Presidential or Not, Turkey Is a Competitive Authoritarian Regime

Turkey’s fragile democracy survived the recent coup attempt, but it may not survive the wrath of her defenders. After the most peculiar coup attempt in Turkish history by a fraction in the army on 15 July, a state of emergency has been declared. President Erdoğan accuses Fettullah Gülen of being the main perpetrator behind the coup attempt and believes his religious cult is purposely infiltrating government organisations and the judiciary in order to reshape and control the state. As a result there is a hunt for all Gülenists within all government institutions as well as private institutions having ties with him, such as media and business organisations.

Three newsagents, sixteen tv companies, twenty-three radio stations, forty-five newspapers, fifteen journals, twenty-nine publishing houses were shut down in one emergency decree. Overall 160 media outlets have been closed down. Also fifteen universities, more than 2000 educational institutions, and hospitals run by Gülenists were also closed down by emergency decrees.

Human rights guarantees in the Turkish Constitution and The European Convention on Human Rights have been suspended during the state of emergency. The government under the leadership of President Erdoğan issued several decrees removing over a hundred thousand civil servants, including not only military officers but also teachers, doctors, university deans, lecturers, ministerial staff. Also 2,747 judges and public prosecutors were detained and more than three thousand were suspended from duty including high court judges. None of the civil servants removed from their posts or private institutions shut down by emergency decrees has the right to sue government as those decrees are immune from law suits.

The fight against Gülenists includes also businessmen, who are detained and their property seized for aiding and abetting the terrorist organisation. Not to mention detained journalists and writers, including those who are accused of being members of Gülenist terrorist organisation and supporting the coup attempt and others who are accused of helping Gülenists without being a member. Their political beliefs and standings differ widely. Some support right wing beliefs including political Islam, but some of them are well known liberals such as Ahmet Altan, and his brother Mehmet Altan, or Kemalists like Atilla Taş. The government has been targeting not only Gülenists but also PKK, Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), secularists and leftists. Having declared a state of emergency, President Erdoğan has a free hand to tighten his grip over political life.

Many of civil servants who have been removed from their duties are accused of having links with Fettullah Gülen, but not all of them are Gülenists. Members of left wing unions have also been targeted. A total of 28 elected majors, the majority of whom are members of the pro-Kurdish HDP, have been removed from their posts and replaced by appointed substitutes by the government. No concrete proof is needed for removal even for judges. For instance, the Constitutional Court decided to remove the sitting judges from their posts based on “the belief” established by the majority vote that they have ties with Gülenists. Finally achieving his desire to have total control over judiciary, President Erdoğan also saw all high court judges bowing to him in his new palace at Beştepe recently. President Erdoğan made sure that no judge would stand up against his massive clear out.

After the coup attempt President Erdoğan invited his supporters onto streets for a month, organising political rallies named “democracy watch”. Ironically, members of other religious orders who also support political Islam and infiltrate government institutions like Gülenists played active roles in these street gatherings attacking Alevi’s (another sect of Islam), and secularists for supporting the coup despite the fact that the coup attempt was not supported by political parties, minorities or opposition groups. Opposing the government is almost presented as being treacherous. Mosques also played a major role supporting the government and inviting people hourly to defend Erdoğan and his party in the name of God and the Prophet Muhammed.

It is highly likely that if this coup attempt had been successful it would have caused a bloody internal conflict. The soldiers who attempted it fired the crowd in protest after the President Erdoğan’s call, bombed the Turkish Grand National Assembly, flew F16 fighter jets over Ankara, and killed many people. Such cruel acts of terror are the government’s main justificatory base. However, there are news reports alleging that the accused include leftists, Alevi’s and even atheists. With the legal guaranties of basic rights suspended, no one can be sure if the accused have been really involved in illegal activities or if they will have a fair trial. Many informants voluntarily denounce people for being involved Gülenist movement. Some of the accused people even fail to find lawyers to defend them in the criminal courts. Reports of torture and ill-treatment cases have been on the rise. Even though the state of emergency has been declared for three months, it would not be a surprise if it is extended for a much longer period.

The major question to be asked at this time is whether Turkish democracy has really survived this coup attempt. Is Turkey turning into a competitive authoritarian state? Having declared his will for a strong presidential system and having recently replaced his prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu with Binali Yıldırım, who was more willing to campaign for presidential system, President Erdoğan may no longer need a new constitution to create the type of presidential system that he longs for. The state of emergency under the current Constitution empowers the President by giving him the authority to lead the cabinet and issue emergency decrees having the force of law without the immediate approval of the legislative. Furthermore, guarantees of basic rights have been suspended under the state of emergency. With the Judiciary being completely out of the way after the post-coup reorganisations Erdoğan’s rule has no checks and balances and no political rival to voice their opposition.

In the light of the current political state, it is hard to call this regime a democracy anymore. The best way to describe it might be “competitive authoritarianism”. This concept has been defined by Levitsky and Way as “a hybrid regime type, with important characteristics of both democracy and authoritarianism” . In addition to the generally accepted four criteria that are famously described by R. Dahl as free and fair competitive elections, full adult suffrage, protection of civil and political liberties especially speech, press, association, absence of nonelected authorities such as military, monarchy that limit elected officials, Levitsky and Way offered an additional fifth criterion: the existence of a reasonably level playing field between incumbents and opposition. In competitive authoritarian regimes, elections may be free, but competition is hardly fair. Often incumbent parties violate basic rights, especially the freedom of speech, press and association. Most importantly there is no level playing field between a ruling party that excessively manipulates state institutions and resources and the opposition. Some of these manipulations are straight up violations of basic rights, but others are more subtle such as de facto control of private media and finances through informal patronage arrangements. Turkey fitted the picture even before the coup attempt.

Now, as an increasingly authoritarian president, Erdoğan has finally established his long-held dream of working without the constraint of the rule of law, and without any threat of losing power. The Turkish press is no longer considered free. Considerable elements of the media are controlled by Erdoğan, and the rest of them are fighting against daily criminal suits, detentions and even closures after the state of emergency has been declared. Free speech is heavily damaged. Opposition parties, especially the pro-Kurdish HDP, have already been under pressure. Many of their MPs’ legislative privileges, which constitutionally prevent criminal procedures without the assembly approval, have recently been lifted by a bizarre constitutional amendment before the coup attempt. All told, following the declaration of a state of emergency, Erdoğan has the opportunity to complete his aim of authoritarian rule.

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