Dispatch

Erdogan for the Win!

Erdogan for the Win!

ISTANBUL — A defining moment in Turkey’s presidential race came on July 26, when front-runner and current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan walked onto a soccer field and, in the course of 15 minutes, knocked three goals past a professional keeper.

The 25-year-old Volkan Babacan, a goalkeeper in one of Turkey’s top leagues, appeared rooted to the ground as the 60-year-old prime minister struck the ball past him to ecstatic commentary from television newscasters.

"[Erdogan’s] goals were amazing," the manager of Turkey’s national soccer team said admiringly in the wake of the exhibition match to mark the opening of a new soccer ground in Istanbul.

The spectacle served to remind Turkish voters, who will go to the polls on Aug. 10 to directly elect their president for the first time in Turkey’s history, that their premier was a semi-professional soccer player before entering politics. Echoing similarly improbable athletic feats by other strongman leaders, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, it also illustrated the growing fear that Turkey is becoming a country in thrall to one man, where politicians, public servants, businessmen, media — and even soccer teams — partake in a chorus of sycophantic adulation aimed at reinforcing his authority.

Recent surveys suggest Erdogan will continue to be as dominant in the political arena as he was on the soccer field, easily winning the coming election. A poll published on Aug. 7 by Konda Research suggested he would receive 57 percent of the vote, a landslide that would eliminate the need for a runoff.

Turkey’s presidency is mainly a ceremonial position. Erdogan has insisted on the campaign trail that he will not overstep the role’s constitutional powers, but members of his Justice and Development Party have fallen over themselves to make clear that he will remain, in effect, the leader. Addressing the European Turkish Democratic Union in Mannheim, Germany last month, Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci contended — in defiance of most legal experts — that the presidency already has "executive" powers and would take over the most important duties currently associated with the prime minister’s office, including chairing cabinet meetings.

"I’m saying this sentence publicly for the first time; from now on in Turkey the president, not the prime minister, will be the head of the cabinet," said Zeybekci. "Do you understand? Let there not be the tiniest hint of dissent."

A loyal placeholder will occupy the role of prime minister, allowing Erdogan to remain in effective control, in a manner similar to Dmitry Medvedev’s one-term puppet presidency for Vladimir Putin in Russia, according to Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. "For all practical purposes, he will be trying to be both president and prime minister," says Ulgen.

Subordinating the premiership to the presidency, Ulgen adds, "will do away with one of the residual checks and balances in the system."

Hitting the campaign trail last month, however, Erdogan set out an agenda that appeared radically at odds with the authoritarian image painted by his detractors. He released a lengthy "vision statement" on July 11, filled with pledges of democratization and reform. He renewed a vow to push for a new civilian constitution to replace the current charter, which was imposed by a military junta in 1982. Erdogan also wrote in the vision statement of expanding minority rights as part of a negotiated solution to end to Turkey’s 30-year Kurdish insurgency.

"We should adopt democracy, not as a political model, but as a culture dominating every field of our lives," the statement says.

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Such sentiments may have seemed credible when Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) first won power in 2002. Although Erdogan’s roots were in Islamist politics, his party won after embracing secularism and espousing a platform promoting European Union membership, economic liberalization, and human rights reforms. But today, many former allies won over by these pledges doubt that the AKP still intends to take Turkey in this direction.

Until recently, Suat Kiniklioglu, the director of the Center for Strategic Communication, an Ankara-based think tank, was among the AKP’s liberal allies. He was member of Parliament from the party between 2007 and 2011, and served on its executive committee until 2012. He broke with AKP the same year over concerns about their commitment to democracy. Now, he says, Erdogan is moving Turkey toward "an authoritarian state colored by Islamist values."

In Erdogan’s early years in power, Kiniklioglu says, the prime minister governed differently. Policy matters were more open to debate, and the prime minister was willing to compromise. He was much more constructive and very careful about forming an alliance with democrats, liberals and former center rightists," Kiniklioglu says. "He had his own values but he was always aware of the need to compromise and work within the system."

