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Erdogan: From Prison to President

12 July 2018

In 1999 Recep Tayyip Erdogan served four months in prison for reciting a religious poem at a rally, which the authorities deemed to be an incitement to violence. Earlier this week he was sworn in as president of Turkey’s new political system, under which he will hold unprecedented power. It marks a remarkable reversal in fortunes for the former Mayor of Istanbul, who has spent the past two decades building and consolidating his power.

Two years after his release from prison Erdogan formed the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which swept to power in the general elections in 2002. He was banned from assuming the post of Prime Minister due to his earlier conviction, but he was able to stand the following year when fresh elections were held (the Supreme Election Board scrapped the 2002 vote due to irregularities in Siirt province). His party went on to win two subsequent elections in 2007 and 2011, although this period did result in mass anti-AKP protests and an attempt by the Chief Prosecutor to have the party banned. Protests erupted again in 2013, starting as a rally against development at Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul before morphing into nationwide anger at the perceived encroachment on Turkey’s secularism. The government’s response was to quash the protests with violence before Erdogan introduced new powers to limit dissent. The period led to a deterioration in relations between Turkey and the EU and led to a suspension of the talks over the countries possible membership of the bloc.

The failed coup of 2016 gave Erdogan the opportunity to clamp down on all forms of dissent and opposition. After surviving the bloody night on 15 July, during which at least 250 people were killed, the president quickly went on the offensive. The US-based cleric Fettullah Gulen was accused of organising the coup and a state of emergency was implemented across the country. The new powers allowed Erdogan to pass decrees without parliamentary oversight and undermined human rights laws in the country. In the subsequent two years more than 120,000 people have been dismissed and many of them jailed for alleged links to Gulen, and the government has classified his movement as the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ). Hundreds of journalists have been detained, opposition media shutdown or forced out of business. The impact of these measures was evident in the lead up to the snap-elections last month; the state-owned TRT network dedicated 67 hours to covering Erdogan’s political rallies, while his main rival Muharrem Ince received less than seven hours. More than 90 percent of all Turkey’s media was supportive of the president.

Last June Enis Berberoglu, an MP from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), was jailed for 25 years for supplying information to the Cumhuriyet newspaper. His sentence was overturned on appeal but in February he was sentenced to five years and 10 months for “revealing classified information.” Several Kurdish journalists have been given jail terms for alleged links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which continues to fight an insurgency in the south-east of the country. During the summer of 2017 Taner Kılıç, chair of Amnesty International Turkey, was detained for alleged links to FETÖ before 10 human rights activists were arrested at a conference in Istanbul. Just last week four students from the Middle East Technical University were arrested for displaying a 12-year-old cartoon which mocked the president, using the same laws that saw him jailed in 1999.

Last year Erdogan called a constitutional referendum, which he narrowly won. The result saw Turkey shift from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential system. The post of prime minister was scrapped, and the president is now able to appoint senior members of the judiciary and to issue decrees with the force of law. Earlier this week Erdogan appointed his son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, as head of the finance ministry, a move which saw both the BIST 100 index and the Turkish lira suffer significant drops. The currency is already down around 17 percent since the start of the year, while there are fears over double-digit inflation and international reservations about the independence of Turkey’s central bank. In a Bloomberg op-ed, columnist Marcus Ashworth said the move “has made his nation all but uninvestable.” There could be dark days ahead.