Mehmet Efe Çaman
The question of whether Turkey can still be considered a democracy is no longer being asked since there is an extensive consensus that it definitely is not. Instead, many observers of Turkish politics are trying to analyze whether Turkey will re-establish the constitutional order and somehow gradually return to democracy. Particularly after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called snap elections almost a month ago after speaking to the head of the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahçeli, who a day earlier had floated the prospect of an early election, some expect that the elections could contribute to re-generating the constitutional order.
Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Turkish right-wing nationalists of the MHP have been cooperating within the framework of a de-facto coalition since a military coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Both political parties call themselves “national and native” political forces and denigrate other political movements such as the center-left-oriented Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish and leftist HDP Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Even though the CHP and the HDP remain the only opposition parties in the Turkish Parliament – since the MHP quite frankly supports Erdoğan and his AKP and therefore can no longer be considered as opposition – they have been far from ready to collaborate to change the circumstances that ended the rule of law in Turkey. Due to the vast ideological differences between the two opposition parties, a strategic alliance based on common grounds has not taken place.
The reasons that might explain the partnership between Erdoğan’s AKP and the ultra-nationalist MHP, as well as the reasons for the ideological abyss between the CHP and the HDP, are complex. However, expounding on this complexity might shed some light and provide the necessary clues to finally solving the tricky puzzle about how the de-facto regime could have been established, what influences the ongoing collaborations and conflicts in this political labyrinth, the motives, interests and expectations of different political groups and, more importantly, whether there is light at the end of the long and dark tunnel.
The reason I call the current political system of Turkey a “regime” is simply that there are so many deviations from the Turkish constitution on a regular basis that the regime designed by the constitution of 1982 has ceased to exist. What can be called the “constitutional architecture of the state” has been replaced by a new regime. This new political reality has not been approved by Parliament, which means it is neither legal nor legitimate. The decision-making process of the executive branch, including its hierarchical order, has been altered without the necessary constitutional amendments. In other words, an unconstitutional and illegal systemic change has taken place. It is a major and fundamental issue.
What has been altered? Let’s start with the most important one. The key executive post in the political system of Turkey according to the constitution of 1982 used to be the prime minister. In the new de-facto regime, however, President Erdoğan has increased his power to such an extent that he has become the top of the decision-making hierarchy. Even though not foreseen by the constitution, the more or less ceremonial and symbolic office of the president has taken over all power from the office of the prime minister. Therefore, President Erdoğan has seized the entire power of the executive branch.
This power seizure enables him to control all key functions of the Turkish state apparatus – intelligence, the police force, the economy, foreign policy, the bureaucracy and etc., ergo almost the entire state. Erdoğan’s power has been further strengthened by decrees issued by the Cabinet under his chairmanship. Since the military coup attempt and declaration of a state of emergency, Erdoğan has been ruling by decree and bypassing parliament. Therefore parliament has largely lost its ability to legislate. In this way, Erdoğan got rid of the opposition and paralyzed the parliament. The justification for this deviant power expansion according to the official narrative of the regime was the attempted coup (which Erdoğan himself called a gift from God). Through this unconstitutional and arbitrary concentration of power, the regime started to “cleanse” the Hizmet Movement, which is called the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organization” (“FETO”) by the regime. This narrative and terminology of the regime are not only used by Erdoğan and his political movement but also by the CHP, MHP and IYI Party leadership. The discourse of the regime is quite well established due to the fact that the Erdoğan regime controls almost all media in Turkey. The official narrative and the terminology used are essential components of Erdoğan’s power – it produces and reproduces the subjective perception of the reality in Turkey. Everything that questions the inconsistencies in this official narrative is used as a reason for exclusion and even criminalization.
More than 30 decrees having the force of law have been issued under the state of emergency. In their brutal practice, the decrees have caused all civil and political rights to disappear, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the ban on arbitrary detention, the right to the presumption of innocence, and so on. Moreover, they enabled the creation of a police state in giving the bureaucracy a broad, lawless space in which to proceed with the extensive oppression. The decrees are not open to any judicial review. They are not subordinated to the Constitutional Court. Besides, the Constitutional Court has been rendered inoperative through the de-facto cancellation of the constitutional order, anyway. This regime affects not only the fundamental civil rights of Turkish citizens based on the constitutional order but also the international responsibilities of Turkey on human rights, such as the right to a fair trial, the right to effective legal remedy and even the very basic right to protection of property. The regime has so far seized billions of US dollars’ worth of properties belonging to arbitrarily criminalized people without a court ruling, among which are multiple private companies and numerous schools, and universities. The regime also appointed trustees to hundreds of local municipalities, most of which are located in Kurdish provinces. Elected mayors of those municipalities, too, were dismissed without court rulings and arrested. Tens of MPs of the pro-Kurdish HDP, one MP from the CHP and 71 Kurdish mayors are still in prison. The co-chairman of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtaş, who is now a presidential candidate, has been in jail since November 2016.
