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Did Turkey end its state of emergency or make it permanent?

Why We Wrote This

Sustained security threats, real or imagined, can harm democracy. In Turkey, President Erdogan ended a two-year state of emergency, but its contribution to his tight grip on power may be lasting.

Kayhan Ozer/AP
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses supporters at a rally in Istanbul on March 11, 2017, in advance of the national referendum the following month that created a more powerful executive presidency.

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In the two years since a failed coup in Turkey, a draconian state of emergency has been in place. Under its auspices, real or perceived dissent was quashed in the name of battling “terrorism.” Some 160,000 public employees were purged and 60,000 people arrested. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lifted the state of emergency last week, but the mind-set it engendered, along with tough proposed anti-terrorism laws, has led many to believe that Turkey’s securitized state has become permanent. At the top is Mr. Erdoğan, exercising near-unassailable powers. “This was an extremely well-organized and masterminded emergency rule, and it served the very purpose of the executive presidency without checks or balances that Mr. Erdoğan was contemplating,” says Cengiz Aktar, a Turkish political scientist at the University of Athens. “Turkey is not going back to the rule of law with an independent judiciary, with a functioning legislature,” says Professor Aktar, echoing the complaints of Turkish opposition parties. “It’s a highly centralized, totalitarian system that has been put in place.… Unfortunately, the vast majority of the population approves of this way of being ruled. This is probably the most worrisome outcome.”

Shortly after surviving a coup attempt two years ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called the failed bid to topple him “a gift from God” for exposing his enemies, and promised to shape “a new Turkey.”

Also within days, Mr. Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) implemented a draconian state of emergency that critics say has been instrumental in turning the Turkish political model into a textbook case of authoritarian rule.

The state of emergency was lifted last week, but the mindset engendered by constant purges, tens of thousands of arrests, and now especially by new, tougher proposed anti-terrorism laws, have led many to believe that Turkey’s securitized state has become permanent. At the top is Erdoğan, exercising the near-unassailable powers of a newly elevated executive presidency, which came into being when he won presidential elections on June 24.

“This was an extremely well-organized and masterminded emergency rule, and it served the very purpose of the executive presidency without checks or balances that Mr. Erdoğan was contemplating – that is crystal clear,” says Cengiz Aktar, a Turkish academic and political scientist at the University of Athens.

“Turkey is not going back to the rule of law with an independent judiciary, with a functioning legislature,” says Professor Aktar, echoing the complaints of Turkish opposition parties. “It’s a highly centralized, totalitarian system that has been put in place. [Erdoğan] doesn’t need a state of emergency; he has established a permanent state of emergency.”

Under the auspices of those emergency rules, an assault on civil society has transformed politics since the attempted coup. In key institutions – from the judiciary and media to the security forces and political opponents of the AKP – real or perceived dissent was quashed in the name of battling “terrorism.”

Purges and arrests

On the night of July 15, 2016, rebel Turkish troops moved tanks onto a bridge over the Bosphorus in Istanbul, and Turkish pilots bombed the parliament building in Ankara. But the plot failed after Erdoğan, appearing live on a cell-phone video link held up to a CNN Türk camera, called on his supporters to take to the streets and fight the would-be putschists. Some 240 Turks died, and more than 2,000 were injured, in an event that traumatized Turkey as much as it presented an opportunity for radical political change.

Turkey blames the coup attempt on exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, a charismatic preacher who once worked hand-in-hand with the Islamist-rooted AKP to rein in secular security forces and political opponents. But it has been unable to convince the United States to extradite Mr. Gülen from his compound in Pennsylvania. Gülen denies the allegation, but former disciples suggest that their years-long infiltration of Turkish institutions was for just such a purpose, one day.

Officials coined the term Fethullah Terrorist Organization (FETÖ) to describe Gülen’s multitude of followers, and those accused of any link were among the 160,000 public employees, from teachers to policemen to judges, dismissed under the state of emergency with little recourse. Some 60,000 were arrested, and 200 media outlets closed.

The emergency powers were also used in the Turkish state’s fight against Kurdish militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which resumed three years ago, and its bid to control Islamic State operatives.

AKP officials deny that the state of emergency is permanent, or that Erdoğan used it to consolidate one-man rule. Yet they also make clear that they see a benefit in retaining its powers.

'State has to protect itself'

The threat from FETÖ “is still as valid as the day we fought their jet fighters and tanks in the streets to foil the takeover,” argued İlnur Çevik, a presidential aide, in the pro-government Daily Sabah last week.

“Every day, a member of the terrorist group is caught and turns into an informant, often revealing the names of dozens of ‘sleepers’ that are then arrested,” wrote Mr. Çevik.

Before the coup, “authorities were stalled by laws and could not really cleanse the state of these villains,” wrote Çevik. The state of emergency changed that, so its removal means “we find ourselves in a rather awkward situation. The fight against FETÖ is far from over, and the state needs ammunition to cope with the traitors.”

The proposed terrorism laws do not amount to a “veiled” state of emergency, he added. “The state has to protect itself.”

Other officials compare the new proposals to robust French security laws authorized last year in France, at the end of a two-year state of emergency there.

“They transferred the emergency rule powers to normal laws…. We will complete this process,” Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said in early July, before Turkish voters reelected Erdoğan, triggering an executive system that abolished Mr. Yıldırım’s post of prime minister. Turks approved of the executive presidency in a referendum last year that was orchestrated by Erdoğan and the AKP.

Emrah Gurel/AP
Police officers look on as supporters of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party gather to protest near central Istanbul's Taksim Square on April 16, 2018. Turkey's controversial two-year-long state of emergency has been lifted, but the government is proposing new anti-terrorism laws it says are needed to deal with continued security threats.

The proposed anti-terror measures would enable new commissions to be set up in judicial bodies and among security forces and universities. That would allow purges to continue, with little requirement to show evidence of a link to FETÖ or other “terror” group. Detention times would be extended, and governors hand-picked by the president would have special powers to limit movement and demonstrations. Most measures are meant to expire after three years.

Suppressing dissent

Opposition parties have cried foul, charging that a de facto state of emergency will remain, suppressing dissent. Opposition presidential candidates each promised to lift the emergency rules on their first day, if they won. The popularity of that message appeared to have convinced Erdoğan to make the same promise on the eve of the closely fought election.

“Even if the state of emergency period is actually over, the status of the state of emergency will continue,” Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, told BBC Türkçe last week.

“We do not yet have any signals that there will be a return to normalization at this time,” said Prof. Akdeniz. “Every country has a terrorism problem, but the important point to note here is that the new regulations erode fundamental rights and freedoms.”

A final group of 18,632 public employees was purged in early July, just before the lifting of the emergency rule, adding to the 160,000 already discharged.

“This state of emergency now is a permanent way of ruling the country,” says Aktar, the political scientist. “Unfortunately, the vast majority of the population approves of this way of being ruled. This is probably the most worrisome outcome.”

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