Turkey’s democracy is dying – but this brutal crackdown can’t last

Any lingering hopes that Erdoğan would return to the path of democracy have wilted. Instead he has solidified his power to push his political agenda.

A year after Turkey’s failed coup attempt, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime faces a dilemma: first it fears any kind of street-based movement. Erdoğan’s harsh response to the Gezi Park protests in 2013 or the protests that were brutally quashed in the Kurdish cities of south-east Turkey last year are examples. Yet with the president’s power built on a friend-or-foe dichotomy, he also needs a street-based legitimacy. Witness the weekend ceremonies marking the anniversary of 15 July in which he whipped up public support for punishing coup plotters with the death penalty and talked about “ripping the heads” off so-called traitors.

And as a result of disabling parliamentary opposition and governing by decree under a continuous state of emergency it is not possible for him to prevent oppositional street-based movements from erupting. Last week’s justice march led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, chair of the opposition Republicans People’s party, (CHP) which brought at least 1.5 million people for a final rally proves this point.

Erdoğan and his followers come from a tradition of political Islam that is often accused of seeking to impose sharia law by stealth. Beyond this, Erdoğan has given Turkey a worse record than China or Iran for jailing journalists and activists. Since July 2016 he has pursued a crackdown which has seen more than 50,000 people detained and nearly 170,000 people placed under investigation. It is fair now to say that democracy and its institutions in Turkey are dying by the day.

It also seems clear that the failed coup attempt has helped Erdoğan to solidify his power and use it to push his political agenda. He is entrenching it via the institutions of Islam, notably the mosques. The directorate of religious affairs has become an apparatus of Erdoğan’s political initiatives. Of course, mosques have been the carriers of rightwing politics in Turkey throughout history, but traditionally claimed to be supra-political and unbiased.

After last year’s events they no longer even pretend to be neutral. To underline this, look at some statistics on the Islamisation of the country: since Erdoğan came to power, thousands of new mosques have been built, including the one inside the compound of Erdoğan’s vast new presidential palace which is, incidentally, four times bigger than Versailles. Tens of thousands more students are attending religious schools than there were in 2002 when Erdoğan came to power, according to the Education and Science Workers’ Union of Turkey. In effect, Erdoğan is using Islamism for power.

But it wasn’t long ago that Turkey was seen as a model democratic state in the Islamic world. So, what has happened? Erdoğan started his political career as a traditional Islamist and rebranded himself a conservative democrat politician by founding the Justice and Development party, the AKP. For years, explaining Turkey’s democratic path seemed such an easy task. There was the persistence of an authoritarian tradition associated with Kemalism (the secularist founding ideology of the Turkish Republic led by Kemal Atatürk) which the military embodies. According to the mainstream liberal narrative on Turkey, all that was needed for Turkish democracy to flourish was the emergence of a force strong enough to curb the power of the military. Erdoğan seemed, to western liberal observers, to be the answer.

Furthermore, a common narrative claims that Turkish military top brass were strictly secular and that this led them to stage coups at various times. They spoke out against Erdoğan’s non-secular policies which prompted a political crisis in 2007. In 2010, a constitutional referendum gave Erdoğan’s government more control over the judicial system. Prosecutors were given extraordinary powers to prosecute secular high-ranking officers in the military. The Turkish military has not been secular in the same sense since then. A number of new officers who have filled vacant positions allegedly had ties with the Gulenist movement, now the number one suspects for the failed coup.

Any lingering hopes that Erdoğan would eventually return Turkey to the path of democracy have wilted following both the coup attempt and the referendum in April which allowed him to expand the executive power of the presidency. A French political scientist, Alain Rouquié, advances the term hegemonic democracy to describe regimes such as Erdoğan’s Turkey. He suggests these are not liberal democracies, because the rights of the minorities and the rule of law are not respected; but neither are they dictatorships as elections are held thus political alternation remains possible. Erdoğan once declared that democracy was “a vehicle, not a goal” implying that one could disembark at any point.

On the other hand he does not seem quite capable of transforming society to meet his political needs. In the recent referendum, Turkey’s relatively urban cities including Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir as well as the Kurdish south-east region, largely voted against his presidency. Although just 33% of those in the cities voted against, these cities contribute 64% of Turkey’s GDP and, in effect, sustain the economy. A poll by Ipsos for the Turkish affiliate of CNN International on the referendum result reveals that 87% of those who voted no consider the election process to have been unfair. And 77% of the yes voters think it was fair. Turkey, therefore, is split down the middle.

Meanwhile, the economy is deteriorating. Investment, tourism and the currency all continue to suffer. Foreign companies are reluctant to make long-term investments, uncertain how long Turkey will remain in a state of emergency. No wonder Bloomberg’s Misery Index, which combines countries’ 2017 inflation and unemployment outlooks, recently placed Turkey in fifth place, after Venezuela and Greece.

Thousands of educated Turks are seeking ways to flee and find another life in dignity and peace where they might secure the basic protection of law, citizenship, healthcare or social support. So what lies ahead for those citizens who remain? Turkey has always been a divided nation but the rise of Erdoğan since 2002 has fuelled polarisation in the country. Indeed he has turned polarisation – ethnic, sectarian and cultural – into a political strategy. The opposition seems weak and divided.

Moreover, Turkey has never had a truly free press. It has a long tradition of censorship, especially around the combustible politics of its religious and ethnic minorities.

On the other hand, Erdoğan’s crackdown has to be short-lived. He needs to show potential coup plotters that the cost of rebelling can be prohibitively high. Yet, plunging the country into a permanent state of suspicion, purges, economic uncertainty and military weakness is not in his interests either. The increasingly authoritarian president should know that the failed coup had underlying causes that will not go away by themselves.