“We, as Turkey and as the Turkish people, are making a new start here today,” were the words of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking at his inauguration, vested with far-reaching and unprecedented powers.
“We are leaving behind the system that has in the past cost our country a heavy price in political and economic chaos.”
Erdogan, aged 64, was voted in for another round at the presidency last June, with 52.5 per cent of the votes, overseeing the systematic transfer of his country from a parliamentary system to a powerful executive presidency. He now gets to lead the executive branch after scrapping the post of prime minister, with the authority to hire and fire ministers, senior officials, judges, governor of the central bank, and vice-presidents — a novelty in Turkish politics, just introduced by Erdogan>
Not only is he entitled to all of that without seeking approval of parliament, he is now empowered to dismiss parliament at will, issue executive decrees, and declare martial law.
He declared that he will be lifting emergency laws, however, imposed after a failed coup attempt against the president exactly two years ago, in July 2016. That failed putsch led to the arrest of 55,000 individuals and purge of over 100,000 officials and army personnel; 18,500 of whom were fired last Sunday, all accused of being loyalists to Fethullah Gulen, the US-based head of the anti-Erdogan opposition.
In addition to establishing a firm grip on the executive and judiciary branches, Erdogan also controls the legislative branch as well, after his Justice and Development Party (AKP) took 42.5 per cent of parliament last June, teaming up with the far-right National Movement Party for a majority bloc in the Turkish Chamber.
He has appointed his son-in-law Berat Al Bayrak, a 40-year old former MP and businessman, as minister of finance and the Treasury in the 16-man cabinet, raising cries of nepotism from the Turkish opposition. Erdogan also named Fuat Oktay, a former US-educated executive at Turkish Airlines, as Vice-President, and chief-of-staff Hulusi Akar as minister of defence. Mevlut Cavusoglu, the public face of Turkish diplomacy, was kept at his post at the ministry of foreign affairs. Sulaiman Soylu, the deputy chairman of the AKP was kept at the ministry of interior — a post he has held since 2016 — and for which he was accused of carrying out Erdogan’s witch hunt of critics.
Al Bayrak’s appointment is noteworthy, given Turkey’s numerous economic woes. The Turkish lira has devaluated sharply in recent months, losing a fifth of its value, reliance is high on foreign investment, and inflation stands at 15 per cent — the highest in an entire decade — which makes his son-in-law’s job all the more challenging.
Cavulsoglu faces numerous challenges as well, related to fixing Turkey’s public image after relations deteriorated with many countries across the world, after their leaders criticised his 2016 crackdown.
US-Turkish relations are tense, due to Erdogan’s assault on US-backed Kurdish forces in the Syrian town of Afrin last February, and his insistence on the extradition of Fethullah Gulen.
High-pitched criticism of Erdogan’s behaviour — due to his cuddling up to both Iran and Russia — have strained relations with the Trump White House and the EU.
Donald Trump was absent from Erdogan’s inauguration and so were prominent European leaders who had previously praised him as a role model for moderate Islam. Replacing them in the Turkish parliament were Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir.
The drive towards these countries was commenced by Erdogan two years ago, and will likely be taken to new heights during his next term, as he abandons all hope of joining the EU, which was a cornerstone of his party’s foreign policy since 2003 but been on hold since 2005.
Last January, however, during a visit to Paris, he was bluntly told by President Emmanuel Macron that recent developments in Turkey (in reference to his increased authoritarianism) “don’t allow any progress” in EU membership.
“I would be lying if I said we could open new chapters,” the French President said, which prompted Erdogan to reply that Turkey was no longer interested and had already waited for far too long. In the past, Erdogan had positioned his country as a successful model of how a Muslim state can look like — one that could enrich and empower Europe, and marketed himself as a champion of moderation.
Some countries like France had advocated its entry in the past, seeing that affiliation with the EU could force Turkey to democratise, reforming its intelligence services and judiciary, and adhere to European values, similar to what happened with old satellites of the former Soviet Union.
Last October, however, Erdogan declared: “A Europe without Turkey will only reach isolation, desperation, and civil strife. Turkey does not need Europe. Europe is the one that is in need [of Turkey].”
Turkey has been eligible for EU membership since 1997 and Erdogan initially took steps towards materialisation of his European dream, like abolishing the death penalty in 2004, but his 2016 crackdown, topped with his notorious affiliation with extremist groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and his alliance with Iran have made it impossible to move forward, along with, of course, the continued occupation of Turkish Cyprus (since 1974).
The internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus, a member of the EU since 2004, would never have allowed Turkey’s bid to pass — certainly not now more than ever, given Erdogan’s newfound powers and ambitions.
German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel was recently quoted as saying: The Turkish government and Erdogan are moving fast away from everything that Europe stands for.”
Like others, he is advocating putting aside Erdogan’s application in favour of other applications from countries like Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, and Bosnia.
Published in Gulf News on 10 July 2018.