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A new era for Turkey?

  • Published at 12:53 am July 8th, 2018
  • Last updated at 12:54 am July 8th, 2018
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Turkey is becoming an even bigger player, and the West should take note REUTERS

Is Erdogan about to become the most powerful Turkish leader since Ataturk?

The Turkish elections took place on June 24 under a state of emergency, in place since July 2016 following a failed deadly coup blamed by the government on the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based, self-exiled religious leader. 

This period raised eyebrows all over Europe. Turkey’s Western allies, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International upbraided the Turkish government’s detentions and purges after the coup attempt. 

Local and international rights groups accused the Turkish government of using the coup bid as a pretext to silence opposition in the country. Erdogan’s government retorted by pointing out that the purges and detentions were in line with the rule of law and aimed to remove Gulen’s supporters from state institutions and other parts of society.

More than 56 million voters were eligible to cast their ballots in this election (held on June 24), brought forward by more than 18 months by the AK Party-controlled parliament in April. The voting marked the first time that Turkish voters cast their ballots in simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections, in line with the constitutional changes approved in a referendum last year. This latest election will now transform the country’s parliamentary system to an executive presidential one.

The state broadcaster and foreign media representatives reported that voter turnout was high, at almost 87%. Erdogan polled nearly 52.5% in the most fiercely fought election in years. His main rival Ince received just 30.7%, despite a lively campaign where his presence attracted huge crowds. Other candidates Demirtas received 8.4% and Aksener received 7.3%.

Unlike Erdogan’s success, his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) lost its majority in the 600-seat assembly by winning 295 seats. At 42.5%, the party lost seven percentage points compared with the last parliamentary elections in November 2015. However, the People’s Allaince, an election coalition constituted between the AK Party and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), has still the majority with a combined predicted number of 343 seats. Both parties have signalled that they will keep a united front in parliament.

There were two surprises within the electoral dynamics, and these gave the president the victory he desired.

The first was that the combined score of Muharrem Ince and Meral Aksener was not higher. Ince’s 30.7% was a significant increase since he burst onto the campaign in April, although it was thought he would be able to go even higher. Aksener, nicknamed “she-wolf,” once seen as the biggest threat to the president -- polled lower than expected and than what was needed -- for a strong united front against Erdogan. 

The second surprise was that in the parliamentary election, the president’s far-right coalition partner, the MHP, far exceeded expectations. Its leader, who is 70 years old, lacked any popular touch, and held only a few rallies. Nevertheless, he managed somehow to win his party enough seats to keep Erdogan’s parliamentary majority intact.

It may be recalled that Erdogan was prime minister for 11 years before becoming president in 2014. Under the new constitution, now approved through this latest election, he could stand for a third term when his second finishes in 2023 -- a hundred years since Ataturk’s creation of modern Turkey. 

The new constitutional arrangement would also give him the benefit of seeking another five-year term in office till 2028. Tayyip Erdogan will consequently now be taking on extensive new executive powers following his election victory. Defeated opposition candidate Muharrem Ince has however noted that Turkey was now entering a dangerous period of “one-man rule.”

Despite polarized opinion, Erdogan has created a special appeal within Turkey due to his success within the socio-economic matrix. Over the years, he has presided over a strong economy and built up a solid support base by investing in health care, education, and infrastructure.

Erdogan has proven to his opponents that for conservative, pious Turks, he is their voice -- their very survival -- in a country where many have felt marginalised under past secular governments. 

The coming weeks in all likelihood, will see Erdogan initiating implementation of certain constitutional changes that were endorsed in a tight referendum last year by 51% of the voters. His new powers will now enable him to directly appoint top public officials, including ministers and vice-presidents; intervene in the country’s legal system, and be able to impose a state of emergency whenever he feels that it is required. 

There will also be no prime minister in the parliament. After this election, he will become Turkey’s most powerful leader since its founding father.

Such powers have led some analysts to express their concern that the governance paradigm in presidential Turkey might suffer because of the absence of checks and balances required for accountability in executive presidencies. 

They, however, agree that the new increased authority will empower Erdogan to address the sensitive issue of Kurdish rebels in the southeast of the country with greater determination.

Congratulations have come in for Erdogan from around the world, though some Western leaders have been slow to react. Russian President Vladimir Putin has however talked of Erdogan’s “great political authority and mass support.” 

Strategists have pointed out that this will remind the Western powers of Turkey becoming a more significant player and stakeholder in the Middle East.

Analyst and columnist Avni Ozgurel has observed that while the new system will allow Turkey to be governed in a more efficient and stable manner, in the long run, it is bound to run into problems during its initial implementation stage. 

Within this evolving paradigm, Erdogan will also have to face a plethora of foreign policy challenges that will require his immediate attention. 

We in Bangladesh welcome Erdogan’s victory and hope that his administration will continue to support Bangladesh in its efforts to successfully tackle the debilitating circumstances which have emerged due to the influx of nearly one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar to Bangladesh.

Turkey’s role in this regard will be important within the Islamic Ummah.

Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]