All aboard Erdoğan’s bus ride

All aboard Erdoğan’s bus ride

Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan once remarked that for him democracy was like a bus ride, once he gets to his stop he will get off. It is no coincidence that Turkish protesters currently facing severe crackdowns in their bid to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park often refer to their prime minister as a dictator, or authoritarian at the very least.

The reality is that Erdoğan’s power was achieved by the slow erosion of the country’s delicate system of checks and balances, vital for any healthy democracy. Erdoğan also exploited deficiencies within the democratic system.

A major flaw of Turkey’s voting method of proportional representation is its extremely high threshold. For a political party to gain seats in Parliament it must win at least 10 percent of the popular vote. This is despite the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s recommendation that the threshold be no higher than 3 percent. When a threshold is too high the winning party gains a disproportional amount of additional seats.

This is exactly what happened when Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the 2002 election. Although it received just 34 per cent of the vote, his party was a few seats short of having a two-thirds majority in Parliament. There were similar outcomes in subsequent elections.

Upon assuming office Erdoğan gradually eroded institutional checks on power. First, his party was able to gain control of the presidency. Largely a ceremonial role, the president is important as he signs off legislation after investigating whether it is constitutional. Prior to 2007 Ahmet Necet Sezer, a respected secularist, was president.

But following Erdoğan’s re-election in the same year, the office fell into the hands of Erdoğan’s political ally, Abdullah Gül, a founding member of the AKP.

Soon the political power of Turkey’s mighty military, the self-styled guardians of Turkish secularism, would also fall. The army had intervened in the political process in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997 and sat on the powerful National Security Council. However, the strength of the generals was crippled after the “Balyoz” and “Ergenekon” investigations into apparent deep-state plots to overthrow the government. Hundreds of military personnel were arrested or tried, leaving Erdoğan with unprecedented unchecked power.

Even the judiciary did not go untouched. In 2010 Erdoğan benefitted from a national constitutional referendum to make significant amendments to the composition of the Constitutional Court and High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK). Although it is supposed to be independent, the AKP-dominated Justice Ministry was able to quietly list its preferred candidates onto the HSYK and secure control over the appointment of judges.

In subsequent years the Turkish judiciary has shown increased sensitivity to religious values, and it is highly critical of any political activism that opposes Erdoğan and the AKP. This has not gone unnoticed. Thomas Hammerberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner on human rights, expressed his concern that the country’s judiciary is threatening fundamental human rights in his in-depth report on Turkey.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan focused his attention to Turkey’s independent media. Dozens of journalists critical of the government have been jailed. According to Reporters Without Borders, Turkey is the world’s biggest prison for journalists, where approximately 70 reporters are behind bars.

Owners of large media companies often have additional business interests outside of the media industry. They fear that critiquing the AKP could negatively impact government contracts for their other business operations.

Looking to the future, Erdogan is seeking to amend Turkey’s Constitution to allow greater powers for the president, an office he is eyeing after his current term as prime minister expires.

This explains the significance of the Gezi Park demonstrations and solidarity protests across Turkish cities. There is widespread concern about the increasing authoritarianism of the prime minister, who has been able to override any checks on political power. The fear is that Erdoğan is arriving extremely close to his stop and is about to get off his democracy bus ride.