A scuffle broke out in Turkish Parliament last week as tensions escalated over a bill proposing major changes to the constitution. Faces went red, neck ties were yanked, a headlock applied, a nose broken, a leg bitten. A flower pot was also seen flying through the air.
The changes, if confirmed by referendum, would increase the powers vested in the head of state, enshrining Recep Tayyip Erdogan as an executive president in yet another step towards one-man rule. As Prime Minister between 2003 and 2014, he might’ve worn a blow — or, more likely, dished a few out — but as a non-parliamentary overlord he was left to comment via press conference. His judgement boomed from TV screens across the country — “very ugly” he said, describing Parliament as “incapable of working“, leaving out the words on many of our minds, for me.
First labelled the sick man of Europe in 1853, the then-Ottoman Empire did not collapse until the final months of World War I 65 years later. Six years ago, the Arab Spring rocked the Middle East while Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) were still riding high, still the darlings of West who led economic recovery and promised to marry Islam and democracy in a form palatable to Europe. Yet those who know Turkey well have always known Erdogan to be the man who once said “Democracy is like a train, you get off once you have reached your destination”. The executive presidency may well be that destination.
As revolt swept across North Africa and the Middle East in early 2011, Turkey watched on seemingly safe and secure. By mid-2013, Erdogan faced mass demonstrations across the nation as those who sensed his growing authoritarianism took to the streets. Had the Arab Spring spread to Turkey? Later that year, his government was embroiled in a massive corruption scandal. It didn’t stop him from pushing changes to make the office of president a popularly elected one, resigning from the prime ministership due to his own party’s term limits, and winning the presidential election with more than 51% of the vote.
It’s easy to cite the raw figures of Erdogan’s popularity and his party’s streak of electoral dominance as endorsements of his rule. Since 2015, it’s become even easier to cite a growing list of calamity. After the June 2015 elections, which left a hung parliament, Erdogan’s AKP under the prime ministership of Ahmet Davutoglu dismissed the idea of building a coalition and instead embarked on a huge military campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the country’s south east. The result had two dimensions: resounding electoral victory in the follow-up November 2015 elections; and a wave of terror and crisis unmatched in the republic’s history.
The list of major terror attacks has become so long that people in major cities now seem either paralysed or numbed to the threat. In cities that pulse like Istanbul, life always seemed to go on unimpeded yet there is a fear for the future and a sense of impending doom now. This is a country that has misplayed its hand in Syria, is in essentially a civil war in the east against the PKK (and losing conscripts every week), has a massive humanitarian responsibility on its hands with Syrian refugees, and is recovering from a bungled yet devastating coup attempt and the subsequent purge. Depending on which side of the fence you’re on, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is either the cause or the solution.
With every crisis, there’s always the ready-made conspiracy. The US under Obama and Europe, of course, are at the heart of most. They are meant to be our allies, it is said, but they aid the Kurds. The US harbours Fethullah Gulen, the cleric who allegedly inspired the coup attempt. For Erdogan and his government, who have already pivoted away from Europe and toward Russia, a President Trump provides fresh, if fleeting, hope. And while political crises have dominated the headlines, it is the state of the economy now that forced it’s way onto the front pages and, as always, threatens to ultimately hurl the nation into chaos.
More than any other measure, be it growth or interest rates, ordinary Turks look to foreign exchange rates as the barometer of the local economy. To their dismay, the Turkish Lira shed 17% of its value against the US dollar last year and the slide has accelerated at an astonishing pace in 2017, down 12% already. Erdogan, tastelessly in the wake of the Reina nightclub shooting, which claimed 39 lives, blames nefarious foreign forces who are trying to bring Turkey “to its knees”:
“There is no difference, where aims are concerned, between a terrorist with a gun and bomb in his hand and a terrorist who has dollars, euros and interest rates.”
He claims that Turks are in the midst of a second War of Independence, and called on his fellow citizens to convert the US dollars they’ve got stashed at home in shoe boxes into liras. If you have a sense of his deity-like status for many Turks, you wouldn’t be surprised that they did answer his call, and in droves. Yet these rearguard actions will do little to address the scepticism toward Erdogan’s power play, as well as the underlying structural issues that dog Turkey now that political instability has undermined foreign investment. But how do you make such changes in a climate of crisis, when your government appears to have lost any zeal for reform other than to put ultimate faith in one-man rule?
Perhaps the most saddening recent development in Turkey is the evidence of growing rifts in society. Amid inflammatory rhetoric and tacit approval, the government played it’s part in fanning the flames of intolerance. When a group of people were bashed by a gang wielding bats for drinking and listening to music inside a record shop during Ramadan, Erdogan said both parties were in the wrong. When asked about the shape of the new constitution the Speaker of Parliament Ismail Kahraman was quoted as saying secularism “must be removed”. And prior to the festive season, the Directorate of Religious Affairs instructed mosques to declare New Year’s celebrations as “illegitimate”. In response, banners were hoisted depicting a pious Muslim vigilante punching out Santa Claus. Then, of course, came the Reina nightclub attack.
It is being said in Turkey that the best they can hope for now is perpetual crisis. Self-inflicted blows choke democracy. The Erdogan government is doing it’s best to become a regime — and a future peaceful transition of power, whenever that might be, is looking increasingly less likely. The fear is that Turkey will be the next domino, after Syria, and something catastrophic might happen, something with the potential to ignite a larger conflict. Trump, of course, looms as the wildcard.
*Ender Baskan is currently writing a novel set in Turkey