It says something about Recep Tayyip Erdogan's political audacity and his Justice and Development Party's (AKP) marketing chutzpah that despite the Turkish leader having served as prime minister for some twelve years they were still able to sell his victory in yesterday's presidential election as the starting point for a "New Turkey." After over a decade of thoroughly dominating Turkey's political scene, there is certainly very little that is new about Erdogan.
Erdogan's win does signal something new, and that is another chapter in what by now is the long-running story of the mercurial leader's very public quest for increased power. With his ascendancy to the president's office assured, Erdogan is now faced with some new challenges: namely, how to enhance his powers despite the constraints placed on the president by the constitution and Turkey's existing parliamentary system, and how to restructure the government so that this goal is best served and the AKP stays in power past the next parliamentary elections.
In a new briefing, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Turkey expert, Soner Cagaptay, lists the current powers available to the Turkish president -- from chairing cabinet meetings to vetoing bills -- and suggests Erdogan will push those to the limit (if not beyond) to maintain his dominance:
Late last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took part in the opening ceremony of a new soccer stadium in Istanbul. Rather than simply cut a ribbon, Erdogan -- a standout amateur soccer player in his youth -- put on a team jersey and went down to the field to play a friendly match. After his team fell behind by three points in the match, which was being broadcast live on television, the 60-year-old PM incredibly found a way to score three goals in 15 minutes, against a goalkeeper who plays in Turkey's top tier professional league no less.
As Turkey heads towards a presidential vote this Sunday -- the first one in which the people, rather than parliament, will elect the new president -- Erdogan's hat-trick performance seems emblematic of the way the campaign has been playing out. Despite the presence of two other substantive candidates, Erdogan has been dominating the field, receiving the lion's share of the state television broadcaster's attention. A fawning pro-government press, meanwhile, has been dutifully reporting about the PM's every move and utterance, imbuing them with an almost otherworldy quality (in the case of Erdogan's soccer game performance, one paper declared "his style was likened by some....to Barca star Lionel Messi.").
In a blog post in May, I described the "urbanization" of Turkey's Syrian refugee population -- which now numbers over one million -- and the potential problems this development poses for Ankara, especially in economic terms, with the potential for conflict as struggling Syrians moving into Turkish cities start competing with locals for work.
In recent days, this kind of potential conflict appears to have become a reality. On Sunday, some 1,000 people in the southeastern Turkish city of Kahramanmaraş marched against the presence of Syrian migrants in their city and then reportedly went on to remove Arabic signs from stores and attack a car with Syrian license plates. And today in Adana, a city on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, a group of masked men armed with knives and sticks attacked Syrian-owned businesses and shattered their windows.
Writing for the Al Monitor website, Turkish journalist Mehmet Cetingulec provides statistics from southeast Turkey that give some context for the growing tension:
Unemployment is rising faster in provinces where Syrians congregate. Employers prefer to employ Syrians, who make half the average Turkish wages and cost them about a third as much as a Turkish worker overall.
As he had long suggested he would do, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday announced his candidacy for the presidency in a splashy ceremony in Ankara. Expected by most observers to win (the question for now is really whether he does it in the first or second round), Erdogan would become Turkey's first directly elected president, a move his supporters say is a natural step for a man who is the country's most powerful leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and which critics say will only lead towards a more authoritarian government. Either way, while the road towards the office of the president appears open for Erdogan -- despite the opposition's intriguing candidate choice -- the PM faces some major challenges in his quest to turn the presidency into an even more powerful position than it already is.
Up until now, Turkey's president has been chosen by Parliament. Like in many other parliamentary systems, the Turkish president is something of a figurehead, with the Prime Minister wielding the real power. But the Turkish presidency, as defined by a constitution written by the military after the 1980 coup, has been something of a hybrid office, with the president wielding some important powers designed to make him a kind of ultimate guardian of the state (that is secularist and Kemalist) structure. For this reason, there has long been a demand in Turkey for a new constitution, one which redefines and limits the powers of the president, making it one that's more in line with other parliamentary systems.
On August 10 Turks will for the first time have the opportunity to directly elect their president, a mostly ceremonial position (though one that has some notable hidden powers) that was previously earned through a parliamentary vote.
Perhaps it's an indication of what Turkish parties think of their voters or of their country's political system that up until earlier this week, none of them had declared who their candidate would be for an extremely significant election only a few weeks away. Although it is widely expected that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will run as his party's candidate, the fact that he has yet to make it official only makes the situation odder.
On June 16, though, the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (CHP) joined forces and announced a consensus candidate: Ekmeleddin İhsanoglu, the former Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and, until last year, someone considered to be close to Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Ekmeleddin who, you might ask? That's certainly the question many Turks asked when his candidacy was announced. A mild-mannered academic with an old world demeanor, İhsanoglu is far from a household name and has not had any previous experience with domestic Turkish politics. Still, the surprise choice is an intriguing one, a move that doesn't necessarily spell victory for the opposition, but that will certainly force Erdogan and his party to rethink their strategy and which tells an interesting story about the AKP's own evolution over the last decade.
