Turkey’s Referendum: Authoritarianism and Electoral Fixes

As previously indicated I will be posting an appendix to my posts on Coup and Counter-Coup in Turkey, referring to Ottomanism, Kemalist republicanism and related issues. The sixteenth of April referendum does require a response of a more immediate kind. The referendum was on amendments to the Constitution largely concerned with transforming Turkey from a parliamentary republic, which it has been at least in principle since the formation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Recep Tayıp Erdoğan had already been breaking the Constitution since 2014 when he was elected President of Turkey after more than a decade as Prime Minister. On becoming President he transferred the chief executive power to the presidential palace (which has more than 1000 rooms and was built on Erdoğan’s orders using executive privilege to override court bans on building on the land concerned). This in itself tells you everything you need to know about the decay of Turkish democracy, from a starting point which was itself not a shining beacon to the world of purist constitutional democracy.

Erdoğan’s ambitions for an executive presidency in Turkey precede his elevation to that role. The shift from a President elected by the National Assembly to a President elected by popular vote came from a referendum of 2007, though Erdoğan is the first President of Turkey to take the office in this way. Kemal Atatürk (1923-1938) and then İsmet İnönü (1938-1950) were powerful presidents in a parliamentary system. This paradox arose because Turkey was a de facto one-party state in which only the Republican People’s Party had seats in the National Assembly from 1923 to 1943, though the Free Republican Party won seats in local elections. The elections of 1946 resulted in an opposition party and some independent deputies entering the National Assembly. In 1950 İnönü became the first Turkish (or Ottoman) leader to give up power peacefully as the result of elections and the Republican People’s Party became the first political party to give up power in this manner. During the one party period, the President was the dominant figure in the Republican People’s Party and therefore acted as the head of government, though with a Prime Minister and some genuine divisions of responsibilities.

Not only did Erdoğan start using powers he had not been given in the constitution in 2014, the whole evolution towards a presidential system has been done in a way to benefit him personally. He was Prime Minister over three terms from 2002 to 2014, an office to be abolished in 2019 as a result of the recent referendum, and was the head of government. He has acted as effective head of government since 2014, regardless of the Prime Minister having this role. The office of Prime Minister will still exist until 2019 and most of the constitutional changes as a result of the referendum will not come into force until then. Erdoğan can then have the two terms of executive presidency in addition to the term he is currently serving which will still constitutionally limit his powers in ways that mean the Prime Minister should be head of government. In this sense, the system is working as in the days of the one party system. So Erdoğan can serve as head of government in Turkey from 2003 until 2029. Furthermore he may be able to add another term if the National Assembly goes to an early election during his second term.

The President will have the power to dissolve the National Assembly, and this could easily happen simply because the President wishes to have a third term. The amended constitution at least restricts the President to two five-year terms plus most of a third term in special conditions. So the possibility exists of Erdoğan running the Turkish government from 2003 to 2034, a highly unusual situation in any democracy and one likely to undermine the democracy in question, particularly as the powers of the President now include control of appointment of senior judges, senior civil servants, senior bureaucrats, the right to issue decrees as laws, the right to appoint all cabinet ministers without National Assembly approval, and the right to appoint two vice-presidents without National Assembly approval. Theses figures will not be required to answer questions in the National Assembly and, like the President, will benefit from lifetime immunity with regard to alleged crimes committed in office. That is to say, the President and his associates will have immunity for life unless the National Assembly votes to suspend the immunity, with a high enough majority required to make this unlikely unless there is a massive collapse in the number of AKP deputies, or of Erdoğan’s control of the AKP.

