally inflammatory remarks that got him the leeway to potentially lead the nation. The story of Erdoğan’s rise in national politics justifies his current capricious and irrational leadership demeanour.
Mayor Erdoğan experienced a bitter ending to his mayoral term. He was convicted of inciting racial hatred for publicly reading a nationalist poem that included the lines: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.”After serving four months in jail, he returned to politics. But his party had been banned for violating the strict secular principles of the modern Turkish state.
August 2001 witnessed the emergence of the ‘brand’ – Erdoğan. This was after he launched his own, Islamic-rooted, political party – the Justice and Development Party or the AKP. Since its inception, Erdoğan has been the Chairman of the AKP. Contrary to its name, the AKP veritably propounded the Islamic Conservative ideology of Erdoğan as the ideal political model for the Turkish state. This is now evident from the introduction of mosques in government buildings and the alignment of the administration’s policies with the Islamic law.
In the 2002 Parliamentary Elections, the AKP won majority, however, Erdoğan was unable to become Prime Minister due to the then ongoing ban on him by the Judiciary. Instead the AKP’s Abdullah Gül, also the Party’s co-founder, became Prime Minister. In December 2002, the Supreme Election Board cancelled the general election results from Siirt due to voting irregularities and scheduled a new election for 9 February 2003. By this time, party
leader Erdoğan was able to run for parliament. The AKP duly listed Erdoğan as a candidate for the rescheduled election, which he won, becoming Prime Minister after Gül handed over the post.
Prime Minister Erdoğan inherited an economy recovering from recession. Unequivocally, the first decade of Erdoğan was a period of steady economic growth and he won praise internationally as a reformer. The middle class expanded and millions were taken out of poverty, as Erdoğan prioritised giant infrastructure projects to modernise Turkey.
Erdoğan’s government eased regulations to attract greater foreign investment. The cash- flow into the Turkish economy between 2002 and 2012 caused a growth of 64% in real GDP and a 43% increase in GDP per capita; considerably higher numbers were commonly advertised but these did not account for the inflation of the US dollar between 2002 and 2012. A major consequence of the policies between 2002 and 2012 was the widening of the current account deficit from US$600 million to US$58 billion.
Erdoğan inherited a debt of $23.5 billion to the IMF, which was reduced to $0.9 billion in 2012. Turkey’s debt to the IMF was thus declared to be completely paid and he announced that the IMF could borrow from Turkey. In 2002, the Turkish Central Bank had $26.5 billion in reserves. This amount reached $92.2 billion in 2011. During Erdoğan’s leadership, inflation fell from 32% to 9.0% in 2004. Since then, Turkish inflation has continued to fluctuate around 9% and is still one of the highest inflation rates in the world. While the economic spur of 2002-12 was initiated by the reforms implemented by Kemal Derviş of the previous administration. There is no denying Erdoğan’s role in enhancing the boost significantly and adopting longer-term lucrative policies.
In 2003, Erdoğan’s government pushed through the Labour Act, a comprehensive reform of Turkey’s labor laws. The law greatly expanded the rights of employees, establishing a 45-hour workweek and limiting overtime work to 270 hours a year, providing legal protection against discrimination.
Under Erdoğan’s government, the number of airports in Turkey increased from 26 to 50 in the period of 10 years. For the first time in Turkish history, high speed railway lines were constructed, and the country’s high-speed train service began in 2009. Other infrastructural marvels of the Erdoğan regime include the Marmaray, an undersea rail tunnel and the Bosphorous Strait.
Erdoğan’s success in administration and fostering overall development were duly reflected in the election results of 2007 and 2011, where the AKP won with an increment in voting percentage each time. Hence making Erdoğan the only prime minister in Türkiye’s history to win three consecutive general elections, each time receiving more votes than the previous election.
