Erdogan’s tragedy

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von Hans Dembowski

Undermining Turkey’s democracy

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan is undermining his country’s democratic institutions. His zero-sum approach to politics is dangerous.

As Erdogan desired, a two thirds majority of Turkey’s parliament suspended the immunity of its members late last week. It is an open secret that the guiding idea is to put on trial politicians from the opposition. The main target is the HDP party. Diluting its presence in parliament would allow Erdogan to pass constitutional amendments that would further advance his personal power in Turkish politics. It reminds one of Adolf Hitler, whose final rise to power was based on declaring illegal all Communist members of the Reichstag.

Turkey is paying a terrible price. The legitimacy of its political system is being eroded, and violence is likely to escalate. The HDP has its roots in demands for Kurdish independence, but it has turned into a force of reconciliation, insisting on the enforcement of democratic principles to the benefit of all  citizens of Turkey, regardless of ethnic affiliation. Before Erdogan decided to re-escalate the conflict with the Kurdish militia PKK some months ago, the HDP acted as a pro-democracy, peace-building force.  

Erdogan is power hungry – as many top leaders are. Many heads of state and government would like to be able to enforce their will without having to deal with checks and balances. Checks and balances, however, serve a democratic purpose. They ensure that policies are assessed from different angles by different agents before and during implementation. Erdogan is undermining the institution of parliament. No legislature is credible once the representatives of more than 10 % of the electorate have been purged from it. He is also undermining the office of the prime minister. He forced out increasingly independent-minded Ahmet Dovotuglu and appointed Binali Yildirim, one of his yes-men.  

Erdogan’s role in Turkey’s recent development is tragic. For a long time, he actually promoted democracy. He started his party AKP as a more moderate outfit after leaving a hard-line Islamist organisation which he felt was too dogmatic and authoritarian to gain much public support. When he first came to power over a decade ago as prime minister, he contributed to building democratic institutions. He had no other choice.

Back then, his greatest challenge was Turkey’s “deep state”, a network of military leaders, judges and government bureaucrats. The deep state had been in control of policy-making for decades. When democratically elected governments did not do as the deep state wanted them to, the military would topple them. In confrontation with the deep state, the AKP needed all allies it could get. He reached out to minorities, the media became more assertive and Turkish politics more pluralistic. Thanks to broad alliances and growing public support, Erdogan prevailed in a long and drawn-out struggle to make constitutional principles prevail over the network of shady power brokers.

At that time, Erdogan was keen on cooperation with and accession to the EU. EU leaders, however, were uncomfortable with the idea of Turkish accession, not least because Erdogan was an Islamist leader of a predominantly Muslim nation. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, Nicolas Sarkozy, then French president, and others kept him at arm’s length. In turn, Erdogan later backed off from his earlier pro-EU stance. It was certainly no coincidence that this happened when he was already building an authoritarian regime of his own.

In the first decade of this millennium, I felt that the EU should have responded more favourably to Erdogan. I used to argue that the EU should take advantage of the AKP’s liberalising impact on Turkey and use its soft power to tie Erdogan into a liberal order. I’m not so sure today.

In retrospect, I guess the approach would have worked out in the short run, but that the impact might not have lasted long. The EU’s soft power has proven effective in making governments that want to join the EU sign up to liberal principles  – but once a country is a member, the EU seems quite impotent in terms of actually enforcing those principles. Recent trends in Poland and Hungary are worrying.

Erdogan’s mindset is – and probably always was – authoritarian. As long as he needed allies, he accommodated them. He only turned against the HDP with a vengeance when it became obvious that this party would not support him. To him, institution building was never an end in itself; it always served the purpose of fortifying his rule. He was not interested in an independent judiciary, for example, he just wanted it to fulfil his rather than the military’s wishes. Today, it seems clear that Erdogan would have backtracked from liberal principles as soon as he would have felt strong enough.

The big question, therefore, is how the EU could have used rapprochement to entrench constitutional principles and institutions more deeply. Checks and balances must not depend on the whim’s and personal needs of a top leader. They are needed to keep the top leader under control. The international community needs enduring democracies. And Turkey’s people need democracy.  Their country cannot become stable, peaceful and united if its government disowns a large share of the people.  

One thing looks pretty obvious however: making deals with Erdogan is less likely to entrench democratic principles at a time when he is undermining constitutional institutions than it could have done when he was contributing to making them stronger. What his ultimate goal was is of minor relevance. That he is able to undermine them today is a tragedy.

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