We cannot even say that these changes designed to produce a President above normal democratic constitutional checks and balances, dominating the whole governmental process and state machinery in a way unprecedented in Turkey’s multi-party history, have been agreed to by a genuine majority vote. The referendum was held in state of emergency conditions, which still prevails. A state of emergency in which opposition journalists have been detained in large numbers on flimsy charges as ‘terrorists’, opposition deputies (from Kurdish rights-leftist HDP) have been detained on a similar basis. State media and most private media groups operate as media organs of the AKP. The state of emergency has been applied in a particularly harsh way in the southeast (Kurdish majority) part of the country where elected local government has been replaced by central government appointees. There are 500,000 displaced persons in the southeast resulting from PKK terror and the state security reaction which led to military bombardment of whole towns and urban districts until they were reduced to rubble. It was clearly not easy for them to vote and it looks like a large number did not vote. Extreme intimidation of No campaigners was the norm in the southeast where large numbers of HDP election observers were denied access to polling booths. Intimidation of the No campaign took place elsewhere if in a less extreme way and public spaces were dominated by Yes publicity.

The count was itself full of flagrant irregularities. The number of polling stations recording a 100% vote for Yes was far greater than the number recording 100% AKP votes in recent elections. There was another party campaigning for the Yes, the hardline nationalistic MHP, but the party split over the leader’s support for Yes and all the evidence is that overwhelmingly most MHP voters did not vote Yes. Given that some AKP voters defected from Yes, not many but no less than 5%, there was no reason to expect an increased number of polling stations with a 100% vote and of course suspicion is in order about polling stations which recorded such results in the past.

An AKP politician who is a member of the national electoral board (itself packed with AKP appointees) requested that all ballot papers used to vote, but not carrying a stamp to show they have been authorised for that polling station by an official, should be counted. This is illegal but the request was granted. AKP apologists were quick to say that opposition requests in the past for counting such ballots (because maybe they were stuck together when the official was stamping papers) were granted in the past. Small illegality does not excuse large illegality and the scale of counting of such ballot papers was much larger than previously.

During the count the state news agency was announcing results before they were released by the electoral board. A strange and suspicious situation. The international media, following the state news agency, failed to see the discrepancy also confusing the percentage of ballot boxes opened with votes cast, giving a very misleading impression of a big lead amongst most votes cast early in the evening. The election board results then went off line and were not shared with the opposition. When results came back online they showed a very different pattern than before the break in service, more in line with the state news agency announcements.

Given the close (51.4% for Yes) nature of the official result, there are a number of reasons to think that No won in votes cast, and even if we ignore the voting irregularities, there is reason to think that in a less intimidating atmosphere, particularly in the southeast, more Yes voters would have cast a vote. In these circumstances I suggest that even on a very cautious reckoning, the number of votes cast for No was at least 51% and that with a less intimidating and disruptive atmosphere, another 2% would have gone to No. To say on this basis that 53% voted No is I believe a very cautious estimate. There is very probably a clear majority of Turkish voters against the new presidential system, at least 55%.

The narrow result clearly caused embarrassment to Erdoğan and the AKP who had predicted a very big victory for Yes. They have gone quieter since then, but with no let up in authoritarian measures. Just two days ago Wikipedia was blocked in Turkey, several thousand state employees were dismissed using emergency powers and a number of NGOs were closed in a similar way. The context of the supposed Yes victory gives hope that there is opposition to the Erdoğan/AKP destruction of liberal democracy, but recent measures suggest they are as determined as ever to use the tools of state to obliterate opposition, or just any sense of independence from the party-state machine.

Coup and Counter Coup VI: Presidential Authoritarianism in Turkey

(Previous posts here, here, here, here and here). The state of emergency proclaimed by President Erdoğan in Turkey on 20th July last year, in response to the coup attempt of five days before, is not a situation that will come to an end in a return to normality. It is the model for the presidential system that Erdoğan has been pushing for since 2007, when he was still admired by many liberal minded people inside Turkey (though not me) and abroad. One of the key provisions of the state of emergency is that the President can issue decrees with the force of law. There are doubts about the constitutionality of this form of ‘law making’ but two members of the Constitutional Court were arrested after the coup attempt and the chances of the court starting up to executive power are now extremely remote. Judges and prosecutors have been demoted and even arrested after making the ‘wrong’ decision during the state of emergency and I do not think Erdoğan and his associates would have any scruples at all about further arrests of judges in the Constitutional Court.

