The Turkish president Erdoğan seems to be leading his country towards autocracy while realising the visions he had in his own, banned party.

Text & photo: Marcus Prest


MILITARY COUPS or “military inventions” have been frequent in the history of modern Turkey. The military has openly intervened in 1960, 1971, 1980, 1993, 1997 and most recently in the summer of 2016.

The measures taken by the Turkish regime, led by president Recep Erdoğan, following the 2016 coup have given rise to worried and condemnatory reactions, at least in the press, but also politically by the EU and USA. Turkey seems to be sliding towards increasingly authoritarian rule, while president Erdoğan is enormously popular at home.

“This is what a majority of the Turks want,” says Markku Suksi, Professor of Public Law at Åbo Akademi University.
“It might be difficult to understand, as Erdoğan wants to change the state ideology that has prevailed since Kemal Atatürk.”

Kemal Atatürk is regarded as the founder of the Turkish state after World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Atatürk’s ambition was to modernise Turkey by introducing secular rule and not giving religion any role in official contexts – he wanted to steer the country away from sultan rule. He also pursued a strong Turkish nationalistic programme while trying to carry through modern reforms.

The instigators of last summer’s coup had a list of measures that they wanted to have implemented in Turkey. The first point on their list was to guarantee the continuation of secular rule, which has prevailed for almost a century in an almost exclusively Muslim country.
“Formally almost all Turks are Muslims – but in practice this covers people of various degrees of profanity and religiosity. On the whole, however, it is obvious that Turkey is a markedly Muslim country,” Suksi says.

“After the military coups in the 1970s and 1980s, and after a military invention in the 1990s, Turkey developed in a more democratic direction, which allowed parties with a religious agenda to form and participate in politics. Until then, the Turkish state had actively hindered such parties from public participation.”

There is a well-known case from the European Court of Human Rights, called The Welfare Party Case, from 2003. This unique case concerned the party of which Erdoğan was then leader. What made it special was that the European Court of Human Rights allowed the state to ban a political party.

“Usually the verdict is the opposite when political parties are involved. But this Islamist party was wholly anti-democratic and advocated discrimination against non-Muslims and women. The party was forbidden by Turkey, something that the European Court of Human Rights approved, and Erdoğan as its leader was given a prison sentence by the Turkish court system,” Suksi explains.

“When he was released he founded the Justice and Development Party, the AKP, which opposes the most fanatical Muslim extremism, but is nevertheless a strongly religiously oriented party. And since then it seems as if the agenda of Erdoğan and the AKP coincides with that of most Turks.”

Suksi underlines that a military coup is always the worst alternative, and that it was good that the latest one in Turkey was unsuccessful. However, Turkey is currently creating a regime which, according to Suksi, seems as unpleasant as the military alternative.

“For me personally this is a great moral problem. But my opinion is that successful military coups are always the worse alternative. So what we have now is a Turkey that is developing into an autocracy while donning a democratic façade. A ruler similar to a tsar or a sultan has been allowed to establish himself. Erdoğan will continue strengthening his own position and forcing through new constitutional regulations in parliament,” Suksi predicts.

“When these laws come into force, Turkey will be transformed from a state with official parliamentary rule to a state where the president and parliament are separate entities, and where the president has the power to rule and also to overrule parliament. This means that the entire state administration totally changes character. And this entails a fundamental difference from the way countries within the EU are governed. Erdoğan is going to realise the Welfare Party’s vision, but under another name.”

A lost opportunity

Suksi himself earlier thought that Turkey’s negotiations for EU membership could have potentially been successful. Much effort would have been needed for the country to fulfil the EU requirements, major changes would have had to be made, but the same has applied to some current EU member states too.

“The first serious discussions on the conditions for Turkish EU membership took place at the EU meeting in Helsinki in 1999. But with the development we are currently witnessing, this opportunity has now been lost for a long time. And it also means that a considerable part of Turkey’s educated labour force is packing their bags. Turkey is facing an expensive brain drain.”

How do you think the autocracy will influence the future of Turkey in more detail?
“Turkey will become a country similar to the Central Asian states and Russia. This means, among other things, that we should constantly be aware of who Erdoğan’s successor might be. That is, I don’t think Erdoğan will let his position be subject to entirely free and fair elections. Unfortunately I expect a more dynastic development, but I hope I’ll be proved wrong.”

“Erdoğan is now 62 years old, which is young for a dictator. But in 10–15 years he must have a successor whom he has trained for the position. The successor will be hand-picked and probably somebody from within his family. Naturally, all this is speculation – but these kinds of patterns tend to recur in the world of one-man rule.”

What are your thoughts on Turkey’s role as a NATO country?
“I‘m not all that familiar with NATO as an organisation. But NATO is a military alliance and the objectives of military alliances are totally different from those of governmental organisations that cooperate internationally on other than military issues.”

“NATO consists of democracies and expressly acknowledges the principle of democracy. And it’s uncertain whether it can even be pretended that Turkey is a democracy, although the country would try to maintain a democratic façade. It will be a major issue for NATO if Turkey turns into a pure autocracy. One aspect of that is, for instance, that autocracies are unpredictable. If another country enters into dispute with Turkey, it’s equal to entering into dispute with Erdoğan, and vice versa.”

How do you think autocracy will influence Turkey’s possible power ambitions in Central Asia?
“Imagine something happening in, say, Azerbaijan or Uzbekistan, which creates a threat to the Turkish population there. I don’t think Erdoğan would shun any means if he could gain something by interfering. Considering NATO, of course, this is not a good scenario. And if Turkey provokes an attack on its own territory – how will NATO react in accordance with its treaty article 5 pertaining to collective security?”

“A consequence of the state considering itself to be Muslim is that there is no room for other groups. Apart from certain so-called treaty minorities, mainly Christian and Jewish, there would officially be no other minorities. This would make the situation for Kurds even more difficult. It seems that the possibilities of Kurds to start to act politically in a cautious manner through the parliament during the past 15 years will now be constrained to the level that preceded the 1990s.”

A radicalisation

Suksi is concerned about the current radicalisation of Europe and the rest of the world. Countries such as Hungary and Poland are ruled by right-wing nationalists and populists with authoritarian leaders. Not to mention the general situation in the Middle East. Le Pen is strong in France, but there the political culture is still of a different kind.

“Turkey’s present development is such a big loss for democracy. Turkey has been the model for democracy in the region, but now the country has, in turn, modelled its development on the neighbouring countries in the Middle East. This is a horrible development.”