It’s an Emergency! (Or is it?)

Erdoğan’s referendum isn’t about a strong or secure Turkey, it’s about friends, enemies and power-grabbing.

Foreign Affairs
 James Whittaker

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2003. They moved Turkey in a conservative and Islamist direction. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

To understand Turkey’s state of emergency and recent referendum it’s worth looking to Carl Schmitt, who remarked: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”. In other words, only the most powerful decide what constitutes an emergency and what to do about it. States of emergency are therefore always subjective; they depend on your political stance. In a similar vein, Schmitt also noted that at root, politics is about sorting your friends from your enemies. In modern Turkey, we find both tendencies embodied in Erdoğan’s regime. The recent referendum, though widely discredited, sought to constitutionalise authoritarianism. In Turkey, the state of emergency is becoming the norm.

States of emergency have been implemented in Western liberal democracies throughout their tumultuous history, most notably Britain and the United States in the First and Second World War. In Germany, Article 8 of the Weimer Republic’s constitution notoriously allowed for an emergency rule that would later pave way for the Third Reich. Most contemporary Western liberal democracies have emergency provisions within them. In France and the U.S., the War on Terror has allowed governments to transcend their normal constitutional powers. Likewise, in the Middle East elements of emergency rule are observable in Israel, Egypt as well as Turkey. Here too, the state of emergency is justified by the threat of the terrorist enemy.

Despite being a prima facie democracy, Turkey has been plagued by military rule since its inception. Indeed, the military views itself as the guardian of the Kemalist, secular constitution. It is perceived by many as the only institution that can protect the legacy of the much-revered Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, father of the Turkish nation. Historically then, the military has claimed a “monopoly to decide” (to use Schmitt’s phrase) when Turkey is threatened. A protracted civil war in the South-East involving a guerrilla insurgency by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) allowed the military to stake their claim as the nation’s protector. However, since the turn of the century, Islamism has come to prominence in Turkey via the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Gülen movement. Erdoğan and Gülen were allied to the cause of bringing Islam back into Turkish political life. However, they split after Erdoğan increasingly exhibited autocratic tendencies, suppressing the 2013 Gezi Park protests. In many ways, the recent military coup in July of 2016 seemed more Kemalist than Gülenist. This didn’t stop AKP blaming Gülen and his supporters. Add to the mix the chaos of the Syrian war on Turkey’s doorstep and it might seem reasonable for Erdogan to want to constitutionally entrench his emergency state. On the contrary, the referendum had all the hallmarks of an authoritarian power grab. Firstly, Erdoğan identified his enemies (Gülen, the PKK, ISIS and even European nations) and his friends: the pious, nationalist Turk. Secondly, he claims he alone, with the full power of the Turkish state behind him, can defend the nation against its enemies.

A state of emergency was officially declared after the attempted coup in 2016. Since then it has been consistently renewed. Yet even prior to this brazen power grab, Erdoğan has claimed powers well beyond those prescribed in the Turkish constitution. In fact, the recent referendum would only legally entrench Erdoğan’s de facto autocratic rule. A win would endow the Presidency with vast powers way beyond its traditionally limited and ceremonial remit. Win he did, with a little help from AKP-orchestrated electoral fraud. Yet at 51 per cent, it was very narrow. In his victory speech, Erdoğan was not the boisterous, arrogant, rebellious figure he had been on the campaign trail in Europe. The flamboyant rhetoric was gone and he seemed a shadow of his former self. He had won but at least half of the Turkish electorate had defied him. Protests erupted in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, those taking part were swiftly rounded up by the security forces. As Turkish commentators, have pointed out, Erdoğan is constitutionally very powerful, but politically, “the AKP is weaker than it’s been in a long time”.

Walter Benjamin once observed that for the oppressed “the ‘state of emergency’… is not the exception but the rule”. For the 158 journalists that sit in Turkish jails, or the thousands of teachers, soldiers and police officers that have been sacked or arrested, it matters little whether the state of emergency is extra-constitutional or not. Political opposition from the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) was barely tolerated prior to the coup. Now, its effectively an enemy of the state. The LSE’s David Graeber pointed out that Erdogan has put the “entire left parliamentary opposition in jail”. Since the coup, over a hundred media outlets have been closed or burned down due to supposed terrorist sympathy. Furthermore, Turkey’s South-East looks to the average Westerner more like Syria than Turkey. Indeed, as well as its bombing campaign in the South East, the Turkish air force has bombed ISIS and Kurdish positions in Northern Syria. Internally, like in the other Middle Eastern countries they inhabit, Turkey’s oppressed Kurdish population are constantly the target of scapegoating and racism. Viewers of Simon Reeve’s program on BBC Two saw that the Turkish army had razed whole Kurdish areas to the ground in their military campaign against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Many innocent people, journalists, teachers and Kurds, are designated public enemies in contemporary Turkey.

The Turkish army’s campaign against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has caused widepsread destruction in the Sur district of Diyarbakir (Photo: Reuters)

Erdoğan has been identifying enemies everywhere, lumping them together under the label of terrorists. This isn’t about national security, far from it, it’s a power grab. Kurdish soldiers fighting ISIS have been detained at the Turkish border, while ISIS fighters were at one point free to cross the border. Since 2014, ISIS has carried out many terrorist attacks within Turkey. In this sense, his policies have often been harmful to the security of Turks and Kurds alike. Through claiming to be fighting ‘terrorists’, Erdoğan has justified locking up his political enemies: those suspected of being Kemalists, Gülenists or PKK sympathisers. When academics intervene, like the 1,400 who signed a petition against the killing of Kurdish civilians, they are rounded up or put under surveillance. If they’re from the West, like Noam Chomsky, they get a name-check and invitation from Erdoğan himself: “Chomsky can see what is taking place in Turkey with his own eyes, not through the eyes of a fifth column”. Chomsky would respond that he would only come at “the invitation of the many courageous dissidents, including Kurds who have been under severe attack for many years”. Little has changed for those who have been on the receiving end of the Turkish state’s authoritarian rule. Nonetheless, if the referendum is not annulled, it can only mean more authoritarianism and war. Turks and Kurds alike will suffer the consequences.