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The Authoritarian’s Playbook*

The Authoritarian’s Playbook

As explained in prior TLRs, Turkey was once the shining example of a secular Islamic republic with an 80+-year history of Western-style democracy. It unfortunately has become the shining example of how to distort a Constitutional democracy, subvert secularism and install an authoritarian in power. Turkey’s last sixteen years provide would-be dictators with The Authoritarian’s Playbook on how to turn a progressive country into a corrupt, absolutist state.

As the successor to the Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal. Elected as Turkey’s first President, Kemal was named the “Father of Turkey” when Parliament granted him the honorific surname of “Ataturk.” Kemal – Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – proceeded to radically reform Turkish society. He granted equal rights to women and adopted the Latin alphabet and the Rule of Law. Under his leadership, Turkey’s Constitution enshrined the separation of church and state, prohibiting any political party from promoting Islamism or Sharia law. Ataturk’s leadership thereby turned Turkey away from Eastern Islamic fundamentalism and towards the West. As a result, Turkey became an early member of the Counsel of Europe in 1949, it joined NATO in 1952, signed a Customs Union agreement with the European Union in 1995, and was recognized as a candidate for full EU membership in 1999. For all of these reasons and others, one would suppose that Turkey would be democratically incorruptible, different in so many ways from Venezuela, China and post-Communist Hungary. And, yet, it is not. It is following their absolutist trajectories.

That’s because Turkey’s elected President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has slowly and surely manipulated Turkish institutions to erode Turkey’s Constitutional protections. Elected as Turkey’s Prime Minister in 2003, Erdogan has executed The Authoritarian’s Playbook to perfection, ever-so-gradually installing himself as Turkey’s dictator. He now has control over virtually all levers of federal government.

Erdogan, a consummate politician, founded the Justice and Development Party (the AKP) in 2001. Combining a number of small, conservative, pro-Islamic political parties, he nevertheless portrayed the AKP as a pro-Western, liberal-market movement that favored Turkish membership in the EU, the first sign of a lack of principles policy priorities other than a craving for power and money. He relied on a solid electoral and institutional base of supporters that included followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamic preacher living in the U.S. whose social movement advocated moral values that include universal access to education, tolerance and peace. The Gulen Movement had an extensive following in Turkey and was instrumental in establishing the AKP as Turkey’s most powerful political party. AKP and the Gulen Movement formed an alliance-of-convenience against the military and Turkey’s secular elite. As a result, the AKP captured the government in elections in 2002, 2007 and 2011 and the Gulenists were rewarded by Erdogan with appointments to a broad range of government positions, ousting from influence those holding either anti-AKP or pro-secular views, groups that Erdogan termed the “deep state” …, and allowing the AKP to begin engaging in precisely the types of corrupt practices that authoritarians favor. Erdogan blamed the deep state for attempts to undermine the AKP and subvert its efforts, alleging that it was comprised of influential anti-democratic, high-level groups within the intelligence services, military, security agencies, educational institutions and judiciary. Evidence of a deep state conspiracy allegedly emerged when the Istanbul police in 2007 uncovered a suspected plot to overthrow the government in what came to be known as the Ergenekon case. Prosecutors thereafter pursued wrongdoers in the Sledgehammer investigation, indicting and ousting large numbers of military and security officers. It later turned out that most of the evidence in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations had been fabricated by the AKP and allied Gulenists.

Emboldened by the successful cleansing of senior opponents in the military and security agencies, Erdogan began a broader effort to consolidate his power and eliminate opponents. Civilian prosecutors appointed by the Erdogan Administration raided military bases searching for anything that could be used against non-supporters, journalists were arrested on specious charges (cowing the media is an early chapter in The Authoritarian’s Playbook), critics were sued, and fines were imposed on businesses that failed to support the AKP. If a company wanted to do business in Turkey without government interference, it had to show financial or media support, a natural part of The Authoritarian’s Playbook. Formerly independent media were harassed, marginalized, and gradually found themselves out of business or acquired by pro-AKP entities. Turkey’s national public broadcaster and its state-run wire service both became part of the AKP’s political operations.

