Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party and CEO of Brexit Analytica.
On 8 November, the date that Donald Trump could be delivered to office by American voters, the trial of the journalist Erol Önderoglu begins in Turkey at the behest of Turkey’s homegrown authoritarian populist. It’s just one small part of the Turkish president’s long march to political monopoly, which is now nearing completion.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shown us a masterclass in consolidating authority. He began using false hope to divide opponents when they were still strong enough to outgun him, and, once he had accumulated enough strength, started using raw power to intimidate them once they were isolated.
First he went after the military: and Turkey’s liberals looked on with indifference as hundreds of generals were tried and imprisoned the “Ergenkron” case, as the coup plot, apparently fabricated by his then allies in Fetullah Gülen’s movement, was known.
Then he went after the liberals: cracking down on the gay rights movement, restricting alcohol sales and splitting the weakened secular business elite from the new left, to cheers from his own party’s Islamists, affiliates of Gülen and even conservative Kurds. When it suited him, he worked on the peace process. When it didn’t, he’s been more than happy to exploit and foster war with the terrorists of the PKK.
Two obstacles nearly thwarted his rise: constitutional limits on his power, and the emergence of Selahattin Demirtas, a new, moderate, telegenic Kurdish leader. In elections in the summer of 2014, Erdogan’s AK lost its majority. But the opposition – composed as it was of the nationalist MHP and the once-ruling CHP as well as the Kurds – couldn’t reach agreement to govern. Against a background of terrorist attacks, the AK regained its majority, and Erdogan power.
The constitution, which grants Turkey only a ceremonial presidency, presents the last formal obstacle. Real executive authority remains in the hands of the Prime Minister. But once Ahmet Davutoglu, the Prime Minister, started to actually try and use his powers, Erodgan, who still controls their party, engineered his ouster.
No tyrant gets where he is without luck, and Erdogan has had two strokes of it. First, the refugee flows from the Syrian civil war allowed him to threaten Europe with opening his borders, rendering their complaints about human rights abuses inaudible. Then, June’s failed coup (much more of a close-run thing than it originally appeared) gave him the excuse to impose a state of emergency, which he’s used to impose the kind of wide-ranging purge of universities, police, military and judiciary of a scope more usually associated with incoming revolutionary regimes.
Now he has taken aim at the independent media, which is getting no thanks for supporting his resistance to this summer’s attempted coup. The Cumhurriyet newspaper, targeted in this latest crackdown, has long run without advertising, because businesses have been pressured into withdrawing it. Its editor is in exile in Germany. The repression has turned severe. According to Rebecca Vincent of Reporters Without Borders, “more than 100 media outlets have been closed, and more than 200 journalists arrested since July alone.”
Since Ahmet Davutoglu was removed, Erdogan has been in effect the unconstitutional monarch of Turkey. All he has left to do is enact a constitutional change to formalise this reality, and only the parliamentary votes of the nationalist MHP stand in his way.
Already impervious to international criticism, he will only get more difficult as the last scraps of opposition are crushed. His triumph represents yet another failure of Western policy, which has evolved from credulous (remember the “Turkey Model” of democratic islam?), to craven (tolerating his support first for Assad, and then for fundamentalist opposition to him), to dependent (over the migration crisis) and finally to irrelevance (as he consolidates personal rule).
Big, unpredictable and autocratic, Turkey is becoming a second Russia – only this time inside NATO, not beside it. This latest crackdown on the independent media exemplifies a problem with which our Foreign Secretary, part Turkish, part poet, and entirely journalist is at a loss to deal.