NATO member Turkey slid toward one-man authoritarian rule Sunday, as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was returned to office under a new executive presidential system that gives him almost unchecked power.
The 64-year-old, who has dominated Turkish politics since becoming prime minister in 2003, comfortably won the first round of a presidential poll, securing nearly 53 percent of the vote. His nearest rival, Muharrem Ince of the secular Republican People's Party, mustered just 31 percent.
The win gives Erdoğan sweeping and unprecedented powers under Turkey’s new executive presidential system, which was approved by a narrow margin in a referendum last year. The new system abolishes the office of prime minister and curbs parliament’s powers, while giving the president extraordinary new scope to act without parliament’s approval. His new powers include the ability to issue decrees which carry the force of law, to appoint top judges and officials, and give him complete control of the Cabinet.
Critics denounced the shift to the new system, on the basis of a referendum marred by allegations of fraud, as a blatant power grab, and warned it eroded democracy in a country where Erdogan has already carried out a wide-ranging purge of state institutions in the wake of a 2016 coup attempt. Opposition candidates had vowed to scrap the presidential system if they won, but, despite performing more strongly than expected in their campaign, they failed to push Erdoğan into a second-round runoff.
The result sets the stage for Erdogan to reshape the country further in his image over the coming decade. If he wins re-election when his coming five-year term expires, he could rule until 2028.
Human Rights Watch’s Turkey director Emma Sinclair-Webb told VICE News that the new system raised huge concerns for democracy and human rights in Turkey. She said the “state of emergency” under which Erdoğan had conducted his crackdown on opposition since the 2016 failed coup had given observers “a dress rehearsal for what an executive presidency might look like.”
“There’s no problem with a presidential system of governance if there are checks and balances built into it to control unchecked use of presidential power — and that’s what we don’t see in the Turkish version,” she said. “This is pretty much an unchecked version of a presidency.”
Erdogan was emboldened as he addressed supporters Sunday night from the balcony of his AK Party’s headquarters in Ankara.
“We will fight even more with the strength you provided us with this election,” he said.
“There is no stopping for us until we bring Turkey, which we saved from plotters, coupists and political and economic hitmen, street gangs and terrorist organizations, to among the top 10 economies in the world.”
Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek tweeted that the resounding victory “sets the stage for speeding up reforms.”
Critics, including international rights groups and the opposition, said that the vote was held under unfair conditions, with Erdogan dominating media coverage. One rival presidential candidate – Selahattin Demirtas, the head of a pro-Kurdish party — campaigned from a prison cell where he is facing terrorism charges.
Ince accepted the results but said the election was “unjust” because it had not been held on a level playing field, and warned that the country was entering a “very dangerous” slide toward one-man rule under the new presidential system.
Senior Western officials sounded a similarly cautious note in their reaction. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg stressed the alliance "is based on some core values: democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty,” adding that he would be reminding Turkish leaders of these principles when they met.
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom bristled at Erdogan’s remark in his victory speech that Turkey had “taught the entire world a democracy lesson.”
“Turkey is in no position to give other countries lessons in democracy when the [Kurdish] opposition leader has been in jail for a long time,” she said Monday.
Cover image: Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, waves to the crowd during an election campaign rally in Yalova, Turkey, on Thursday, June 14, 2018. (Kostas Tsironis/Bloomberg via Getty Images)