Turkey’s new Prime Minister isn’t wasting any time.
The month since Binali Yıldırım won the ruling AK Party’s vote has been marked by a succession of legal and administrative coups targeting management of the economy, judicial independence and the political opposition.
This should come as little surprise. These are the three critical areas of dissent to Yıldırım’s long-time ally and mentor, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Yıldırım was Erdoğan’s choice as head of government following the abrupt removal of Ahmet Davutoğlu at the President’s behest. As a politician, Yıldırım is notorious for toeing the party line without initiative – a reliable avatar of Erdoğan’s will. It was under Yıldırım’s watch as Minister for Transport, Maritime and Communications that Turkey shut down Twitter and Youtube in 2014.
His Premiership sends a message to the opposition and to international investors that the political agenda is being set directly and entirely by the President and his allies. Their key objective: comprehensive constitutional changes to create a fully executive presidency in which Erdoğan is unchallenged in decision-making.
The first hurdle is to clear the political and legal arena of all likely detractors
Yıldırım’s first major victim was his Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek.
Well-respected in international circles as the Finance Minister who steered the country through steady growth that typified the first 10 years of AKP governance, such level-headed stewardship is now on a collision course with Erdoğan’s preference for low interest rates.
At the end of May, Yıldırım appointed himself Chairman of the Economic and Coordination Board, undercutting one of Şimşek’s key policy making roles. Although Şimşek retains oversight of the Treasury and Central Bank, he will no longer have the portfolio of regulating commercial lenders or the capital markets. Instead, regulation of lending has been entrusted to Nurettin Canikli, another Deputy Prime Minister and an avowedly Islamist member of the cabinet.
Erdoğan’s ambitions hinge on massive construction projects he has auctioned off to a crony network of political and commercial allies. These projects are finding access to foreign credit increasingly hard to secure. Yıldırım and Canikli can be relied upon to force through the lending needed while complying with Islamist distaste for charging interest.
The real objective of Erdoğan’s political machinations is to remove the prospect of opposition to his grand ambition. For the past year, he’s been publicly calling for obstreperous parliamentarians to have their immunity from prosecution stripped. But this strategy relies on the willingness of the judiciary to act upon what will inevitably be a string of trumped up allegations of criminality and misconduct.
This too has now been taken care of. On June 5, the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) passed a decree reassigning 3,228 judges and prosecutors from civil jurisdictions and a further 518 from administrative jurisdictions.
Among those demoted or reassigned to regional backwaters was Murat Aydın, who made headlines after he appealed to the Constitutional Court to have Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code amended. Article 299 is the notorious law that criminalises any insult to the President.
Shifting and moulding the judiciary into a compliant tool of political repression has been a mainstay of Erdoğan’s policy since 2013, when he intervened to prevent a massive corruption investigation aimed at his family and close associates.
Two days after the HSYK’s decree, Erdoğan signed another – stripping immunity from MPs under investigation. The charges against the parliamentarians are broadly based on three areas: insulting Erdoğan, suspicion of corruption and supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Up to 152 parliamentary deputies risk prosecution, based on 799 possible cases. It’s a clear intimidation tactic and one that has been especially aimed at the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Liberal and pro-Kurdish, the HDP has emerged as the clearest challenge to Erdoğan’s authority. All but four of the HDP’s 59 parliamentary members have summary proceedings against them. All opposition leaders holding parliamentary seats also face investigation.
With enough opposition members under prosecution, Erdoğan can push for by-elections that the AKP – with its extensive grass-roots campaign network – would be almost guaranteed to benefit from. If the AKP can raise its number of seats from 317 to 330, it will be able to take the issue of constitutional amendments to a referendum. With 376 seats, it can act unilaterally.
The push toward authoritarian centralization appears irreversible. This is a worry for international investors. Turkey’s economy is weak, with tourism and industrial output falling, the lira plunging against the dollar, and terrorist attacks showing no sign of abating from key population and economic hubs.
Economic decision-making must be driven by a clear strategy to lift the fortunes of the masses – as opposed to one man.
Jack Kennedy is the lead Middle East & North Africa analyst at West Sands Advisory Ltd. An Arabic speaker, Jack has traveled the wider region and last worked in Egypt in 2014 with the European External Action Service.
West Sands Advisory is a business intelligence and geo-political risk advisory firm that has, since 2006, helped clients identify opportunities and reduce risk in emerging and frontier markets. More information at www.westsandsadvisory.com