Turkey: Erdogan’s rule is built on quicksand

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Following his victory in the 24 June 2018 election, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was inaugurated as President of Turkey on 9 July for a second term. He will assume dictatorial powers in what is described as a new ‘Presidential Governance System’, with a new constitution which gives parliament a reduced role, and the position of prime minister is abolished. Erdogan will be both the head of state and of government. He will be able to hire and fire ministers, set the government budget, issue executive decrees that become law, appoint senior civil servants, senior judges and university heads, all without parliamentary approval, and he will be able to dissolve parliament. These powers were proposed in the April 2017 referendum, which Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) won in a fraudulent ballot. Trevor Rayne reports.

Turkey has been under a state of emergency where President Erdogan has ruled by decree since the failed coup attempt of July 2016. Erdogan ended the state of emergency on 18 July, but his dictatorial powers will be enshrined in law. After his inauguration Erdogan issued a decree putting the armed forces’ general staff under the authority of the defence ministry. He also appointed his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, to Turkey’s supreme military council which appoints and promotes senior officers. Henceforth, when things go wrong for Turkey – and they will – Erdogan will find it harder to avoid the blame.

Since the failed coup attempt, some 160,000 public servants have been sacked and their passports seized, and over 50,000 people have been gaoled as threats to national security. On the day before his inauguration Erdogan fired a further 18,632 state employees, nearly half of them police, with more than 6,000 soldiers and 200 teachers sacked; 12 civil society groups were banned, three newspapers and a television broadcaster were shut down. Some 192 journalists are imprisoned in Turkey; more journalists incarcerated than in any other country in the world. They are convicted of terrorism-related crimes for being critical of the government. Nine of the left-wing and predominantly Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) MPs and 68 HDP mayors are imprisoned. Hundreds of HDP party activists are also in gaol. The HDP’s presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas had to campaign from a prison cell.

The presidential and parliamentary elections were conducted under the state of emergency without freedom of assembly or freedom of expression. Over 90% of the media in Turkey is controlled by people with close ties to Erdogan. The elections had been scheduled for November 2019. Erdogan brought them forward to avoid an impending economic crisis and to exploit Turkish chauvinism following the invasion of predominantly Kurdish Afrin in northern Syria in March this year. The occupation of Afrin is presented by Erdogan, the AKP and the Turkish media as a military success for Turkey in its war on the Kurds. In the presidential election Erdogan won 52.59% of the votes cast; Ince of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) got 30.64% and Demirtas 8.4%, on an 86.24% voter turnout. In the parliamentary election, the AKP won 42.56% of the votes, giving it 295 seats; the CHP 22.65% and 146 seats; the HDP 11.7% and 67 seats; the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) got 11.1% and 49 seats, on a voter turnout of 86.22%. The CHP campaigned to preserve parliamentary powers. Erdogan’s vote fell in western and eastern Turkey from previous elections. The AKP and MHP have formed an alliance for electoral purposes and so have a majority in the 600-seat parliament.    

The MHP is a fascist party, with close links to the Grey Wolves and organised crime. The Grey Wolves were formed as the paramilitary wing of the MHP in the late 1960s and have a history of violence against the left and ethnic minorities in Turkey. The MHP leader, Devlet Bahceli, called for an amnesty for the imprisoned Grey Wolf leader, Alaatin Cakici, whom he said was ‘brave and fearless’. Cakici is an organised crime head, formerly employed by the National Intelligence Organisation. The MHP wants a return of the death penalty in Turkey. At one of his election rallies, Erdogan gave a Grey Wolf salute. The attempt to solve the Kurdish issue in Turkey by violent means is taking Turkey to fascism.

Before the election Erdogan said he would happily have Selahattin Demirtas executed if parliament asked him to. Addressing AKP delegates in private, Erdogan indicated that his followers should do anything necessary to prevent the HDP passing the 10% threshold of votes cast required for them to take parliamentary seats. Erdogan was filmed saying: ‘Don’t speak about this openly. Our party branches should do special work on HDP…If they (HDP) fail to pass the threshold, this would be a great advantage for us. Therefore our friends have to work very differently in each district, especially in tens of districts. Because you know who is who! Don’t you?’ He proceeded to direct the threats and attacks: ‘You will take the ballot lists, check who is who, and based on that, your special work on those people will, I believe, provide us with a very different result. Do you know what we call as “marking”, right? You will mark them.’ Between 28 April and 22 June there were 94 physical attacks recorded on HDP members and supporters; HDP stalls, stands and offices were attacked. HDP parliamentary candidates had their homes attacked by gangs making Grey Wolf salutes. In Suruc, a pro-HDP shopkeeper and two of his sons were murdered. After the election, Turkey’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, reportedly told the HDP’s co-chair Pervin Buldan, ‘You do not have the right to live any more.’