The change, Kiniklioglu believes, came after a 2010 constitutional referendum that allowed for the reordering of the top levels of the judiciary. Erdogan’s proposals passed with a resounding 58 percent of the vote. In reforming the trenchantly secularist top courts, Turks elected to remove the last firewall of the Kemalist state established in 1923. At the same time, the vote gave Erdogan’s political project an overwhelming show of public support. An even more dramatic shift occurred in May 2013, when Erdogan strongly supported the police as they crushed massive anti-government protests across the country, causing eight deaths.

When a corruption scandal rocked his government in the months after the protests, Erdogan adopted further authoritarian measures to quell dissent. He likened the corruption probes to a "coup attempt" by Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic preacher and former ally, and pushed through laws trimming judicial independence, broadening the powers of the domestic intelligence agency, and increasing Internet censorship.

Erdogan’s party has also tried to control the press, embarking on a long-term mission to syphon influential media and telecommunication companies toward AKP allies. Last year, Turkey’s Saving Deposit Insurance Fund seized broadcasters SkyTurk and Show TV, daily newspaper Aksam, and Digiturk, the country’s top cable TV provider. The stated reason was that their owner, Cukurova Holding — a conglomerate under whose ownership the media companies had often needled the government — owed the state over $450 million.  

Digiturk remains in state hands. SkyTurk and Aksam were sold to Ethem Sancak, a businessman close to the AKP. Under Sancak’s ownership the channels have taken on staunchly pro-government lines. Show TV was sold to Ciner Group, whose media holdings, though less-actively supportive of the AKP, also tend to avoid criticism of the government.

However such details are unlikely to trouble Erdogan’s conservative, mainly working-class voter base, which remains grateful for more than a decade of strong economic growth and a relentless program of infrastructure and healthcare development.

"We are now a nation who is admired and not a nation that looks at European cities and admires those places," Erdogan said at the opening ceremony of the country’s first high-speed train line last month, citing the "double-highways, high-speed rail lines, schools, universities, hospitals and dams" built under his government.

It’s probably a winning strategy for Erdogan and his party. "Voting behavior in Turkey is not determined by how democratic a leader is," says Dogan Akin, founder and editor-in-chief of T24, an independent news site. "Voting behavior is more affected by development and economic issues, and at the moment, [Turks] feel the government is fulfilling their daily needs."

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Erdogan’s all-but-certain victory in the presidential race, however, may present a fresh set of complications. Ulgen points out that as president — a position that is formally apolitical — he will no longer be able to openly campaign for the AKP in the parliamentary elections scheduled for next June. "He may try to stretch those limits, but we will see," says Ulgen.

Equally, economists predict that Turkey’s era of stellar economic growth, during which GDP expanded by an average of more than 5 percent a year for roughly a decade, is likely at an end. A recent study predicted that growth from 2015 to 2019 is likely to average 3.9 percent. Few believe that Turkey will achieve the government’s 2014 growth forecast of 4 percent, and last month the OECD issued a prediction of 3.3 percent. The most recent poor economic news came this week, when monthly figures showed inflation at 9.3 percent, higher than market expectations, and which helped stoke a drop in the value of the Turkish lira.

Perhaps more seriously, the internationally respected economic team that has overseen Turkey’s decade of growth is now fraying. Ali Babacan, deputy prime minister and economy czar, is due to resign next year. Rising lights include Yigit Bulut, Erdogan’s chief advisor, who inspires deep unease in international investors and economists, and is best known for his eccentric conspiracy theories, including one that the German airline Lufthansa provoked last summer’s mass protests.

The question going forward is whether the powerful apparatus of control Erdogan has fostered over the past decade will be able to weather any future storms of public disapproval, or rivals who may emerge from his own party.

"[Turkey] had never had such an authoritarian and powerful personality such as Erdogan, so this is all new to us," says Kiniklioglu. "He will certainly do everything to make sure that his authority will not erode."