How strongman Erdogan has built a 'New Turkey' in his grip


Since the re-election in June of Turkey’s president Recep Erdogan, the country has adopted a constitutional system that hands new and vast executive and legislative powers to the authoritarian head of state. Mediapart’s correspondent in Istanbul Nicolas Cheviron reports on the essential changes that spearhead the construction of Erdogan’s ‘New Turkey’.

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The re-election this summer of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has driven his country into a new era. The June 24th poll, which was accompanied by legislative elections, sealed the establishment of a presidential system of government, a new pyramidical structure that was adopted last year, and which hands Erdogan sweeping powers that are well beyond those of any head of state among Western pluralist democracies.    

The key measures of this constitutional reform include the abolition of the office of prime minister and his cabinet, previously answerable before parliament, whose powers are now transferred to the president. A large amount of legislative power is also given to the president, whose position has become a politicised one in place of a previous requirement for political neutrality. Erdogan has also been given ultimate say over appointments in the country’s judicial system.

All powerful: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. © Reuters All powerful: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. © Reuters

Ergün Özbudun is a constitutional law expert, who in 2007 headed a commission of experts tasked by the then Turkish government to draw up a new and more democratic constitution, and whose findings were never acted upon. “A democratic presidential system demands mechanisms of control and balance like those that exist in the United States,” he observed, commenting on the new reforms. “The control of the executive by parliament is very ineffective and judicial independence is seriously damaged. The system leads to a concentration of authority in the person of the president. In this sense, he is more authoritarian than democratic, even if the president is elected.”

The introduction of this new political system in Turkey necessitates a complete overhaul of the country’s institutions, which Erdogan, 64, and his entourage have worked upon throughout the summer. After just more than 100 days of this ‘New Turkey’ under construction, the  the main pillars of this emerging autocratic project are already in place.

  • The government, a pyramid of institutions at Recep Erdogan’s service

The first presidential decree, published immediately after Recep Erdogan inauguration as president on July 9th this year, places the president as the head of a government organised in concentric strata around him. The inner first of these circles is composed of the traditional presidential services (secretariat, administrative management departments, personal advisors and emissaries) and also a vice-president who, without any formal duties, is to act as a stand-in for the leader when necessary.

But the main innovation is with regard to the following two strata. The first of these is made up of 11 departments responsible for managing key sectors of the state – including the army chief of staff, industry and defence activities, the secret services, strategy and budgetary affairs. The second is made up of nine committees acting in an advisory role for the president, and also subsequently ensuring his policy decisions are enacted in each of their specialist fields, ranging from cultural affairs to foreign policy. Ministries, now reduced to a total of 16 (and which notably no longer include that responsible for relations with the European Union), are relegated to the bottom of the power edifice.

“The new organisation is a very strong hierarchy, with the president at the peak and under him the departments that manage the most important functions of state,” commented Ali Bayramoglu, a political commentator, writer and previously a columnist for the pro-Erdogan government daily Yeni Safak. “That is where the real executive power resides.” In this novel structure, where, said Bayramoglu, bureaucratic bodies dominate political ones, ministers are in reality simply underlings “of no great importance, with a few exceptions”. For him, the latter are Süleyman Soylu (interior ministry), former army chief Hulusi Akar (defence) and Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak (treasury and finance).

September 10th 2015: President Erdogan with General Hulusi Akar (then head of armed forces, now defence minister) attending the funeral at the Kocatepe mosque in Ankara of police officer Okan Tasan, who was killed in an ambush by Kurdish militants in south-east Turkey. © Reuters September 10th 2015: President Erdogan with General Hulusi Akar (then head of armed forces, now defence minister) attending the funeral at the Kocatepe mosque in Ankara of police officer Okan Tasan, who was killed in an ambush by Kurdish militants in south-east Turkey. © Reuters

Along with Albayrak and Akar (who demonstrated his loyalty to Erdogan during the failed putsch against the latter on July 15th 2016), the new government includes others close to the president, including his former personal advisor Mustafa Varank (in charge of industry and technologies) and Erdogan’s family doctor Fahrettin Koca (in charge of health). “Erdogan looks around himself with more and more suspicion, including within his party, and his trusted circle is becoming more and more smaller,” said Bayramoglu. “The family, the right-hand men, it is by surrounding himself with those people that he builds his fortress.”

  • Administration: seats filled by the president’s men

The failed July 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan served as a pretext for a massive purge of the public service sector, when more than 120,000 public servants – including thousands of leftwing union officials, unlikely to have any sympathy for the putschists – were fired without financial indemnities or trials. The measure adopted this summer allow the Turkish president to finalise the renewal of the bureaucratic elite, and in his choices of bureaucrats he is no longer limited with regard to previous traditional considerations of years of service, nor an individual’s competence.

Presidential decree No 3, dated July 10th this year, allows for the nomination of people from outside the civil service to top management posts in the public sector, on condition that they have five years of professional experience in the domain in question, and have completed four years of higher education. Under the decree, the term of these senior appointments is ended when the president’s own mandate reaches an end. The head of state can also appoint non-professors as university heads, as also he can appoint people from outside the diplomatic corps as ambassadors.    

“Certain traditions regulated the relationships between the political powers and a bureaucratic power that enjoyed a relative autonomy,” explained Ali Bayramoglu. “This time, the tradition is totally effaced and replaced by a stranglehold of managers close to Erdogan in all the ministries. It is like a bit of a “Turkmen-isation” of the Turkish political system, controlled by just one chief and his ideology, upon which will depend the recruitment of public service managers.”

Regarding the armed forces, the Supreme Military Council, the YAS, now comes under the authority of Erdogan. The YAS, which meets once every year, oversees the career management of officers, and has long had the particular mission of ensuring the secular character of the armed forces, with the power to expel from the military those who are suspected of being Islamists.

The presidential decree N°8, published on July 15th, places the president at the head of the YAS which the head of state can convene at any time of his choosing, and which now includes the presence of ministers alongside the principal generals. Writing in the online Middle East news website Al-Monitor, defence specialist Metin Gürcan commented that the Turkish president would now be able to work with those generals of his own choosing, and for as long as he wishes to, unbound for example by their retirement age.

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