Last Sunday, June 24, Turkish citizens far and wide headed to the polls to decide the future of their democracy, specifically whether they would still live in one at all. That race, unfortunately, ended badly for those Turks who still wanted to live in a democracy as the incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the race and is preparing to return to the presidency with vastly expanded powers.
To understand how the stage was set for Turkey’s current, depressing state, we must first follow the career of the man currently running it (and who probably will for the rest of his life). Erdogan, the former mayor of Istanbul, first rose to national prominence when he was elected as prime minister in 2003.
The Turkey Erdogan inherited was one that was increasingly facing outward and inching closer to democratic Europe. It was well on its way to gaining membership into the European community of nations. At first, it looked like little would change under Erdogan. His AKP party appeared as a mainstream conservative party following the dogma of political liberalization and economic growth. The message of economic growth greatly appealed to Turks and they reelected Erdogan with solid majorities.
This popularity in the premiership gave Erdogan the confidence to run for president. The presidency in Turkey had historically been a ceremonial position with the majority of executive power exercised by the prime minister. This changed under Erdogan, who upon winning the presidency under the first ever direct election began to accumulate ever more executive power.
Turkish democracy at this point in time was beginning to stress. Erdogan was beginning to show an increasingly authoritarian side – cracking down on protesters and lobbying and bullying Turkish law enforcement officials to drop inquiries into his or his friends’ activities.
Then the unthinkable happened – on July 15, 2016, the army rolled into Istanbul and attempted to seize control of the country. The army, which was the traditional bastion of Turkish secular values, was rebelling against Erdogan’s increasingly religious, authoritarian style of governance. A coup d’état was underway. Erdogan, desperate to cling onto power, called into the largest television station in the country and through Facetime, broadcasted a call to action to his country’s men and women. He implored them to put aside their own individual political differences and fight to defend their democracy. Turks responded in force and the coup was an utter failure.
Having survived an attempt to have his power taken away, Erdogan clenched ever tighter to it. He declared a state of emergency and began an extensive purge of the army and the civil service of anyone he perceived as his enemy. As of 20 July 2016, the purge had seen over 45,000 military officials, police officers, judges, governors, and civil servants arrested or suspended, including 2700 judges, 15,000 teachers, and every university dean in the country, removed from their positions.
The state of emergency gave Erdogan the power to control the media and he put it to good use, working to shutter any opposition news outlets and molding the message into a daily deluge of pro-Erdogan propaganda.
Sensing an opportunity to permanently rig the stage in his favour, Erdogan launched a campaign towards serious constitutional reforms. The reforms called for the post of prime minister to be abolished and for all executive authority to rest in the hands of the president. The president would now appoint five out the thirteen judges of the Supreme Court and would have the authority to issue decrees without any interference from Parliament.
These reforms were put to a referendum and an electorate that had been living under a state of emergency for nearly a year gave Erdogan a narrow victory with 51% of the public voting yes.
The stage was now set for Erdogan to become the most powerful leader Turkey had known in almost a century. All he needed to do now was win the upcoming presidential elections and he could come into the presidency with these hard won new powers.
On April 18, the Turkish Parliament (in which Erdogan’s party, the AKP, holds the majority of seats) voted for a snap election to be held on June 24. The campaign was in full swing.
The race at first seemed as a mere formality. Erdogan’s election was all but guaranteed. Two things changed that, making an end to the Erdogan era a real possibility. One was a sudden downturn in the economy. A pillar of the popularity that Erdogan had enjoyed rested from his reputation as a good steward of the economy. As the economy took a hit, many of his core supporters began to increasingly complain against their dear leader. The second change came from an unusually charismatic opposition candidate, Muharrem İnce. Ince, a former physics teacher, campaigned fiercely for a reversal of Erdogan’s political reforms and a strengthening of Turkish democracy. Ince, even with massive odds against him, was beginning to slowly inch higher and higher in the polls.
Ultimately, Erdogan’s dominance of the media was just too great for any candidate to have a reasonable chance of winning. The race ended with Erdogan the outright winner with 52.59% of the vote.
Erdogan now prepares to enter the presidency with unparalleled power to affect the lives of his countrymen. As the Turkish democracy enters a period of darkness, Turks must learn from its history and fight to return it to its former glory.