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Turkey on the brink

Soldiers marched in front of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a commemoration ceremony on April 24 near Seddulbahir, Turkey.
Soldiers marched in front of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a commemoration ceremony on April 24 near Seddulbahir, Turkey.Getty Images

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s vindictive assault on Boston Globe contributing columnist Stephen Kinzer, canceling his honorary citizienship of the city of Gaziantep and declaring him “an enemy of our government and our country,” is yet another example of the paranoia of an increasingly despotic leader.

It all started off so well. As Turkish columnist Mustafa Akyol, a now-disillusioned supporter of Erdogan's governing AK Party put it this week, Turkey was once seen as "the shining star of the Muslim world — an increasingly liberal democracy and a booming economy led by a cadre of reformist Islamists.''

Now the gilt has worn off and the stark reality of AKP rule has come to light.

The AKP, which came to power in 2002, adopted the guise of liberal reform to redress the balance after decades of secular, Kemalist rule and removed restrictions on the role of Islam in public life.

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There has been an explosive increase in the budget allocated to the Religious Affairs Directorate, and students from imam-hatip religious vocational high schools can now enter university on an equal footing with students from other high schools. The National Educational Council has proposed the introduction of compulsory religious classes from the start of primary school, instead of from fourth grade, and "values education'' in kindergarten.

Meanwhile, AKP cadres have taken over leading posts in state and provincial administration and independent regulatory boards are no longer independent. The Public Procurement Law has been rendered opaque, making it possible to reward AKP followers with lucrative contracts in return for ''donations'' to party coffers and charitable foundations.

Erdogan's electoral success in three successive elections, which topped in 2011 with 50 percent of the vote, was crowned with his election as president last August with support from 52 percent. However, Turkey's credit and construction driven economy is faltering, unemployment is rising, and foreign debt now exceeds more than half the national income.

On June 7 Turkey faces a new election but on different terms. Erdogan has been replaced as party leader and prime minister by his former foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, but still calls the shots and has chaired three cabinet meetings. With his hateful rhetoric and persecution of opponents (he has already filed complaints against 236 people for ''insulting'' him since he became president), Erdogan has departed from the impartial role expected of a Turkish president.

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In February Bülent Arinc, deputy prime minister and co-founder of the AKP, stated that the AKP was once respected by its opponents but now the 50 percent who didn't vote for party members look at them with hate. As Turkish editor Barcin Yinanc concluded: "Recep Tayyip Erdogan is going to go down in history as a president that continuously harassed the other half of society that did not vote for him."

Now it is a question of mathematics. Erdogan has taken control of all the instruments of power, legislative, administrative and judicial. But to achieve absolute control as executive president, a constitutional change is required. To do it without a referendum, the AKP needs 367 seats out of the Turkish parliament's 550 seats. At present it has 312, so President Erdogan is storming round Turkey with Koran in hand calling on voters to elect 400 AKP members. Whether or not they follow his call will be decided June 7. In the meantime, woe to those who challenge his ambition of becoming Turkey's absolute ruler, because they, like Stephen Kinzer and so many others, will be on the receiving end of Erdogan's wrath.

Robert Ellis has been an adviser to the Turkey Assessment Group in the European Parliament.

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