Things have headed downhill rapidly in Turkey in the last two weeks. When PM Ahmet Davutoglu resigned due to pressure from President Erdogan on May 5, many predicted trouble from an increasingly unchallenged, increasingly authoritarian head of state. But few foresaw how quickly events would unfold. The next day, Erdogan told Europe “We’re going our way, you go yours.” From the refugee crisis (where he asked the EU to transfer him €3bn in cash, ASAP) to the visa agreement (where he told Brussels no, he would not change Turkey’s sweeping anti-terror laws), we soon saw what he meant by that.
And now, as the Financial Times reports:
Turkey’s legislature on Friday voted to strip nearly a third of its lawmakers of their parliamentary immunity, paving the way for the prosecution of more than 100 opposition politicians on allegations ranging from supporting terrorism to insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
While the trials could take months, or even years, conviction would require the MPs to leave parliament and forbid them from standing for office again. The AKP hopes that it would increase its parliamentary majority in the resulting by-elections, giving enough support for Mr Erdogan, a party founder, to change the constitution and create an executive presidency.
The measure will disproportionately hit members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, whose success at the polls in November denied Mr Erdogan the overwhelming majority he sought in order to amend the constitution. Forty-six of the HDP’s 59 MPs will face immediate prosecution for supporting the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, the separatist terrorist group that has stepped up attacks inside Turkey.
Erdogan’s Turkish defenders are pointing to the fact that 27 AKP members (and 51 members of the Ataturkist opposition, the CHP) were also stripped of their immunity, in order to somehow suggest that this wasn’t a purely partisan move. A better way to maybe look at it is that this shows that Erdogan can now make or break any MP—of his party or not.
There is little doubt that Erdogan is keen to crush his Kurdish opposition in particular, whom he blames for preventing him from reaching a Constitution-altering supermajority in last year’s elections. But taken with other news, this points toward a bigger sea-change. This latest turn of events came swiftly on the back of the news that a staunch Erdogan loyalist, current Minister of Transport, Maritime Affairs and Communications Binali Yildirim, had been installed as the new PM. To add insult to injury, the new law excludes corruption accusations against Erdogan and his cronies (including, ahem, the new PM) because they predate its implementation period. Compared to two weeks ago, Erdogan has much fewer obstacles to the naked exercise of his will in Turkey.
And “naked” is the right word: Erdogan is stripping away the fig leaf of pretense that allowed Turkey’s partners, including the U.S. and Europe, to look the other way on his domestic record in favor of keeping the refugee deal going forward. It was also easier not to raise awkward questions about creeping despotism in a NATO ally. Erdogan seems to be betting that he can continue to rub Brussel’s (and Washington’s) lack of other options in their face on all these fronts. He has thus far been quite successful when trying this trick, especially with regard to negotiations over refugees.
Yet there may come a point at which this will no longer be tenable—when Erdogan crosses a line where the West simply cannot hold its nose any longer. We had better have an answer to “and then what” when we get there. Because as Erdogan’s moves this month show, we might reach “there” sooner than we might imagine.