TURKEY: Reverse Regime Change, Replacing Secularism with Sultanism

By Dr Can Erimtan  - 5 March 2017
Since 2002, the Republic of Turkey has been ruled by the Justice and Development Party (or AKP), founded Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other prominent figures hailing from Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party (or Refah Partisi, better known under the acronym RP) that had made Islamist politics mainstream in 1990’s Turkey.
At first, Erdoğan and his henchmen appeared to respect the rule of law and the political traditions established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938) and his followers (colloquially known as Kemalists, adhering to the ideology of Kemalism). The economic boom of the early AKP years and the concomitant political clout have allowed AKP-led Turkey to go down a post-Kemalist path into distinctly Muslim waters where authoritarianism and Ottoman nostalgia have managed to seduce the bulk of the Turkish population.
In reality, the economic boom overseen by the AKP was nothing but a mirage, after all, largely financed by borrowed money and extreme privatization – “a flood of near zero-interest foreign capital.” At present, the Turkish economy appears to be in the doldrums, with unemployment currently at 11.8%, the highest level reached since March 2010 according to the Turkish Statistical Institute (or TÜİK in acronymized Turkish).
The well-respected Turkish economist Taner Berksoy, for example, opines that the Turkish economy will experience a major downturn this year, in spite of the government’s encouragement packages, citing internal political instability as well as geopolitical risks, including Syria’s not-so civil war next door, and a general slowing down of the global economy.
Berksoy also thinks that a loss of confidence is to blame for an unease in investors. The world-leading publication for political risk news and analysis Global Risk Insights (or GRI) even goes as far as saying that the “country’s dependence on foreign capital, intensified by the promises of populist rhetoric, will go head-to-head with the realities of rising domestic inflation and its depreciating currency, amidst a tightening of global monetary policy.”
Arguably, the reality of an ever-stronger Tayyip Erdoğan all but frightens foreign investors as well as foreign tourists (with the “tourism industry, down by 40% from 2015, with the number of foreign arrivals dropping by more than 21%”). In other words, from a country with a booming economy Turkey is now, particularly following the Coup-that-was-no-Coup, apparently fast turning into a failed state, a failed state carrying a tanking economy.
“Our Reference is Islam. Our Only Goal is an Islamic State”