Last October Amnesty International released a report looking at the summer's Gezi Park protests, concluding the government's harsh response resulted in "gross human rights violations." Today, the organization released a followup report, one that looks at the situation in Turkey a year after the Gezi events. Like the first report, this one also finds much to criticize regarding the government's actions, suggesting its "approach to demonstrations is as abusive as ever while impunity for police violence is rampant."
To get a better sense of the report and its findings, I spoke today with Andrew Gardner, Amnesty's Turkey researcher, about some of the main points raised in the document. An edited version of our interview is below:
What led to Amnesty creating this report?
It was really to do a follow up on the last report. What we found in the first Gezi report, which covered the events of the protests themselves, was there was really unnecessary, abusive use of force by the police, not to disperse people but to directly injure and punish people for going on the streets. The government’s policy for people taking to the streets was extremely restrictive and very much about keeping people from taking to the streets in any way they can.
The annual Washington conference of the American-Turkish Council (ATC), perhaps the best-known group lobbying on behalf of Turkish interests in the United States, is usually an occasion for both sides to boast about the strength and importance of the Turkey-US relationship. This year's conference, though, turned out to be a showcase for the deep divisions and political dysfunction gripping Turkey.
On June 1, the day the annual conference started, the ATC's long-time president, former US ambassador to Turkey James Holmes, submitted his resignation along with several other top executives. As reported in the Turkish press, Holmes -- whose organization counts among its members numerous corporations, especially in the defense industry -- had been feeling some heat from Ankara in connection with the political divisions currently gripping Turkey. In particular, it appears supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were upset that the ATC had sent out a news bulletin which included articles from Today's Zaman, the English-language newspaper affiliated with the Gulen movement, which is currently locked in an intense political battle with the AKP.
It goes without saying that the Gezi Park protests, which started a year ago and rocked Istanbul and other cities for several weeks, were a watershed moment for Turkey. A profound tipping point, there's very little in Turkish political and social life that has not somehow been influenced by the Gezi events. At the same time, Gezi's legacy is still evolving, its impact seen on developments that are both encouraging and dispiriting.
This mix of positive and negative changes can be seen regarding the fate of Gezi Park itself. At the most basic level, the effort to save the Istanbul park from being turned into a shopping mall -- which is what led to the protests in the first place -- was a success, with Gezi today still serving as a rare green space in the heart of Istanbul. On the other hand, as evidenced by the ongoing construction of the third bridge over the Bosphorus, the protests have done very little to slow down the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government's appetite for environmentally costly state-sponsored megaprojects that are greenlighted with little oversight or input from the public.
And while the protests were instrumental in mobilizing a new class of political activists and in raising awareness about a host of issues that had previously been ignored (for more take a look at this very good piece by the Guardian's Constanze Letsch), that energy has yet to be directed into an organized political effort that can successfully challenge the AKP.
Turks are used to seeing their mercurial Prime Minister make a scene -- some of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's voters even like him all the better for it. After all, this is the man who was crowned "The Conqueror of Davos" in 2009 after he stormed off the stage he was sharing at the World Economic Forum with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Of course, that took place abroad, with Erdogan teaching the world a lesson about messing with not just his but Turkey's honor. Lately, though, Erdogan has been displaying his temper and defending his honor domestically, in a way that is bringing him less accolades than his Davos outburst and which may ultimately cost him politically.
On May 10 Erdogan caused quite a stir when, while listening to a harshly critical speech being given by the head of Turkey's bar association, he heckled the speaker and then stormed out of the hall where the event was taking place. More disturbingly, while visiting yesterday the town of Soma, site of this week's tragic mining accident in western Turkey, Erdogan and his entourage appeared to physically lash out against locals who were part of a large group of people protesting the PM. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
A man from the mining disaster-struck town of Soma said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan slapped him "involuntarily" during a scuffle on May 14, after the footage of the incident is revealed and condemned by opposition parties on May 15.
Yesterday's tragic mining accident in western Turkey, which left at least 245 workers dead and more than 100 still trapped, has again put a spotlight on the country's spotty workplace safety record and the halting steps to improve it.
As the Hurriyet Daily News reports, Turkey's mining industry has one of the world's highest fatality rates:
More than 3,000 people have been killed in mining accidents across Turkey since 1941, mostly due to fires, landslide or explosions.
A report from 2010 stated that the number of deaths in mine accidents in Turkey outnumbers those in the world’s biggest coal producers, the Unites States and China, in terms of fatalities per ton.
Figures show the country is much more dangerous than any country for a miner, even than China, which has the largest number of coal-mining fatalities in any country.
Although the number of miners killed in accidents is far higher in China, the number of deaths per ton of coal production in China was seven times lower than Turkey in 2008, according to a mining sector overview report published by the Economy Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) in 2010.
“While the number of deaths per million ton of coal production is 7.22 in Turkey, it stood at 1.27 in China and 0.02 in the United States in the same year,” the report said, citing official data obtained from the country’s related agencies.