In 2012, members of the Gulenist movement began highlighting instances of corruption by members of the AKP and Erdogan’s family. In response, Erdogan accused Gulen and his followers of an attempt to overthrow the government, branding their allegations as baseless. The government seized the Gulenist newspaper (a leading national publication) as well as several companies that had ties to the Movement, and classified the Movement as a terrorist organization. Turkey thereafter attempted to extradite Fethullah Gulen from the U.S. After the failure of an actual military coup in 2016, Erdogan blamed the Movement – scapegoating and ostracizing are integral practices in The Authoritarian’s Playbook – and declared a state of emergency. During the ensuing six months, the government jailed journalists who had been publishing or were about to publish articles alleging corruption in the Erdogan Administration, arrested thousands of soldiers and judges, and fired tens of thousands of teachers alleged to be co-conspirators, charging many with “terrorism.” In April 2017, the Erdogan Administration passed legislation making it illegal for the Turkish legislative branch of government to investigate the executive branch. None of these anti-democratic actions have eroded Erdogan’s electoral support, which has been enhanced by extending educational funding to Islamist schools and expanding their number and reach. He has stated that his goal is to forge a “pious generation … that will work for the construction of a new civilization,” stoking nationalism (a common authoritarian tactic) by emphasizing Turkey’s Ottoman history and Islamic roots over Western ideas and influences. Most recently, voters have been treated to round-the-clock television coverage of Turkish soldiers deploying in Syria after America’s pull-out with commentators celebrating the leadership of Erdogan as Turkey’s Commander-in-Chief wielding international influence by defying America and crushing the despised Kurdish militia. “The Offensive of the Century” read one front-page banner headline. President Trump’s threats to wreck the Turkish economy if Erdogan behaved like “a tough guy” bolstered Erdogan’s public image as precisely the type of “tough guy” that Turkish voters can appreciate. Negotiations with Vice President Pence and Vladimir Putin over truces further buttressed Erdogan’s image as a global statesman.

When confronted by challenges or faced with legal or Constitutional hurdles, Erdogan has relied on the backing of his supporters – those who believe they have benefited from his policies – to change the law and/or the Constitution. For example, when parliament balked at the AKP agenda in 2007, Erdogan utilized a referendum to amend the Constitution. When his Islamism was challenged in the courts in 2010, Erdogan sponsored a referendum that gave the AKP the ability to pack the judiciary, combining that Constitutional change with others that included protection of children’s rights, freedom of residence, and the right to appeal. Term-limited as Prime Minister, in 2017 Erdogan engineered another Constitutional referendum that ended India’s parliamentary system and adopted a Presidential one, abolishing the office of prime minister and allowing Erdogan, as President, to unilaterally appoint ministers and vice-presidents and intervene in the legal system. “We are leaving behind the system that has in the past cost our country a heavy price in political and economic chaos,” he said. Prior to the Presidential election in June 2018, a video leaked to the public showed Erdogan urging AKP members to resort to electoral fraud (yet another Authoritarian tool). In 2019, he appointed his son-in-law India’s Finance Minister – other relatives operate a variety of charities and other entities that support the AKP and its agendas (a further authoritarian practice). His former economy czar, Ali Babacan, has become a vocal critic, as have his former Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, and ex-President Abdullah Gul.

Erdogan’s Authoritarian Playbook has been a stunning success. Over the past 16 years he’s executed a tried-and-true formula to consolidate power in what previously was a strong secular democracy with robust democratic institutions, an independent judiciary, and a strong, independent military. Democratic institutions in Turkey have withered in the face of his populist nationalism. Scapegoating, targeting an “enemies list,” and undermining judicial and media watchdogs were the first steps in what became a slippery slide into absolutism. Erdogan consolidated his power slowly, relying largely on nationalist and Islamist rhetoric to target and weed-out opponents in progressive waves of purges. In the process of eliminating those within government who were not certified supporters, deriding possible rivals, and muzzling free speech, Erdogan installed members of his family and cronies in positions of power and authority, not only in government, but also in key industries. Potential dissidents were labeled “terrorists” or “enemies of the State.” Friends who ceased to support his agenda were dealt with quickly and ruthlessly. He burnished his strongman image by waging war on Kurdish militants, members of the Gulen Movement, and anyone else who questioned his leadership or policies. His successes in doing so enabled him to mobilize his core constituency to amend the Constitution and shift the form of government to one where power is concentrated in the executive.

Those seeking similar dynastic power and wealth would do well to follow Erdogan’s Authoritarian Playbook.

Finally (from a good friend)

*┬® Copyright 2019 by William Natbony. All rights reserved.

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