The Presidential system, or one person rule system, which Turks will vote on, will retain the decrees as law powers of the Presidency. There are some limits on the decrees issued, but as the President will control the appointment of most of the senior judiciary there are serious questions about whether the Constitutional Court will put any effective break on these powers to legislate through decree. There is no sign of the state of emergency ending, though at least now everyone can see the deception in the original decision to declare a state of emergency for three months only instead of the six months maximum allowed in the Constitution. The state of emergency is renewed every three months with no debate and no indication of when it will come to an end. Does Erdoğan have any intention of ending the state of emergency before he becomes a President elected with the new powers? In principle these powers should only be implemented after the next presidential election in 2019, coinciding with elections to the National Assembly. Erdoğan may wish to bring these elections forward, particularly for the National Assembly if he loses the referendum. While it may seem outrageous for the Council of Ministers to keep prolonging the state of emergency until 2019, the AKP government has been doing more and more previously outrageous and even unimaginable things now for some years, particularly since the Gezi protests of 2013.

What the state of emergency also means is that suspects can be held without charge and access to lawyers if charged with ‘terrorism’, which is defined in absurdly broad ways to cover any kind of contact with the Gülenists or sympathy for the Kurdish autonomy movement. Torture has been making a return in Turkey after becoming relatively unusual since the PKK terror campaign began again in 2015. The state of emergency conditions have now normalised it completely and though the government denies torture charges, in the normal manner of authoritarian regimes, claiming the charges are terrorist propaganda, you have to wonder how seriously they expect anyone to take the denials. Photographs of the alleged coup plotters immediately after the coup attempt showed they had been badly beaten, though of course this is explained away as the result of ‘resisting arrest’, another time-honoured evasion. Consistent reports suggest prisoners are denied food, placed in stress positions for long periods of time, beaten and sexually assaulted. In the more moderate cases, the prison officials merely restrict prisoners to a diet of bread and bad quality tap water in conditions of psychological abuse. There is amongst everything else in Turkey a growing problem of mental and emotion health problems amongst the survivors of these ordeals, which are of course excluded from the mainstream media.

The rhetoric and abuse used by police ‘special teams’ invading the media and political offices of ‘terrorist’, that is Kurdish autonomy and other leftist groups, involve extreme nationalism and Ottomanism. Kurds are insulted as covert Armenians. Actual Armenians are told that the Ottomans destroyed the Armenians and that Turks are the masters of Armenian. A particularly disgusting reference to the massacre of 1 500 000 Armenians during World War One. These are not aberrations, this behaviour reflects the deep ideology of the AKP, mixing extreme nationalism and Ottomanism, of course ignoring the tensions between these positions. The torture and abuse is legitimated in the minds of perpetrators by a political rhetoric and government measures which present opponents as terrorist and part of international conspiracies against the ‘innocent’ Turks who are so good they are naive. This I am afraid is no exaggeration of the political discourse of the moment.

There is no reason to think the abuse and political extremism will end, though of course we should hope it does. If all Gülenists – real and imagined – and all sympathisers with Kurdish autonomy or the far left are targeted, then there are essentially endless opportunities for authoritarianism, polarising dehumanising rhetoric and abuse. I can only presume the current atmosphere will last indefinitely, as Erdoğan has found it a successful strategy for staying in power and increasing his power.

It is of course not just a question of his own political power. There is the question of how his family occupy places of privilege in large Muslims NGOs (at the same time as non-AKP oriented NGOs come under increasing pressure) with huge budgets and sit on the boards of major companies in Turkey. Erdoğan does not envisage any situation in which these activities are placed under mainstream media examination, and even less legal investigation. The issue of legal immunity is a huge one in Turkish politics. The amended constitution would allow the President to appoint anyone to two vice presidential positions and to the cabinet. Like the President all these people would have lifetime immunity from prosecution for activities undertaken while in office. Though the National Assembly would have the power to send the President to the Constitutional Court, this requires a very high threshold, clearly designed to protect Erdoğan even if the AKP loses a large part of its support.

