While the Syrian crisis has been temporarily shelved through ‘cease-fire’, Erdogan’s own war for kingly political powers continues un-abated. Its latest manifestation came with Turkish state taking over Turkey’s top-selling newspaper Zaman, which in turn is famous for its affiliation with the Gülen movement—Erdogan’s chief rival in Turkey and the one that certainly has the potential to counter-act many of the power strides he has taken recently and in planning to take in the future, especially his drive for turning Turkey into a presidential system, or making it a true ‘house of Erdogan.’ Hence, an officially sponsored crack down on all important avenues of political opposition, including his opposition leader.
It is therefore not so surprising to find that since 2014, at least 1,845 criminal cases have been opened against Turks for insulting their ‘holy’ president. Among the victims are journalists, independent authors and politicians. This policy of shunning all opposition is explicitly aimed at mechanically transforming all opposition into support. How this is done is evident from the way daily Zaman’s outlook was radically changed after the takeover. “The constitution has been suspended”, the paper’s front page mournfully proclaimed on Saturday (March 5, 2016) morning. The next day, its first under new management, the cover featured a photo of a smiling Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president; a story about an upcoming Women’s Day reception at his $615m presidential palace; and news of the construction of a new bridge over the Bosporus strait. Overnight, a staunchly critical newspaper with the highest circulation in Turkey appeared to have become a government mouthpiece. Quite a remarkable transformation!
The cases being filed against those unwilling to unconditionally subscribe to the officially sponsored political narrative have become dominant way of dealing with opposition. Under the so-called ‘insult cases’, which are being filed in full accordance with the law—a law that had only rarely been enforced in Turkey before Erdogan became president in 2014, dozens of journalists have lost their jobs because of coverage considered critical of the government. Among the many such cases, two editors for the newspaper Cumhuriyet — Can Dundar and Erdem Gul — are facing the possibility of life in prison on espionage charges for reports that Turkey’s intelligence service had provided weapons to rebels in Syria. Although, Turkey’s highest court recently ordered the release of the two editors from pretrial detention, saying their rights had been violated, the case will move forward, and Mr. Erdogan, in his typically authoritarian and politically subversive style, said, “I don’t obey or respect the decision.”
By bullying the opposition, Erdogan is only trying to achieve what he has been unable to have through legitimate political means i.e., turning his rule and his country into a miniature ‘Ottoman Empire.’ This quest has seen massive rise in authoritarianism in Turkey. According to one report, since January 2016 only, prosecutors have placed more than 1,000 academics under investigation for petitioning the government to end armed operations against Kurdish insurgents in the south-eastern part of Turkey. Parliament has been asked to strip five leading members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) of their immunity. Scores of journalists have been sacked for criticising government policy. In January a local reporter was shot in the leg in Cizre, a southeastern town, by police while filming clashes that have since reduced parts of the city to rubble.
Ironically, all of this has occurred in the form of Erdogan’s advocacy of a grotesque concept of “absolute stability” rooted in ‘Turkish traditions.’ In his January 28 speech, he used the ‘absolute stability’ concept when he said that they wanted a constitution which is based on the Turkish traditions. Anybody familiar with the history of Turkey knows well that such concepts as democracy, separation of powers, the rule of law, human rights, equality and diversity are borrowed from the West and what is special of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire is tyranny and monopoly of power. If today Erdogan talks about return to the Turkish traditions, the outcome in the future would, ironically, be emergence of an authoritarian regime. And, it is the emergence of such a typical system that the evidences presented here indicate unambiguously.
The crackdown, insult cases and persecution tacitly exemplify the de facto existence of an authoritarian-cum-presidential form of government. As a matter of fact, it is Turkey’s president who has been turned into a ‘holy’ figure and it is his personality rather than the constitution or the system itself that is being placed on such high pedestal. It would not be wrong to contend that instead of evolving into a fully-fledged modern democracy, Turkey’s political system is falling a prey to personalized politics—a phenomenon that can typically be observed in many third world countries.
This is also evident from the way Erdogan has surrounded himself with certain ‘loyalists.’ It was during the December 2015 meeting of his party that large scale changes were made, including the replacement of 31 political figures out of 50 with those who he saw as being loyal to him, including his son-in-law who is now serving as the country’s minister of energy and natural resources.
All of this clearly indicates how Erdogan is concentrating political power in his own personality by snatching it from the system. This is a dangerous path that he is leading Turkey to. On the one hand, he is involved in a dirty war against Kurds in and outside Turkey, and on the other, he is riding a war-horse against his fellow Turks who do not agree to his political ambitions.
The latest bomb blasts in Turkey indicate that the war he had started last year is far from over. On the contrary, it is spreading and is, given the huge presence of Kurds in Turkey, likely to be fought on the streets of Turkey. An Erdogan-ish disaster is, therefore, in the making and what Turkey is likely to get out of this disaster is ‘absolute chaos’ rather than ‘absolute stability.’
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.