The new Führer: Erdoğan, authoritarianism and the dismantling of democracy

26 Aug 2017



Crisis and chaos have become common bywords for the supposedly ‘unpredictable’ political events of the past year. Western mass media has more often than not oscillated around Brexit and the election of Donald J. Trump - indicative of the transatlantic turn of the disenfranchised working class towards right-wing populism.


This hegemonic discourse has been greatly supplemented by North Korea, Islamic terrorism, and the false hysteria directed towards “mass immigration”.  Not to denigrate the importance of these ground-breaking events, this dispositif has led to the constricting of space for the nuanced analysis and discussion of other political developments.  Consequently, the lack of meaningful discussion and popularisation of recent events in Turkey has been highly disturbing.


One may argue that the distinct lack of coverage of these developments in the West is tantamount to a variety of governments’ tacit support for a regime which, despite its highly illiberal nature, occupies a crucial position in the ongoing refugee crisis. On the whole, the silence has been deafening. For the sake of history, democratic processes, and human rights, we must not be restrained in our condemnation and critique of Erdoğan’s abuses of state power. The time to act must be now.


The present situation in Turkey has been a long time coming, and the path of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the heights of an Ottoman Führer a long, winding road. Following the landslide electoral victory of his AKP party in 2003, Erdoğan initially pursued a variety of positive policies. These ranged from the representation of a traditional Turkish working class who had previously been marginalised, genuine peace talks with the Kurdish people, to the reforming of an over bloated polity.  Indeed, following the discord of the Arab Spring, Turkey was looked to as a potential model for others. 


However following Gezi Park and Taksim Square, mass protests in 2013 highlighting discontent with the AKP’s creeping despotism, Erdoğan has increasingly sought to dismantle democratic safeguards and centralise political power. Under the twilight of the Syrian Civil War, he has completed a takeover of the Turkish state, directing its power towards the creation of a new hard-line religious theocracy. Behind the Islamist ideology, however, simply lies another fanatical politician determined to create a cult of personality and seize ultimate authority, a common thread defining history since the Twentieth Century. Whilst the phenomenon of the Trump-Brexit dichotomy rightly represents how antipathy and disaffection are dangerous for the health of democracies, Erdoğan’s Turkey demonstrates how, in the twenty-first century, a functioning liberal-democratic state can still be subverted by force and refashioned in the image of an autocratic strongman.


The assault on political pluralism, civil society and human rights have been wide and varied. From compromising the independence of the judiciary, to limiting individual freedoms including restrictions on alcohol sales, abortions and social media access, Turkey’s new Ottomans have set into a motion a programme of repression.


The real catalyst for the subversion of the democratic process, however, was Erdoğan’s uncompromising response to, in the words of MIT Professor Noam Chomsky, ‘alleged coup’ of July 2016 (Chomsky, Optimism over Despair, p34-35). There is increasing evidence that this uprising, supposedly initiated by an exiled preacher based in the U.S, involving a rag-band section of the military, was in fact orchestrated by the autocracy to even further centralise power and stifle opposition.


 Indeed, this appears factually to be a far more plausible explanation. For months, the new Führer had been consolidating his power base, principally around new executive powers, which were not without opposition. Conventionally, the coup gave the regime a clear pretext to eliminate all remaining opposition. According to a report by Amnesty International, nearly 90,000 civil servants have been dismissed, whilst over 40,000 remain in detention in a never-ending “state of emergency”. Freedom of expression has also been curtailed, with ‘184 media outlets’ ‘arbitrarily and permanently closed down under executive decrees’, therefore ‘leaving opposition media’ ‘greatly restricted’.



Demonstrations, including ‘May Day’ and Pride, have been quelled, whilst police violence and brutality against dissent has accelerated. Against this backdrop, the Turkish people submitted their consent via the ballot box in April 2017 for governance by decree, again contestable. This atomisation of society has even spread to international corners, with the regime pressuring various European states into punishing journalistic dissent abroad.


The beauty of history is that it provides hindsight. The Reichstag fire of 1933, now largely accepted as orchestrated by Goering, was the pretext required for the “National Socialistisation” of the German state. Similarly, Erdoğan has clearly looked to history, evidencing how chaos and disorder, particularly in the atmosphere of increasing terror attacks and instability, can be pivotal for the centralisation of power. Democracy in Turkey is emasculated, opposition stifled, and the regime increasingly governs for conservatives alone.


If this isn’t a catalyst for enormous outrage alone, the discrimination and violence against the Kurdish population has been exacerbated. From the 1990s, the Turkish government has been committing atrocities against the Kurdish population, with thousands of villages destroyed, and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes (Chomsky, Optimism over Despair, p35). The chaos and confusion generated by ISIL terror attacks, however, has been used by Erdoğan as a pretext to continue this wave of state terror.


Kurdish media outlets have been shut down, the leaders of the largely pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party have been rounded up, whilst the militarisation of conflict with the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party in the east and southwest continues. Meanwhile, whilst the Kurdish people continue to fight against ISIL, Turkey continues violence against this group whilst tacitly lending supporting to the “Caliphate”, violating international agreements. The stage is set for genocide, and the world cannot look on in ambivalence.


Erdoğan’s Turkey is a warning straight from history. Aside from Germany, whom know all too well the dangers of totalitarianism, international criticism has been remarkably limited of these atrocities. The West should be afraid of this spectre spreading.


When institutions which are supposed to represent the public good are seen to be failing, the door is wide open for demagogues who claim to have all the answers, often leading down a path to dictatorship. Trump and Brexit may well be indicative of such failings, but Erdoğan’s Turkey may well be the next teleological step. The conditions prevailing in Turkey cannot be seen to be normal. Now is the time to take a stand

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