The Rise of the Iron Will: Turkish President Erdoğan Expands His Authoritarian Rule

640px-Recep_Tayyip_Erdogan-WEF_Davos_2009-e1407863210136On Sunday, for the first time ever, more than 41 million voters in Turkey went to polling stations to elect their president by popular vote. Despite turnout being low, with some suspecting the holiday season might be the reason, ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan handily beat both of his rivals with 52 percent of the vote.

Surpassing the 50 percent threshold needed in order to cancel a runoff election on Aug. 24, Erdogan plans to rule the government through a loyal slew of bureaucrats and technocrats. This victory, suggesting more of a coronation than an election given that the result was predetermined quite some time ago, puts Erdogan one step closer to the executive presidency he has long coveted for Turkey, increasing his authoritarian rule.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP), founded and chaired by Erdogan, has already begun deliberations to select a new party chair and future prime minister. Erdogan, who has ridden a wave of religiously conservative support, is purportedly considering selecting Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu as warden prime minister in his place. Turkey’s 18th general election is scheduled to be held on June 13, 2015 to elect 550 new members of the Grand National Assembly. If Erdogan has his way, his “puppet,” along with other key cabinet members, will be in place for the next ten months, leading Turkey further away from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular ideals and democratic principles he imposed with the founding of the modern Turkish state.

Other candidates for his previous position include Erdogan’s deputy, Mehmet Ali Sahin and outgoing President Abdullah Gul. In his victory speech, Erdogan avoided thanking Gul for his service to the nation and designated a party congress that will elect a new party leader on August 27, one day before Gul’s tenure ends, making it impossible for the president to run. Gul could certainly resign and run for the party leadership, but Erdogan signaled that the next prime minister should also be the party leader. According to the Turkish constitution, a prime minister needs to hold a seat in the parliament — unfortunately for Gul, he doesn’t have one.

Many AKP members may shun nominating Davutoglu as a party leader because of his massive failures in Turkish foreign policy. On June 11, news spread across the country that 49 Turkish citizens had been taken hostage by the Islamic State (IS) from the Turkish consulate in Mosul sending chills across the nation. The hostages include diplomatic staff, special forces police, and two infant children. Monday marked the two month anniversary of the seizure of the consulate and abduction. While Erdogan’s AKP government has tried to prevent questioning of the government’s handling of the crisis by imposing a gag order, critics and worried families of the hostages are working hard to keep the issue on the national agenda.

One day before the attack and while the Islamic State was on the offensive, Davutoglu tried to assure the Turkish public, writing on his Twitter account that “there is nothing to be concerned over with regard to the safety of the diplomatic personnel in Turkey’s Mosul consulate.” The next day, the attack occurred, severely embarrassing Davutoglu amid allegations of Turkey supporting IS militants fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad by allowing the militants to come and go to Syria easily via their borders.

Just last week, more contradictory statements came from Turkish officials. The Foreign Minister said that there were no new developments on the situation of the hostages, contradicting remarks by Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz who claimed that the 49 hostages would be released soon. Hours later, Yilmaz made another statement saying that it is not right to set a date for the release of the hostages.

Opposition party members had repeatedly suggested that the Turkish government would obtain the release of the hostages — in cooperation with IS — one week before the presidential election for a boost at the polls. However, Sunday’s election came and went and still there has been no word about the hostages. Perhaps the hostages will miraculously be released immediately following the announcement that Davutoglu is the new party chair and prime minister in the coming weeks, giving him full credit for the negotiations. Only time will tell.

All this is not to detract attention from the growing crisis in Syria and the massive influx of 1.4 million refugees — including 500,000 school-aged children under the age of nine — that have made their way across Turkey’s border. Mounting public anger in southern Turkey with allegations of rising living costs, the undermining of Turkish businesses and pressure on an already stressed job market has led to escalating hostility towards displaced Syrian refugees. To date, over $2 billion in expenses have been incurred by Turkey for the Syrian refugee crisis. Around 200,000 Syrians are housed in refugee camps, but most live in cities and towns along the long border.

There has been much international praise for Turkey’s willingness to give refuge to Syrians under what Erdogan calls its “open door policy.” However, in cities like Gaziantep and Kilis, a provincial capital south of Gaziantep and a few kilometers from the Syrian border, many people say that they have to bear the economic and social cost of that policy. The tensions between the refugees who are now scattered across Turkey appears to be growing, and more violent incidents involving Syrians are being reported.

In one such incident last May, a group of people in a district in Ankara threw stones at and set fire to a building housing Syrian refugees. Still, while many in Turkey have witnessed unfortunate reactions to the increasing number of refugees, an overwhelming majority of Turks do not want to leave any Syrians in the hands of Assad since they believe that hosting them is a religious obligation.

There is no doubt that Erdogan stumbled in a big way when he supported an armed insurgency against the Syrian government, assuming that the opposition would succeed in fairly short order and a regime friendly to Turkey would soon sprout up in Damascus. Instead, Turkey has arrived in a supportive role in a war without end, providing refuge for 1.4 million people, some 67,000 of whom are now begging on street corners in Istanbul.

President-elect Erdogan presides over a corrupt administration and habitually acts with that of a dictatorial style, including interfering with the judiciary to protect his ability to entrench the law of himself and his followers. In his path to the presidency, Erdogan has worked tooth and nail to stifle dissent; he has placed the judiciary under the government’s tight control, endorsed laws to grant wide powers to the spy agency, intimidated journalists and restricted press freedom, removed prosecutors who had launched the corruption investigation against the ruling elite, and replaced troublesome members of the police and judiciary with incompetent but loyal substitutes.

Erdogan has repeatedly stressed that his government is determined to crush what he calls a “parallel structure” within the government — a scapegoat he has created in order to cover up the corruption allegations that implicated his son, ministers, pro-government businessmen, and chief of the state bank. He has often employed hateful rhetoric not only against sympathizers of the Gulen movement, but also other critics who are unhappy with the way he rules the country of 80 million people.

At his orders, the government has recently launched a sweeping operation against members of the police who participated in the corruption raids, and the prime minister vowed that the operation will continue. Observers fear that the probe will spill over into judiciary and media. The Turkish opposition describes the recent arrests as a “revenge operation” to silence anyone that rallies against the authorities.

Turkey’s new president has also proven himself quite capable in covering up his foreign policy gaffes. Critics at home and abroad now worry that his ascension to an executive presidency, coupled with his unassailable voting bloc in parliament, could very well mean that he will be able to continue to do whatever he wants. There lies the rise of what the Turks call the Saglam Irade — the Iron Will.

Laurie A. Watkins is a Partner at the Truman National Security Project and former Obama administration appointee assigned to the Pentagon. You can follow Laurie on Twitter at @laurieawatkins.

Image via foreignpolicyblogs.com

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