Erdoğan’s first decade in power was not an all-fairy tale, it was aptly objurgated as an increasingly authoritarian one. On 14 April 2007, an estimated 300,000 people marched in Ankara to protest against the possible candidacy of Erdoğan in the 2007 presidential election, afraid that if elected as president, he would alter the secular nature of the Turkish state. On 14 March 2008, Turkey’s Chief Prosecutor asked the country’s Constitutional Court to ban Erdoğan’s governing party. The party escaped a ban on 30 July 2008, a year after winning 46.7% of the vote in national elections, although judges did cut the party’s public funding by 50%. The government’s accountability was further degenerated by a US$100 billion corruption scandal in 2013 that led to the arrests of Erdoğan’s close allies, and incriminated Erdoğan.
As Prime Minister, Erdoğan stroke a balance between the significant scale of overall development and the authoritarian identity that the ruling administration attached with itself in its process. Nevertheless, things were getting done or getting better in Türkiye, until they weren’t as Mr. Erdoğan expedited his ambitions, survived a coup, introduced constitutional reforms, and became President. 2014 onwards, Türkiye slid towards the one- upmanship of President Erdoğan.
Erdoğan took oath as President on 1 July 2014 and thereafter administered oath to the Prime Minister, whom the opposition alleged to be docile. It wasn’t the opposition alone that signalled the trifling of the powers of the Prime Minister but Erdoğan himself made clear his intentions to use extraordinary Presidential power and exercise greater control. This, however remained unofficial till 2017, when President Erdoğan finally enshrined his power through a constitutional reform.
In 2023, after defeating the combined opposition candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, in a runoff election, Erdoğan was elected President for the third time. While Erdoğan’s three consecutive wins as Prime Minister were largely credited to his developmental efforts, it is the absolute inverse for his three time streak as President, which is now being speculated as biased, unjust and jeopardising for democracy in Türkiye.
Erdoğan’s domineering has also imperilled freedom of the press and media in Türkiye. In 2016, a popular newspaper, Zaman, was seized by the Turkish authorities. The move led to European Member of Parliament, Kati Piri, commenting that “freedom of expression and Independence of Judiciary has been regressing under the Erdoğan regime”. Erdogan had a different version of the same statement; the President said that he considered himself “successful” in destroying Turkish civil groups that worked against the state. Overall, under Erdoğan, 200 plus journalists have been arrested and a staggering 120 media outlets have been shut. The number of journalists jailed in Türkiye is higher than that of Cuba, Russia, North Korea or even China. Social media giants as Netflix, Twitter and Wikipedia too have faced the wrath of Erdoğan with the latter being banned for over two-and-a-half years.
The years of 2016 until 2018 were lost in darkness and bleakness for the nation of Türkiye. These years, in the aftermath of the attempted a coup against Erdoğan, witnessed the nation of 85.2 million people live in a ‘State of Emergency’ with one man terrorising the media, thinkers, business persons and other prominent individuals for the sake of his power.
The Turkish government has also discreetly sponsored legislations that would restrict Türkiye’s legislature from investigating Erdoğan‘s executive branch of government. To silence his critics, Erdoğan follows a simple methodology, first term them as the “darkest of all people”, second coerce their institutions or organisations, third round them up and fourth and the final – declare victory.
It is hard to believe that the President has won two more elections under the circumstances he has pushed Türkiye in. Development has taken a back seat and Erdoğan‘s whims are what govern Türkiye. Hence, the suspicion over the efficiency of Türkiye’s democratic processes and the way they are being moulded at convenience of the President. A seasoned politician, Erdoğan knows how to influence the air of elections through his district political manoeuvres. However, the discontent against his administration and the mammoth anti-incumbency are too big for any of Erdoğan‘s manoeuvres but one – rigged elections.
The 2023 elections have put Türkiye‘s democracy at the end of the rope and five more years of Erdoğan can only push it off the cliff. Now is the time for all those being suppressed by Erdoğan to rise above his terror and the Turkish citizens to commit themselves to democracy, freedom and their rights.
The longer Erdoğan stays, the more paralysing venom will be injected into Türkiye‘s democratic processes. The more the rights of the Turkish people will be curbed and their freedom restricted.