Turkey’s State of Emergency and the March to One-Man Rule

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

by Robert Olson

Turkey declared a “State of Emergency” (OHAL) on July 20, five days after the failed coup. It is to last for three months but can be extended at four-month intervals indefinitely if parliament agrees., Since it became a republic in 1923, Turkey has experienced one form or another of such extraordinary rule in stretches that add up to more than 40 years.

According to Turkey’s constitution, there are four different types of extraordinary rule: martial law, state of emergency, mobilization (of armed forces), and situation of war. The July 20 declaration is the first time that the government has declared a state of emergency for the entire country. Formerly such declarations applied only to parts of the country due to military coups or to Kurdish nationalist unrest or rebellions. The military declared martial law in 1980 when it seized power. Since 1980 much of the southeast regions was been under OHAL. It was lifted in November 2002.

OHAL can be imposed “in case of natural disasters, dangerous epidemics, economic depression, and if significant signs of violent threats to the constitutional democratic order or serious disturbance of public order due to violence.” It differs from martial law in that governing authority remains in the hands of the civilian government. OHAL grants President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his cabinet extensive powers concerning security, civil society, the legal system, and mass media. It allows the Justice and Development Party (AKP), armed forces, National Intelligence Agency (MIT), and police to arrest, detain, incarcerate, imprison, and dismiss from their jobs any person deemed to be a member or associated with the PKK, Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), or the Fethullah Gulen Movement, which the Turkey refers to as the “Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization.”

In addition to the AKP, there are only three other parties in parliament: the Republican People’s Party (CHP), a left-nationalist party; the right-wing National Action Party (MHP) closely aligned with the AKP; and the leftist, largely Kurdish, People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The CHP and MHP voted for OHAL, and the HDP did not.

Given that two of the minority parties strongly supported OHAL, it may be in place until new elections take place some time in autumn 2017. The CHP and MHP will likely encourage their supporters to vote for a constitutional amendment putting in place a strong presidential system advocated by Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim (one reason for former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s dismissal was his opposition to a presidential system).

CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and MHP leader Devlet Bahceli showed their willingness to support OHAL by attending the nationalist rally that Erdogan staged on August 7, which drew as many as two million people. The enthusiastic response from the crowd indicated that Erdogan, the state, the armed forces, and the police have carte blanche to interrogate, arrest, and imprison any persons suspected of supporting, approving, or sympathizing with the PKK/KCK, Kurdish nationalist movements, or the Gulen Movement.

In addition to weakening the PKK/KCK and destroying Hizmet, the AKP also exercised its dominance by canceling plans to moving the local governing entities in the towns of Hakkari, Shirnak, Yuksekova, and Cizre to towns more distant from the Turkish-Syrian border. This would aid in fighting the PKK and reduce opposition to a proposed pipeline from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) through Shirnak. Also, in early September, the Interior Ministry removed 28 mayors, 24 of them Kurds from the southeast and east, and replaced them with trustees. Most of the Kurdish mayors belonged to the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), aligned with the HDP. Kurds staged demonstrations against the mayors’ removal, which was a further attempt by the state to weaken the HDP. The CHP and MHP leaders made no objections to the removal.

The one issue on which the three non-AKP parties could agree was their support for the AKP decision not to lift the immunity of MPs for alleged crimes. Although aimed primarily at the HDP, the government’s plan would have affected MPs from all four parties,. None of the three parties has any interest in reducing the number of their MPs.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirm further revealed the AKP’s march to authoritarianism in a speech delivered to provincial governors in Ankara on September 8:

In accordance with statutory decree, provincial governors have been fully authorized to do what is necessary in the case of municipalities that are linked to extremism or support it one way or another. Please do not be hesitant or timid in this regard. Do not hesitate one bit. You will be breathing down their necks day and night.

He authorized governors to confiscate the moveable assets of any municipality or affiliated bodies found to have used their resources to provide direct or indirect support of extremism or acts of violence.

In his concluding remarks he stressed:

Do not ever say while doing the nation’s work that you made a mistake or were wrong. No work can be done in the public sphere without mistakes. Should we do our jobs or collect government reports? For example, for the sake of the public good go ahead and make a mistake but don’t be invoked in treachery.

Yildirim seemed to follow the advice that President Erdogan gave while speaking to an audience of district governors on January 26: “When it is necessary, put aside the interests of government laws. Sometimes it is necessary for us to take the municipalities’ resources and use them for other purposes and return life back to normal.”

A former interior minister reportedly said, “Forget the illegalities and move forward. Go ahead and do it! If the law does not allow it; make another law. We are the state. Most of the parliament is with us; we can make whatever law we want. The important thing is to put the nation’s interest before that of law.”

Robert Olson

Robert Olson is Professor of Middle East history and politics at the University of Kentucky (Emeritus). He is the author of ten books of various aspects of Middle East history and politics. His major books are: The Siege of Mosul and Ottoman- Persian Relations: 1718-1743; The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion: 1880-1925; Turkey's Relations with Iran, 1979-2004;The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations:From World I to 2000; Blood, Beliefs and Ballots: The Management of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey, 2007-2000; The Kurdish Nationalist Movements in Turkey: 1980-2011; The Goat and the Butcher: Nationalism and State Formation in Kurdistan-Iraq since the Iraqi War War. He is the author of 75 referred research articles and 60 edited research articles. He was distinguished Professor of the University of Kentucky in 2000. He is married and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.