Under these circumstances, we unavoidably have to ask a critical question: Is Erdoğan the only power center in Turkey now? Or are there other political forces that back him? It is quite unlikely that Erdoğan possesses absolute power in this arbitrary regime without any support. But who is backing him? As pointed out above, Bahçeli and his MHP are obviously providing support. Nevertheless, Bahçeli and Erdoğan were not always the best of political buddies. When Erdoğan and his AKP pursued a progressive peace policy with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Kurdish movement in Turkey (2009-2015), Bahçeli accused Erdoğan and the AKP of treason. He also vowed to bring Erdoğan to justice after a corruption scandal in 2013. It was Erdoğan’s radical policy change on the Kurdish issue that opened the path to reconciliation between Erdoğan and Bahçeli. But Bahçeli was not the initiator of Erdoğan’s policy change. He was neither that important to Erdoğan nor influential enough in the Turkish political game to force Erdoğan to anything, let alone Kurdish politics – the big project for Erdoğan to write history. Who was the game changer? Did Erdoğan decide to change his Kurdish policy alone? If yes, why would he have done this?
The game changer in this major and relevant policy change was the corruption scandal of 2013. The black hole of this scandal could have cost Erdoğan – and many other high-ranking political cats of the AKP – his political career, if not put him in jail. He had to control the entire branch of judicial power to get rid of the potential criminal charges against his close circle, including his own son. There was, however, only one small problem: Erdoğan was not powerful enough to control the entire judiciary and the related bureaucracy (police and intelligence). The urgent help he needed came from an old and, thanks to Erdoğan, almost completely eliminated enemy – the deep state. Numerous high-ranking members of the Turkish military who were irritated with the ongoing democratization stemming from the EU accession process and their resulting loss of power generated secret plans for multiple military operations to overthrow the government and were subsequently consequently handed down lengthy prison sentences (“Ergenekon” trials). However, the deep state was still alive. Fellow comrades in the Turkish military and bureaucracy – and particularly in the judiciary – offered Erdoğan immunity and in return, Erdoğan publicly declared that their criminalization and detention was a plot organized by the “parallel state” of the Gülenists (Erdoğan’s former allies). Therefore, both Erdoğan and the deep state accused the Gülenists of being the masterminds of the “Ergenekon” trials and the 2013 corruption investigations.
A scapegoat had now been found. All the pieces of evidence were declared fake; judges, prosecutors and police officers involved in the criminal investigation were discharged; and official investigations into the corruption were swept under the rug. Erdoğan’s name was now cleared, and the deep state had the upper hand. Replacing Gülenists with new partners, Erdoğan paid the price: He handed some key policy areas over to his new “partners.” As a result of this new power constellation, the “solution process” with the Kurds – the ongoing negotiations between the Erdoğan government and the PKK – was cancelled and a new military offensive in the Kurdish region was launched. Bahçeli and his MHP welcomed this policy change for understandable reasons. Also, the CHP was pleased because secular nationalists dominated the party and were delighted to eliminate the Gülenists and other democratic forces such as the liberals. For them, the revival of the deep state embodied restoration of the “factory defaults of the Kemalist republic.” For most CHP officials, or secular nationalists, eliminating one “Islamic-fundamentalist” group (the Gülenists) through an Islamist leader and his party was a good deal – even if the destruction of the constitutional order and democracy was the high price to pay for this objective. It is no wonder that denying basic minority rights of the Kurds had been a common ground for Turkish Kemalists together with all other political factions.
After the military coup attempt, hundreds of pro-Western and pro-NATO admirals and generals (around 50 percent of all flag officers in the Turkish military) were jailed. The groups that were close to the deep state – above all, officers who opposed the Turkish military’s pro-Western course – clearly gained the upper hand. Turkey’s military replaced the NATO orbit with a new strategic partnership with Russia. Turkey and Russia signed a deal for Moscow to supply Ankara with S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries to deepen ties between the two countries. The US repeatedly declared that this weapons system could not be integrated into NATO’s military architecture, whereas Erdoğan and many high-ranking Turkish officials frequently accused the US and other Western allies of being the mastermind of the attempted coup. Moreover, the Turkish regime detained numerous US and other Western citizens after the attempted coup and has been using them as bargaining chips. German journalist Deniz Yücel from the Die Welt daily was an obvious example of that corruption in Turkey.
I believe these developments clearly indicate one thing: a civilian coup. The state of emergency is continuing. It has been extended seven times, each for a three-month period. The extensive and arbitrary course of action of this regime and the collective nature of the purge continue to cause Turkish society to deteriorate. The elections will take place under this regime. I observe the following facts in Turkey’s case: the rejection of constitutional rules, the denial of the legitimacy of opponents, the denial of civil liberties, state violence and the institutionalized methods of a police state. Those are quite serious structural problems. It is unlikely that elections will be a cure and re-establish the constitutional order in Turkey. As long as the official narrative of the regime and its dirty coalitions remain, there will be no change. The iceberg we are dealing with is much deeper than we think.