This consolidation of power is raising tensions with the US and European Union, with concerns that the president’s resort to repression will bring his Western partners into disrepute.
The West may be vexed by Erdogan’s truculence, but the strategic importance of his regime for both the US-led NATO military alliance and the EU suggest that they will turn a blind to his excesses – even if those excesses involve further violation of democratic rights.
Washington’s NATO agenda of encircling, undermining Russia; and the EU’s desperate need to halt the influx of refugees mean that Erdogan knows he can crackdown at will. The West may mouth misgivings, but in the end their priority concerns have little to do with international law or democratic rights. And the savvy Erdogan knows that.
There are reports that Erdogan private jet was nearly blown out of the skies by F-16 fighter jets flown by coup-plotters. Such reports lend Erdogan heroic kudos and greater license to crackdown on opponents.
With thousands of police, army and judiciary imprisoned or purged, Erdogan is even hinting that he wants bloody retribution by recalling the death penalty that had been abolished in 2004. “They will pay a high price for this treason,” declared Erdogan amid furious scenes at funerals for hundreds of his supporters killed during the botched uprising over the weekend.
One of the reasons why Turkey abandoned the death penalty was to appease EU concerns over capital punishment.
Washington and the European Union are urging restraint by the Turkish authorities. US President Barack Obama called on the Erdogan government “to act within the law”. While French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that restoring order should not mean a “blank cheque” for repression.
Relations between Washington and Ankara have badly frayed after top politicians in Erdogan’s ruling AK party accused the US of having a role in the weekend’s uprising. The claim was angrily denied by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who said it was “utterly false and harmful to bilateral relations”.
Erdogan’s supporters accuse the exiled Turkish Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen of fomenting the coup by military officers. Since Gulen is based in the US, this has fueled suspicions that Washington may have had a hand. Ankara is demanding that the US extradites the Islamic scholar.
For his part, Gulen has denied any connection to the plot and condemned it. The exiled imam, who was formerly an ally of Erdogan, has made the counter-accusation that the Turkish president covertly staged the debacle in order to justify his seizure of state powers.
The speculation that Erdogan’s regime was itself involved in facilitating the coup fits in with Erdogan longterm project of arrogating executive powers as president, turning what is nominally a secular parliamentary state into an Islamist authoritarian theocracy.
Erdogan has long had a rocky relation with his country’s military. His brand of Sunni Islamist politics is disdained by many within the armed services who see it as undermining the secular nature of the modern Turkish state, as set up by Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s. Whereas Ataturk abolished the Ottoman caliphate, Erdogan appears determined to restore it.
Erdogan’s meddling in Syria’s conflict has also tarnished Turkey’s international reputation because of evidence that the Ankara government has colluded with Islamist terror groups to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
While Western leaders have cautioned Erdogan against a heavy crackdown in the aftermath of the attempted putsch, they nevertheless moved to roundly bolster his government during the upheaval at the weekend. Washington and the European Union deplored the coup and backed the “democratically elected” government of Erdogan.
NATO’s civilian chief Jens Stoltenberg also issued his support for Erdogan’s administration and described Turkey as a key ally.
Turkey is not just some lawless, obscure country where coups might be expected to break out like rashes. It is a key member of NATO – housing some 90 American nuclear weapons at the Incirlik airbase – and is a prospective member of the European Union.
NATO is supposedly charged with maintaining global security, and its cohesiveness is vital for Washington’s attempt to isolate Russia, while the Nobel-prize-winning EU is hailed as a beacon of democracy, human rights and rule of law.
Since the Second World War, however, Turkey has seen at least five military coups: in 1960, 1971, 1980, 1993 and 1997. The latest uprising at the weekend is the sixth over a 70-year period. That’s almost one every decade, a record of ignominy you would think Western powers would shun.
For the EU, Turkey has emerged as a crucial partner because of its assigned role in stemming the flow of refugees to Europe. Earlier this year, the EU and Turkey signed a landmark deal in which Ankara would receive €6 billion from Brussels for repatriating tens of thousands of refugees who have fled from warring Syria to southern Europe. The arrangement has sparked controversy among human rights groups who claim that it violates international asylum laws.
The EU-Turkey pact has been strenuously pushed by European Council President Donald Tusk and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The influx of refugees into the EU over the past year – one million to Germany alone – has unleashed a political backlash from anti-EU parties, and has stoked bitter tensions among member states over border controls.
Not surprisingly, Tusk and Merkel were most vocal among international figures in calling for restoration of order in Turkey. If Erdogan’s ruling AKP were to be overthrown the EU has much to lose, with up to three million Syrian refugees currently being held back from Europe by Turkey.
As Erdogan tightens his autocratic grip on power in the name of “national security”, Washington, NATO and the EU’s political priorities of maintaining this important ally will mean that a blind eye is turned to his excesses. There may be tensions and frictions, but ultimately the Western powers are relying on Erdogan’s strong-arm regime.
Erdogan first came to power in 2002 as the prime minster of the elected AKP government. He then became president in 2014 and has since steadily centralized the powers of the presidency, undermining the parliament. Erdogan’s crackdown on the Kurdish minority and draconian suppression of independent media have alarmed human rights groups and the European parliament. But both Washington and Brussels don’t rock the boat too much lest they lose Erdogan’s cooperation on their strategic priorities.
The irony here is that the latest military coup against Erdogan was claimed to be motivated by returning Turkey to secular parliamentary rule, as opposed to Erdogan’s “sultan complex” of imposing an Islamist theocracy.
Erdogan’s ascent to power since 2002 can be viewed as an ongoing coup against the country’s secular constitution.
But still for all practical purposes, Washington, the EU and NATO remain oblivious to Erdogan’s autocratic rule. Instead, these supposed bastions of Western democracy and rule of law have sought to whitewash his regime.
The real priorities of the EU and US-led NATO – as demonstrated by their indulgence towards Erdogan’s regime – reveal that their supposed adherence to democratic principles is nothing but a cynical pretense.