Erdoğan is a strongman tightening his grip on power
“We remain committed to justice,” wrote the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in this newspaper in an article marking the first anniversary of the 15 July coup attempt to remove the government of his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP). However, the question is what sort of justice President Erdoğan wants his country to commit to? In a speech at the weekend to thousands of supporters, he seemed to be advocating capital punishment as a form of judicial retribution – saying that if parliament voted for a bill bringing back the death penalty, he would approve cutting off traitors’ heads. Such a move would set Turkey back in terms of both foreign and domestic politics.
Reinstating the death penalty would end Turkey’s bid for accession to the European Union, talks over which have stalled thanks mainly to continental intransigence. Capital punishment is not only barbaric and immoral but its deterrent effect unproven. It gives the state the right to eliminate anyone whom it finds dangerous even when there are other ways the danger can be contained. Turkey’s modern democracy should be a leader to follow for Muslim states, not a follower of bad leads.
The toppling of elected politicians by the generals would have been wrong. Turkish soldiers seized state television and tanks were seen on the streets. Turkish F-16s bombed the country’s parliament building. Yet ordinary Turks did not want a return to military dictatorship and came out to defend the status quo. As did opposition politicians, who condemned the attempted putsch. Thousands were wounded and 250 people killed. Western powers failed Turkey by being backward in coming forward to condemn the coup d’etat in a Nato member, which takes in and looks after millions of refugees. This perhaps contributed to a besieged outlook. Instead of taking the chance to rebuild democracy, the strongman has sought to tighten his grip on power.
President Erdoğan, who first came to power as a pious rightwing PM in 2003, has grown his conservative religious base by demonising electorates unlikely to back him. However, in the past year, under a state of emergency, this has taken a more sinister bent. More than 150,000 people have faced legal action and 50,000 – including academics, journalists, rights activists and opposition MPs – jailed. Under these conditions President Erdoğan held and won a constitutional referendum which would see his office fuse the positions of head of state, head of government, and head of the ruling party. There would be little serious check on its authority.
Politicians who claim all reflection must stop once they have the imprimatur they want are often wrong. President Erdoğan still has to win the November 2019 election. However, his opponents are scattered: in politics they remain divided between Kurdish, nationalist and leftist groups; in the military, which is in disarray; and in the once-powerful Gülenist movement, which had worked with Erdoğan’s AKP to vitiate the secular elite before being cast as a mortal enemy after they fell out, it is claimed, over a corruption scandal. The Gülenist group is blamed for being behind the coup attempt. Punishment is not an occasion to forge a national identity. The president’s ideas for recasting Turkey are worrying for all sorts of reasons – not least because they are premised on an act of collective vengeance.