HDP’s success

The AKP and MHP and their supporters, the police and army and the Supreme Election Council failed to stop the HDP passing the 10% threshold. Seventeen HDP election rallies were banned. Police and security forces attacked HDP rallies that were held with batons and water cannon. Turkey’s Human Rights Association reported 361 arrests of HDP activists during the election campaign. The HDP gives the far higher figure of over 9,000 of its supporters arrested. In some Kurdish areas that had previously favoured the HDP in elections, polling stations were relocated, forcing people to travel further to vote. The Supreme Electoral Council said this was to prevent ‘PKK voter intimidation’. The armed wing of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) announced a 24-hour ceasefire while voting took place. Voters in Kurdish areas had to pass through military checkpoints and soldiers patrolled the polling stations. Nevertheless, the HDP was first in 11 provinces of South East Turkey/North Kurdistan, and in some Kurdish areas the HDP got over 80% of the votes. The HDP was the first party in seven countries outside Turkey, including the UK where it achieved 49.2% of the votes cast.

A dark cloud looms

Following his inauguration, Erdogan said he would aim to turn Turkey into one of the world’s top ten economies; it was ranked 17th last year. The AKP election manifesto included a 35-page appendix listing new hospitals, ports, roads and tunnels to be built. Much of Turkey’s economic growth since Erdogan became prime minister in 2003 has been fuelled by construction and injections of foreign money. This won Erdogan electoral support. Writing in the London Review of Books, Ella George states that the AKP stuck to an International Monetary Fund programme, pushing forward privatisations: ‘An economic recovery followed that eventually became a boom. Looking at the list of public assets sold to business interests allied to the AKP, one can identify the origins of what would become a bonanza of corruption. But back in 2007 the improvement in the country’s economic position, combined with investment in infrastructure – as well as health and education – had tangibly improved the lives of the poor and delivered clear benefits to the party’s core constituency’ (24 May 2018). The boom is over and the international financiers want payment.

Turkey needs $200bn a year from foreign funds to finance its current account deficit and maturing debt, but has foreign currency reserves of just $85bn, and a GDP of $910bn. Turkey’s banking sector is under threat from a growing number of non-performing loans. Turkey’s private sector firms have foreign currency loans totalling $295bn. The lira has fallen almost 20% against the US dollar this year. As the Turkish lira falls so it becomes ever more expensive for Turkey’s firms to service their debts which were borrowed in dollars and euros. Will foreign lenders continue to fund Turkey’s debt repayments? ‘That is the big dark cloud hanging over Turkey’ (Financial Times 5 June 2018).

When Erdogan addressed City of London investors in London in May they said that they could not believe what they were hearing and the lira promptly fell to a record low. Erdogan claims that higher interest rates cause inflation, while mainstream economists argue that raising interest rates is necessary to reduce it. A fortnight after Erdogan’s visit, the governor of Turkey’s central bank had to travel to London to try and reassure investors. On the day of his inauguration Erdogan announced that his son-in-law was to be the new treasury and finance minister. The lira promptly fell another 3%. Turkey’s inflation rate in June was 15.39%; the highest it has been since 2004 and more than triple the official target. Food and non-alcoholic drink prices were up nearly 6% in a month. The central bank has raised interest rates by 5% since April to 17.75% and it will be under pressure to raise interest rates still further. On 24 July, the central bank said it was holding interest rates steady but holders of Turkish lira expected another rate rise. The result was an immediate further 4.2% fall in the lira. Whether interest rates are raised or the Turkish lira continues to drop, both will exacerbate the debt burden; increase the number of non-performing loans paying no interest and push Turkey into recession.

Before he visited London this spring Erdogan described Britain ‘as an ally and a strategic partner, but also a real friend…the cooperation we have is well beyond any mechanism we have established with other partners’. British Prime Minister Theresa May gave Erdogan her support and said that Erdogan was trying to defend his country from ‘the extraordinary pressures of a failed coup and Kurdish terrorism’. She was prepared to use the phrase that Erdogan uses, ‘Kurdish terrorism’, to justify his assault on democracy and human rights, and his war on Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Syria, in order to promote British arms sales to Turkey. The Kurds have been denied their right to self-determination since the First World War. Erdogan’s Turkey cannot win its war on the Kurds and, without more injections of foreign money, cannot afford to fight it. Turkey should be branded an international pariah and placed under sanctions. However, the City of London and international finance are discovering that Erdogan and the AKP/MHP government are a bad bet. At the pinnacle of his power Erdogan will discover that his foundations are built on quicksand.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 265 August/September 2018


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