Istanbul’s Taksim Square has a new feel. A giant mosque — not yet completed — now towers over a monument to the Turkish Republic in the center of the square. The monument glorifies Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the secular Turkish Republic.
On Sunday night, supporters of Erdogan celebrated the president’s election victory, gathering around the busts of Ataturk, screaming “Allahu akbar” (God is great), Palestine is for Arabs and other chants, including singing a song glorifying Erdogan. They paused their celebration briefly during the call to prayer.
Down the street on Istiklal Avenue — a hub for bar and entertainment venues — the tourist contingent is dominated by people from the Middle East and the Muslim world. While tourism appears to be picking up in Turkey, westerners are not coming back in droves following multiple years of frequent terror attacks and political unrest.
Taking a seat in one of the many cafes in the area, one may surf the web and find that Wikipedia, arguably the world’s largest online source of information, is blocked. Turkey blocked Wikipedia shortly following last year’s referendum on establishing an executive presidency. Now when one tries to go to use Wikipedia, a “go back to the previous page” notice appears.
Erdogan’s Turkey is shifting geopolitical directions, and it is starting to show even at places like Taksim and Istiklal, as well as in cyberspace.
Meanwhile, countless political opponents of Erdgoan languish in jail, including the third-place finisher in Sunday’s presidential election. Selahattin Demirtas, the co-leader of a party that is represented in the parliament, was swept up amid the mass arrests that took place in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt.
This doesn’t mean that all political freedoms in the country have been squashed. It appears some individuals retain the freedom to challenge Erdogan.
Last week, hundreds of thousands of people showed up at rallies for the top presidential challenger, Muharrem Ince. The physics teacher-turned-politician, Ince, drew massive crowds in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir as he campaigned to reverse the trend of one-man rule. The Izmir rally was particularly massive. Erdogan lost badly in Izmir, the only one of Turkey’s major cities outside of the Kurdish-dominated area where that occurred.
The election campaign appeared competitive, even though it took place in a “climate of fear,” as stated by the OSCE, and Erdogan’s control over the Turkish media added to the uphill battle for opposition candidates and parties. Opposition media outlets have largely been shut down or bought off over the last few years.
Ince may or may not have appealed to enough nationalists or conservative voters to stop Erdogan from crossing the 50 percent threshold in a “fair” vote. It is hard to tell whether Erdogan legitimately received 50 percent plus 1 on Sunday.
Voting in the Kurdish-dominated southeast took place under questionable conditions. The area is highly militarized under Turkey’s ongoing state of emergency, making it difficult for some people to vote. Critics have alleged that during the state of emergency some Kurdish votes have fraudulently been going to Erdogan and the ruling AKP.
Questions have also arisen surrounding the impartiality of the Turkish electoral body, as well as the state-run Anadolu Agency, which was reporting the results on election night. Anadolu reported immediately on election night that initial results showed Erdogan had 58 percent of the vote, creating the impression that he would be able to quickly claim victory. Erdogan’s tally then consistently dropped over the course of the night, but he claimed victory promptly anyway, finishing with 52.6 percent.
Erdogan and his AKP relied heavily on support from the nationalist MHP in this election. The AKP effectively absorbed the MHP, which did not run a challenger to Erdogan in the presidential race and ran as part of a coalition with the ruling party in the parliamentary election. The AKP would not have retained control of the parliament had it not been for its coalition with the MHP, which mysteriously received more than 11 percent of the vote after polling at a little more than half of that and losing party members to a new, competing nationalist party.
Turkish democracy and the war on terror
In his victory speech Erdogan declared Turkish democracy the winner of the election.
Turks do love their democracy. According to the official numbers, 87% of voters went to the polls on Sunday — in what was effectively a snap election. The election was only called a couple months before it took place.
Election season seems to be a constant in Turkey. Including last year’s referendum, Sunday’s vote was the fourth major national election in the country in a span of just over three years.
But following this cycle of three parliamentary elections, a constitutional referendum and a presidential election, one might ask: Have Turks used their democracy to elect a leader and establish a system that eliminate key elements of democracy like checks and balances and distribution of power?
Another focal point of Erdogan’s victory speech was terrorism, or terrorist organizations targeting Turkey. Ankara’s current war on terror is really at the heart of contemporary Turkish democracy and Erdogan’s consolidation of power.
Erdogan has relied on, or at least made use of, the existence of chaos — largely involving terrorism — in order to create a new political order in Turkey.
In 2015, Erdogan’s party lost its parliamentary majority — or at least it came up short of obtaining a majority in the June elections. Unsatisfied with the result, Erdogan insisted on their being a redo vote. In the meanwhile, chaos unfolded. Deadly bombings occurred as Turkish forces resumed their war with the Kurdish PKK, and at times, targeted the Islamic State as well.
A terror spree ensued, with Kurdish militants and Islamic State jihadists taking turns terrorizing Turkish citizens. This terror spree last over the course of 2016 and into early 2017. And in mid 2016, a few hundred people were killed in the bloody coup attempt in which Ankara was bombed and tanks were rolling through the streets of major Turkish cities.
That gave Erdogan the opportunity to crack down on supporters of his ally-turned-archnemesis Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara blamed for the coup attempt. Simultaneously, though, Erdogan targeted tens of thousands of soldiers, public servants, journalists and educators who were viewed as opposition to the president’s rule. Thousands of people were arrested and prosecuted using anti-terror laws. Even political leaders, like Demirtas, were deemed terrorists and thrown in jail.
Turkey has truly been faced with frequent terrorism in recent years, but Erdogan’s war on terror has really become a war on opposition. And in that sense, despite failing to eradicate terrorism, Erdogan has almost completely won the war. As Turkey moves into its new presidential system, Erdogan now has powers that are largely unchecked.
Now, the remaining checks on Erdogan’s power might just be markets. Turkey’s lira is consistently devaluing and inflation is high. Erdogan has already signaled he will go to battle with foreign exchange markets via exerting control over Turkish monetary policy. This should make for an interesting clash now that Turkey’s opposition has been subdued. Look out for talk of financial terrorists targeting Turkey, but exerting control over markets isn’t as easy as locking up political opponents.