As mentioned above, there is an expectation that Erdoğan will call an early National Assembly election if he loses the referendum. It seems likely on current polling that two out of the three opposition parties currently in the National Assembly would fail to meet the electoral thresh hold of 10%. This means the National Action Party, which has split over the referendum, and the Kurdish radicals who have lost some of their more moderate support since the revival of PKK violence. In such a National Assembly, the AKP could certainly put any constitutional proposal to referendum and very possibly could have enough votes to amend the constitution without referendum. So even if Erdoğan loses the election, he could get the same measures, or close enough, through other means.

(Last post in the current series, though I will post an appendix on Ottomanist and Atatürkist legacies in Turkey, along with comments on related political thought.)

Coup and Counter Coup in Turkey (first of a series of posts on Turkey since 15th July 2016 and background topics)

On July 15th 2016, a group of army officers up to at least the Brigadier General (one star general) level attempted to seize control of the Turkish state. On the morning of the 20th it was evident that the coup had collapsed though the government, along with its allies in the media, social media, think tanks and so on was eager to promote the idea of an unended coup which might spring back into life, like the villain in a horror film, at any moment over a long indefinite period of time. No follow-up coup materialised. The most that can be said for that unending coup mentality was that it is difficult to know how much of the army would have gone over if the coup organisation had captured or killed President Erdoğan. What the never-ending coup claims achieved was to legitimise and mobilise paranoia, intolerance, and authoritarian state reactions with regard to anyone who might be in opposition to the Erdogan/Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

The overwhelming feeling among government supporters and opponents on the 21st was that the coup was instigated by followers of Fetullah Gülen, a religious leader who went into exile before the AKP came to power in 2002. His followers control an international network of businesses, banks, schools, and media organisations. They carefully targeted the most sensitive areas of state employment in Turkey with the goal of creating a Gülenist dominated state and were aided in this enterprise by the AKP governments who wanted a network to rival the ‘Kemalists’, relatively secular people in the state, business, media, and educational sectors. Their relationship broke down in 2013 for reasons which are inevitably obscure at present, but appear to arise from the conflicting extreme ambitions for absolute power on both sides.

The coup may have been joined by Kemalists and the coup organisers gestured towards this position when a television announcement proclaimed that the coup council name referred to a well-known slogan of Kemal Atatürk, ‘Peace at home, peace in the world’. Kemalism of course refers to the ideology of secularist nationalist republicanism endorsed by Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey. I will return to this topic in a later post, but in brief Kemalism of some kind – and there are many kinds and many grey areas – was the dominant influence in the army and allied parts of the state until recently. It is roughly analogous to the Jacobin tradition in France and in the same way has referred both to popular sovereignty and vanguardism. There are some who promoted the idea in the past that Kemalism was the problem and the AKP was the solution, and they are having difficulty in not seeing the 15th July Coup attempt as at least a Gülenist-Kemalist partnership. However, there is no evidence that Kemalists participated in any more than an individual ad hoc basis. Indeed after the 15th, retired generals associated with Kemalism were called back into service, in a process which now seems to have ended Kemalist sympathy for Erdoğan as a bulwark against the Gülenists and the PKK (socialist-Kurdish autonomy guerrilla/terrorist group), which intensified its activities in the summer of 2015.

Vast waves of arrest began after the coup attempt, which, unlike the coup itself, have not ended. For the first wave of arrests it was just about possible to believe they were genuine attempts to find coup plotters, but it quickly became apparent that the scope of arrests was much wider. President Erdoğan announced soon after the coup attempt that it was a gift of God and showed how he wanted to use this gift on July 20th, when he proclaimed a state of emergency. The state of emergency has become the means for Erdoğan to purge and punish tens of thousands who have no connection with the coup. The AKP supporters who obsessed about the follow-up coup were right, but the follow-up coup came from their own side. The state of emergency is the real coup, though it is also just a moment in the process of the creation of an AKP-Erdoğanist state, designed to facilitate what appears to be Erdoğan’s final goal (though maybe there will be others later): the creation of an extreme version of the presidential political system in which the head of state is more an elected dictator than the head of a system of checks and balances under law. More soon.