As a result, one could argue that Tayyip Erdoğan and his henchmen have, over the years cunningly employed a short-term strategy to enliven Turkey’s dormant economy in the initial stages of their rule to be able to implement their political goals in the next instance. With regard to these goals,while Mayor of Istanbul (1994-98), Erdoğan spoke to the columnist Nilgün Cerrahoğlu, an interview that was published on 14 June 1996 and contained the following choice words explaining his long-term objectives:
“[but] is democracy a goal or a tool? . . . We say that democracy is not a goal but a tool.”
In other words, according to Tayyip Erdoğan, liberal democracy accompanied by liberal economics are nothing but  tools to attain a wished-for goal, a goal that could be described as a centralized state according to Islamic lines, a political end that has now become encapsulated in the phrase “presidential system,“ a phrase that has apparently been current in Turkey’s political discourse since the 1970’s, according to the civil servant and partisan scholar Salih Bayram.
But Erdoğan himself has not always been a proponent of a presidential system, as proven by the journalists Metin Sever and Cem Dizdar’s 1993 book 2. Cumhuriyet tartışmaları [or ‘Discussions about the Second Republic’]. Sever and Dizdar quote the younger Tayyip Erdoğan’s opinion that a “presidential system” is nothing but the “result of an affectation” . . . a “recommendation [made by] U.S. Imperialism.
Interestingly though, he prefaced his words with the statement that Turkey was not ready at the time, that a “[f]ree market in [the world of] politics would need to be established  first” And arguably, the “New Turkey” established after more than a decade-long AKP rule is a country where the economic reforms undertaken and the widespread privatization implemented have now created a fertile ground for establishing a Turkish style presidential system, a presidential system that sees the people elect the figure of an Absolute President, without the intermediary of a “bureaucratic oligarchy” or an elected Chamber of Parliament.
Instead, a direct popular vote would constitute a valid mandate for the President of the Republic to establish his own “sultanistic regime” in true pseudo-Ottoman yet clear Islamic fashion. And now, the AKP machinery is working hard to persuade (or coerce, if you will) the Turkish population into accepting truly momentous changes to the fabric of Turkish reality . . . replacing the country’s parliamentary system with a presidential one, constituting a veritable ‘regime change’ and ushering in an Absolute Presidency that would transform Erdoğan into a latter-day Sultan Abdülhamid II, and, Atatürk’s erstwhile nation state into an “Anatolian federation of Muslim ethnicities, possibly linked to a revived caliphate” and arguably beholden to the Shariah, deconstructing the Kemalist consensus of yesteryear that saw nationalism replace religion as the “common heritage“ binding people and forging a sense of unity in the land.
In due course, Turkey’s state-controlled version of Islam became lenient and permissive, allowing for the creation of the term “Turkish Secularism“ to describe the nation’s state-of-affairs, a term and concept much hated by Tayyip Erdoğan.
Reverse Regime Change or a Parliament Emasculating Itself
But using the term ‘regime change‘ might not be totally appropriate in this instance. Over the past years the phrase “regime change” has become part of the global political lexicon to denote the “toppling [of] an existing regime that displeases or worries the United States Government with the introduction of “democracy” thrown in as a reasonable and benevolent rationale.
At the outset of this century, for instance, U.S. President George W. Bush articulated his so-called “freedom agenda” in order to justify U.S. interventionist foreign policy as a means of spreading the benefits of liberty and representative democracy in a forceful yet benign manner.
Though an academic specialist like Thomas Carothers can very well say that the “positive effects of [the] Bush policy on global democracy have been sparse,” still the association between terms “regime change” and the spread of “democracy” remains alive today. But as could have been expected, in this respect, Turkish politicians and the Turkish people are now bucking the trend, while adhering to another, newer trend that has since become widespread across the world – namely, populism and authoritarianism (from Brexit in the UK to Poland and Hungary to the United States where the recent election of Donald Trump has now given hope to such erstwhile marginal forces and figures like Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and the AfD in Germany).
In other words, the era of U.S.-led regime change has now come to an end only to be replaced by an equally distasteful wave of “radical right-wing populist parties” basing their beliefs and actions on either religion, xenophobia, and/or outright racism.
Before Turkey’s low-profile and quite hapless PM Binali Yıldırım left for Moscow at the very end of last year, he told the nation that the presidential issue would be resolved upon his return. And in this way, Turkey’s parliament (or TBMM) formally started debating a constitutional amendment package on 9 January 2017.
In the subsequent days, Turkish lawmakers took part in hectic and sometimes even quite violent scenes – scenes that would have remained hidden from view, as the AKP-led government put a temporary stop to the live broadcast of parliamentary proceedings on a dedicated television channel (TRT 3 or TBMM TV). Some opposition lawmakers were nevertheless able to post live feeds on the internet via Periscope and social media like Facebook and Twitter. At the outset of the first session, the opposition Republican People’s Party (or CHP)’s Deniz Baykal made these ominous remarks:
“[We] are taking part in a historic meeting . . . Maybe none of us will ever have the chance to make an address like this.”
In the next instance, Baykal added:
“[this constitutional] amendment is a hurriedly commissioned project. A personal hegemony will take the place of the sovereignty of the people. The Turkish people are not [even] aware of this proposal . . . There is an effort to come to a fait accompli without warning the people. National sovereignty and the primacy of Parliament rest at the basis of the constitution. This amendment will obliterate them.”
Following these opening words, the MP’s starting discussing the various elements of the proposed constitutional amendment. A number of CHP MP’s tried to disrupt or even stop the proceeding, but all this proved to be of no avail as…
“[On] Jan. 21, the Turkish parliament approved a constitutional amendment that would change the current system of government from parliamentary to presidential. The amendment received well more than the 330 votes in the parliament needed for approval, after a deal between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ultranationalist MHP [or Nationalist Movement Party]. Those changes will now go to a popular referendum, which will likely take place in early April [2017],” ~ as noted by Yüksel Sezgin in the Washington Post.
The Will of the People
The events of the past weeks should come as no surprise, as Tayyip Erdoğan himself has been publicly clamouring in favour of a presidential system for nearly seven years now. Critics of the ruling AKP and its founder loudly protest that instituting a presidential system would spell the end of Turkish democracy.
In his above-quoted piece Sezgin does not mince his words in this respect:
“ [these] proposed changes are so profound that, if passed, they will amount to a total [reverse] regime change, not just a change in the system of government. Erdogan’s de facto one-man rule will be codified into what can only be described as a sultanistic regime, unprecedented in Turkey or anywhere else in the democratic world.”
In fact, the parliamentary vote, and its confirmation in a popular referendum, to be held in the near future, on April, 16, in fact, as announced recently,would all but authorize a reverse of the process popularized by George W. Bush in the early years of this century – thus denoting a move away from democratic values and the American orbit, and into the sphere of Muslim values and a political ideology some are already calling “Erdoganism.”
In all likelihood, the huge popularity of the figure of President himself and his eager mobilization of the concept of Islam as an argument in favour of accepting the constitutional changes suggested will probably ensure that the “Yes” camp will come out victoriously at the end of the day, turning Turkey into yet another country where populism and authoritarianism have come out on top.
The pro-government Turkish journalist and activist  Hakan Albayrak wrote in early February that the “New Turkey” is a strong and prosperous Turkey where the people and the state have merged.
“In fact, Tayyip Erdoğan himself, like all past and present populist leaders, always stresses that he is merely following the will of the people . . . that he is merely carrying out the wishes of “70 million“ Muslims [or Turks] living in the country. In the previous century, while acting as Mayor of Istanbul, Erdoğan made this quasi-prophetic statement: “You cannot be both secular and a Muslim! You will either be a Muslim, or secular! When both are together, they create reverse magnetism [i.e. they repel one another]. For them to exist together is not a possibility! Therefore, it is not possible for a person who says ‘I am a Muslim’ to go on and say ‘I am secular, too.’ And why is that? Because Allah, the creator of the Muslim, has absolute power and rule!”  In this way, the figure of the Turkish President will be nothing but Allah’s representative on earth . . . a caliph, in other words.” [Emphasis added]
Would a Turkey ruled by the Absolute President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan strive to become the centre of the world of Islam, the centre of the Middle East and beyond? Would Erdogan’s “sultanistic regime” be able to continue Turkey’s exquisite dance between the EU, Russia and the U.S. Following the outcome of the popular referendum, the world will arguably begin to know the answers to these questions . .
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Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar who was living in Istanbul for some time, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the book “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In the period 2010-11, he wrote op-eds for Today’s Zaman and in the further course of 2011 he also published a number of pieces in Hürriyet Daily News. In 2013, he was the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. He is on Twitter at @theerimtanangle

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