Turkish President Erdoğan’s playbook never runs out of surprises, it seems. Three most recent decrees meant that 649 academics were arbitrarily fired, and 83 associations were shut down, including the well-established Kurdish Insitute, whose impeccable work on Kurdish language and literature was widely appreciated. Further more, 8200 people were sacked from the state sector, adding to a total of 135.000 since the botched coup.
We the critical journalists who continue to do our work had the ‘lion’s share’ givn by one decree: it said that those who left Turkey in fear of persecution, choosing exile, would be given three months to return, or else they would be expelled from citizenship, with all their assets seized, rights abolished. A copy of the old ‘measures’ borrowed from Soviet Union, a bitter reminder for all who abroad choose to disagree publicly with oppressive policies and us journalists whose duty is to shed light on truth, of the word ‘heimatlos’. This implementation is pending, soon in effect.
There was more.
On Wednesday, a prosecutor in Istanbul demanded that Can Dündar and Erdem Gül be sentenced each up to 10 years of prison for ‘aiding a terror organisation’, related again to the famous ‘lorries which on behalf of the Turkish secret service transport weapenry to Syria’s jihadists’ case.
But even more dramatically, he asked for lifetime imprisonment for Enis Berberoğlu, a former journalist who is currently a deputy of the CHP. Berberoğlu had more than a year ago had publicly told that it was him who delivered certain documents about the lorries to daily Cumhuriyet. So, once his parliamentary immunity is lifted, he faces also an almost certain arrest, simply because of the ‘gravity’ of the charges against him.
In many ways, we see a rapid sealing of an oppressive regime, nearing day by day its completion. Not much seems to stand between Erdoğan and his vision of ruling the country as he pleases.
As he pushes Turkey into its now most critical tumble-down, through constitutional amendments that will legitimize – he hopes – a one-man rule by way of a referendum, the only element that casts a dark shadow over this relentless drive is the rapidly worsening economy.
As Parliament in Ankara have been thrown into a fierce marathon debate in a series of fiercely divisive votes, Turkish currency shows a constant all-time lows, and credit ratings place the country as junk.
‘Turkey cannot afford economic or political mis-steps. At present it is on course for both’ wrote Paul McNamara in Financial Times:
‘For now, foreign banks have been content to roll over their huge syndicated loan exposure to Turkey’s banks but economic slowdown or a sharp drop in the lira put these rollovers in doubt. …A weaker currency prompts local-currency debtors to chase foreign currency, pushing the lira weaker, which in turn prompts further demand for foreign currency. Investors see no reward to justify the risk.’
What we see now is a completion of the existential political crisis by, arguably, stagflation.
Let’s leave it that, as nothing seems to slow down Erdoğan in his pursuit of pure, absolutist power. Sources close to his party, the AKP, say that once the parliamentary marathon is over, towards the end of January, the ‘grand finale’ which they hope will seal a fully empower him until 2029 will take place as a referendum in April.
Whether or not this vote will happen under the Emergency Rule is a question is left unanswered. So blurred, tense and frightening are the circumstances that nobody has any clear foresight into what will happen when and how. Will Turkey definitely drop down to the league of Central Asian autocracies?
The worst part is, that nobody is properly, if at all, informed about the draft that will grant immense executive powers, a sultanate of sorts, to the current president.
”Surveys have shown that 36 percent of citizens who will vote in a possible referendum have no information about the constitutional change” wrote Mehmet Yılmaz, a columnist with Doğan Media:
”The rate of those who say they have ‘very little’ knowledge is 28 percent and those who say they have ‘a little’ knowledge total 14 percent. In other words, 78 percent of our population do not know what the amendments proposed will mean for this country.’
So vast is the media black-out about the package that TV channels have avoided to broadcast even the debate at the legislative. All happen with zero public discourse, except only with those who propagate the Erdoğan line.
1-8point bill, whose 14 points so far have been approved in the first round, is in various ways a political dynamite.
It abolishes the notion of an impartial presidency, under which Turkey was ruled – however problematically – since 1923 – a date marking its foundation. Erdoğan will be given, more or less, a free ride to rule the country from his grandieuse palace, where he will assemble the cabinet, hiring and firing ministers and top bureaucrats to his liking.
The post of the prime minister will be scrapped; executive power will be transferred exclusively to his very person. He will be empowered to declare state of emergency, up to six months first, to be extended by a Parliament that he aims to keep under control throughout. The package is also to hand him extended powers to issue decrees at will and abolish Parliament.
Other parts of the package are constructed to make sure to weaken checks and balances to the minimum: the number of top judges and key members of the judiciary he is entitled to pick are increased to such a critical level, that a ‘remote control of the Palace’ is established over any prospect of accountability.
A part that the opposition finds most worrisome is that the presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in the same day. A most critical point, that of keeping the 10 % threshold for parties to enter Parliament has not even been brought up, due to the AKP setting smokescreen over the debate.
This, of course, will be useful for Erdoğan to maintain a majoritarian composition in the legislative. In addition he will be able to keep his party affiliation during his ‘one-man rule’ tenure.
Sezgin Tanrıkulu, a prominent figure of CHP, described it astutely, using a football club as analogy.
‘Imagine a chairman of that club’ he wrote. ‘He becomes elected at the same time as the chairman of the football federation. He also appoints the members of the national referees’ committee and professional football disciplinary commission. He shapes football arbitrary commitee as well. If a player in his team misses a goal, he can fire that player. If the rival team happens to win against his team, he is entitled to punish the rival team. And, despite all this, if his team doesn’t become champion, he has the power to cancel the entire league!’
The changes, if approved, will be in effect from 2019 and will allow the president to serve in two consecutive five-year terms. This is, Erdoğan’s critics claim, aimed at consolidating his power in a sense that Turkey will turn into an autocratic party state, leading to comparisons to Baathist models of Saddam’s Iraq, and Assad’s Syria.
Theirs is a legitimate concern. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), the third largest group in Parliament, has seen a dozen of its deputies – including its co-chairs – thrown into jail on terror charges, in the past two months, say their ‘right to legislate’ has been violated, calling for a halt in the debate for vote, which they otherwise threaten to boycott. Equally, the Centrist-Secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), is up in arms to, as it states, ‘block any further advancement’ of the package.
Both parties have in common pointing out to what they see as the ‘absence of the rule of law’ in the country, following the abortive coup in July 15 last year.
‘Mind you, dear friends, we debate this draft under the emergency rule’ said Deniz Baykal, a veteran deputy of CHP in a passionate plea. ‘163 generals, 150 top judges, 6296 officers, 147 journalists are in pre-trial detention. Trustees have taken over 230 companies… TV channels are brought to knees. People have not been informed at all about this draft. For God’s sake, under such circumstances, how come you think of a constitutional amendment? Have we lost our minds?’
Baykal’s question converges with perceptions abroad as well. Yet, there is no sign of a diversion from the path Erdoğan has chosen. As he accelerates towards autocracy, his single challenger remaining is the rapidly weakening economy, showing signs of stagflation. He may end up winning at the end, but may see himself ruling over a country in unprecedented instability.