Quick wit, slow decline: Months after Turkish President Erdoğan threatened his American counterpart with delivering the infamous “Ottoman slap” in response to US support for Kurdish militias in Syria, concerns for Turkey’s eroding democracy remain high.
The hostile rhetoric of the proud neo-Ottoman President reintroduced a term traditionally used in the past to refer to the lethal slap given to opponents during combat. Nowadays, it more likely represents a slap to democratic rights at the expense of Turkish citizens.
Erdoğan’s dream of reviving the once glorious Ottoman Empire materialised in 2002 when he successfully led his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to victory, securing a significant majority in parliament. Over the next five years, gradual adjustments generated a shift from democracy to what authors Levitsky and Way describe as “competitive authoritarianism” – a hybrid regime that self-legitimates through elections, however unfair they may be.
Though periodic elections are carried out, Turkey’s electoral landscape overwhelmingly favours incumbents, and the democratic deficit is becoming ever more clear.
And while the formal democratic institutions are in plain sight, manipulations and violations of the principles they stand to uphold are equally evident.
During his tenure as Prime Minister, Erdoğan pushed for a hyper presidential form of governance that strengthened the power of the executive, all under the pretext of countering authoritarian tendencies. Since his 2014 presidential victory, his grip on power has only tightened.
In 2016, he ousted the increasingly powerful Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, and replaced him with his trusted ally, Binali Yıldırım, who was key to promoting a de facto presidential system. The controversial constitutional referendum of the following year – backed by a slim majority – only consolidated Erdoğan’s personal power even further.
The failed coup d’état that followed Davutoğlu’s resignation provided Erdoğan with a “gift from God”, as he put it. Under legitimate threat, he called for a state of emergency in the country and seized unprecedented powers. To name a few, he implemented infamous media restrictions, undermined the separation of powers in ruling by decree without any control mechanisms, and attacked the judiciary by sacking several judges from the courts and placing them under investigation. This, in turn, prevented them from performing their duties in an independent and impartial way.
Appealing to higher courts is not an option since both the guarantees of human rights that are enshrined in the Turkish Constitution and the invocation of the European Convention on Human Rights have been suspended for the duration of the state of emergency.
To add insult to injury, the initial period of the state of emergency, which was purported to last only three months, has now been extended for the seventh time.
The highly anticipated elections of June 2018 thus took place in the shadow of the imposed emergency rule and with no real opposition, due largely to the incarceration of many political opponents including presidential candidate Demirtaş.
Erdoğan’s call for early elections may seem like an odd move, but with a closer look at the figures, his motives become clear.
On the surface, Turkey’s economy appears to be doing quite well, with a GDP growth of 6.9 percent in 2017. Behind these positive numbers, however, is a wave of easy credits provided by the government to buffer against the effects of a dramatic decline in tourism, the 2016 coup d’état, the emergency law, and the constant abuses of human rights.
The government stimulus and the political uncertainty has led to an inflation rate that in recent months was the highest since 2008, causing foreign investments to drop by 50 percent compared to a decade ago. Consequently, the Turkish Lira repeatedly drops to record lows — as of 9 May 2018, the TRY was 4.3736 to the dollar.
These catastrophic numbers are a ticking bomb, veiled by the illusion of high GDP growth. By November next year, when the elections were originally scheduled to be held, reality would have caught up with the Turkish President, and his chances of reclaiming office would have diminished accordingly.
It is increasingly difficult to label Erdoğan’s regime as a democracy. The most significant development in Turkey’s domestic politics throughout the last two decades has certainly been the rise of the AKP, as it has enabled Erdoğan to retain his leading position for sixteen years.
When the incumbent party does not leave sufficient room for the opposition or fair competition, and when citizens cannot make informed choices even with the right to vote, all evidence points to an ever more entrenched form of competitive authoritarianism.
Thus, it is now unclear whether 2023 will indeed be the year Turkey celebrates its 100th anniversary as a Republic, or whether by that time, the Kemalist principles of its founder will have received the final slap, defeated by a new wave of Sultans and Grand Viziers.