August 19, 2016

The Road Ahead For Turkey Under Erdogan

Oichi Ghosh

As Turkey completes a month since its failed military coup, a series of events have unfolded under the leadership of its President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, bringing him under intense scrutiny. The incidents have also raised serious doubts over the path that Turkey is headed on in coming years if it remains in the hands of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). One thing that is very clear is that Turkey no longer functions as a liberal and democratic model that it had once claimed to be. It has veered towards a more authoritarian route under Erdogan, which is guaranteed to cause a major setback to the country.

A Troubled History

This is not the first time that the country witnessed a coup. Although unsuccessful, the coup brought attention to the dire state of the country under AKP. The most surprising reaction to the coup came from Erdogan himself. He ordered a major crackdown, targeting nearly 50,000 members of the defence, civilians as well as journalists, aiming to cleanse the system of those against his rule. As erratic as his allegations seemed after the coup, his actions were deemed suspicious by analysts worldwide.

The Big Purge

Erdogan actions post-coup directed specifically towards members of the defense, judiciary and media outlets did not arise as a result of the coup as it appears to be, they had long been a part of his reign. Post-coup, reports suggested that as many as 130 media outlets had been shut as Erdogan claimed that they bore a link to the coup of July 2016. In reality, Turkish media houses have not enjoyed much freedom in the past either. Any news agency that has ever released anything that even remotely questioned Erdogan’s policies or initiatives had been seized and turned into a pro-Erdogan outlet. One of the most controversial cases was that of Zaman, one of Turkey’s largest newspapers. In March 2016, about three months before the coup, the police took over its office and destroyed its archives and, in a matter of days, the agency’s website had mysteriously turned pro-Erdogan’ like many of its peers which had previously criticized AKP’s rule in Turkey.

Freedom House has stated the Turkish media has been exploited by the ruling government and has not enjoyed a free status in the past few years. Where its citizens are denied basic rights to information on political and economic policies, Erdogan boldly claimed that the coup was a threat to his “democratically elected government.” Similarly, the purge against members of the judiciary and defense are not a recent feature of Turkish politics either.

The Exiled Cleric

Erdogan was quick to accuse his former ally, US-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, of having used his influence in the military to initiate the coup. Gulen defended himself by claiming that Erdogan may have staged the coup himself, to fulfil some of his long-planned agendas. This could be difficult to dismiss as a mere conspiracy theory as the only one that has seemed to benefit from the entire situation was indeed Erdogan.

First, Gulen has been a vocal critic of the practices of the Erdogan’s regime in the past few years. Anyone familiar with the Turkish political situation knows that its President is not one to take kindly to criticism in any form. Blaming the coup on Gulen could have been the most convenient way of having the cleric extradited and brought back under Erdogan’s control. Many are familiar with the collapse of their alliance back in 2013, after which Gulen’s organisations were branded as a threat to Turkish security and democracy. While American authorities have not yet given in to this demand, Erdogan had multiple arrest warrants issued against the cleric, all of which have been rejected so far.

After ending his alliance with Gulen in 2013, Erdogan had a number of journalists and security officials detained in December 2014, alleging that they were acting as a part of Gulen’s movement to infiltrate his government. Despite being criticised by the international media, he repeated this rhetoric time and again to defend his actions. Some have claimed that it was a tactical move to secure support after his presidential election in August 2014. Ever since he came to power, Erdogan has been systematically eradicating organisations and people that challenge his authority. One of his most important agendas seems to be changing the parliamentary form of governance in Turkey to a presidential one. This move is certain to ensure that he can exert an enormous amount of influence and also prolong his tenure. The coup was merely a way to silence his critics in the West and allow him to continue with the crackdown on a much wider scale which was already underway way before July 2016.

The Rise And Rise Of Erdogan

Ever since he came to power as the nation’s Prime Minister in 2002, Erdogan has slowly been seizing power from the military, thereby limiting the extent of the body’s jurisdiction and influence in mainstream politics. The military had long seen themselves as proponents of the secular Kemalist ideology which differed fundamentally from Erdogan’s Islamist ideology. Erdogan’s crackdown resulted in the dismissal of nearly 1,700 military personnel with alleged ties to Gulen’s organisation. While this was the expected course of action, it also came with reports of illegal detentions and human rights abuses as part of the purge. A report by Amnesty International claims that as many as 15,000 people accused of participating in the coup have been illegally detained and are subjected to brutal treatment. Illegal detentions have long existed in Erdogan’s tenure as both Prime Minister and President.

Tensions With The West

The incident has shed light on the dissatisfaction among the Turkish majority with the West, who are perceived to be fairly indifferent towards the coup. There is certainly some tension in political circles regarding Fethullah Gulen’s absence from Turkey and the extent of his influence through his schools and institutions. Erdogan clearly seems to be determined to secure domestic support having made some very bold promises to the Turkish people. The central bank has promised an environment of “limitless liquidity” at a time when the inflation rate throughout the year has spiked higher than its 5% target. The foreign exchange market has been in doldrums ever since the coup, with the lira crossing the 3.00 threshold against the dollar. One of the hardest hit sectors is the tourism industry which accounts for over 13% of the country’s GDP. Further adding to its financial hardship, Standard & Poor’s downgraded Turkey’s credit rating rendering government debt below investment grade. A three-month long state of emergency may seriously aggravate the situation further causing irrevocable damage to one of the prime emerging markets of the decade.

What About Foreign Policy?

The coup also brought forth about some significant questions regarding the course of Turkish foreign policy in the future. A significant concern among Erdogan’s foreign allies is the extent of his willingness to strengthen domestic support even risking crucial bilateral ties with his Western allies. Ever since the coup he had been urging American authorities to deport Gulen back to Turkey even accusing them of being non-cooperative. Following the refusal of this demand, Turkish authorities shut off the power supply to Incirlik, a strategic air base located in Turkey. It is also one of NATO’s most important defence bases in the Middle East, used to carry out American airstrikes against ISIS.

After this move, the US was forced to look for alternatives to continue its operations in the Middle East and questioned Erdogan’s reliability as a NATO ally. Many also read this move as Erdogan’s warning to the West: either comply with his demand or face the consequences. It is not unlikely that Turkey may end up being isolated by the West and even risk its NATO membership in the process. After Russian authorities strongly condemned the coup, Turkey’s prime minister openly declared appreciation for their support thus signalling that the country might be in the process of mending bilateral relations with Russia. Further, the reintroduction of the death penalty for those charged with treason during the coup could severely affect the possibility of an EU membership for Turkey, something it has long been lobbying for.

Time To Stop And Think?

A huge proportion of Erdogan’s popularity stems from the economic and political stability that he had managed to bring to Turkey when he first took office as the country’s prime minister. The AKP might want to reconsider their priorities if Turkey wants to maintain its status as a leading model among its fellow emerging market peers. While a military coup may have been problematic for Turkey, Erdogan’s autocratic ways do not appear to be a better alternative.

Published on Market Mogul, 18 August 2016, Thursday