Erdogan: A Despot on a Historic Mission

A Despot on a Historic Mission

Erdogan is going forward with his plans to change the political system in Turkey. He already has absolute power over the ruling party. He is also trying to change the composition of the Turkish parliament without having elections.Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s authoritarian president, is rapidly reshaping his country’s political system in his image. He is seeking to amend the Turkish constitution in a “historic mission” to transform Turkey from a parliamentary republic to a presidential one in order to accumulate more power for himself. Last week Turkey witnessed two more steps in that direction: Erdogan “appointed” a new party leader of the ruling AKP and then a new prime minister according to the constitution. On May 20, the Turkish parliament adopted a highly divisive bill that will revoke immunity for dozens of pro-Kurdish and other MPs and could see them thrown out of parliament. 

New Prime Minister

As expected, members of the ruling AKP elected the minister of transport Binali Yildirim last Sunday as the new party leader to take the place of Ahmed Davutoglu following his resignation. Yildirim was the sole candidate for the position – a reward for his loyalty to Erdogan. The contradiction was plain to see: a man who wants to shrink the power of the prime minister is himself now prime minister. And if Erdogan enacts his constitutional amendments, Yildirim is going to be the last prime minister in the history of the Turkish republic, stretching back to 1923. 

Erdogan is concealing the features of the presidential system he seeks, which is similar to French, Russian or even American one. Nobody knows what it will look like. Regardless, it’s clear that Erdogan will be the sole player in the new system. The event of electing a new party leader is supposed to be a celebration, and invitations were sent to all Turkish parties with the exception of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party. The revelers, who were very similar to their counterparts in ruling parties in the Middle East, didn’t understand that there was, in fact, nothing to celebrate. Erdogan forced Davutoglu to resign. He also got Binali Yildirim elected. The party’s seats in parliament were the same before and after the celebrated elections. The only outcome was that Erdogan consolidated more power for his “historic mission”, as was frequently noted during the celebration. 

Kurds in Parliament

The bill adopted by the Turkish parliament on May 20 to revoke immunity for 138 MPs would dramatically change the composition of the legislature in the absence of elections. The pro-Kurdish party won 59 seats in parliament last election; 50 of them could flow outside the parliament under the bill mentioned above. Charges vary from “insulting Erdogan” to “supporting a terrorist organization”, which is Turkish jargon for the forbidden Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The bill was backed by 376 MPs in the 550-seat legislature, exceeding the necessary two-thirds majority, and will become law directly without being put to a referendum. 

If several pro-Kurdish MPs are arrested, there are fears it could spark worse violence in Kurdish areas in southeast Turkey, where people could feel deprived of a voice in parliament. So this is a dangerous moment for Turkey, and a test of how far Erdogan is willing to go to secure his position. On the other hand, it is clear that Erdogan has already succeeded in fueling ethnic tension between Turks and Kurds, since the bill passed with 376 votes, despite the fact that the ruling party has only 317 seats. Members of the secular CHP (133 seats) and far right MHP (40 seats) voted in favor of the bill. That means the natural right-left division is disappearing and a Turkish-Kurdish polarization is emerging in Turkey. 
The proposed Left Alliance between CHP and the pro-Kurdish party to challenge the conservative right-wing AKP is not expected to take place any time soon. AKP will use the courts against the Kurdish MPs to gain politically. In any upcoming elections the Kurds will have little chance of having charismatic MPs on their electoral lists. Erdogan’s political calculation is to use the courts against the Kurds while not prohibiting the pro-Kurdish party, since this would be a double edged sword. A charge of “threatening the secular system in Turkey” could succeed against the ruling Islamic party AKP itself. In 2008 the Turkish constitutional court refused to prohibit the ruling AKP with this very charge with the majority of only one vote. 


Erdogan is going forward with his plans to change the political system in Turkey. He already has absolute power over the ruling party. He can impose his will on prime ministers and nominate his preferred candidates. He is also trying to change the composition of the Turkish parliament without having elections by revoking the immunity of pro-Kurdish MPs. The outcome of his “historic mission” is not guaranteed, however, since tensions will mount in Kurdish areas and the country’s internal stability will remain on a precipice. 

Rumors are circulating that Turkey and the US are converging on Syria, where the Americans are hoping Turkey will play a larger role. These rumors intensified after U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the new head of U.S. Central Command, made a surprise visit to Turkey. It would be very difficult for Erdogan to operate outside his borders with such a volatile domestic situation on his hands. At the same time it is also very difficult for Erdogan to see Kurds in Syria expanding their influence along the Turkish-Syrian borders. The “historic mission” could turn into a dilemma for Erdogan, who will face more hard choices not far down the road.

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