President Erdogan Seizes Power to Declare State of War and Mobilization in Turkey

In a move that further entrenches Turkey’s post-2016 turn to authoritarianism, a new regulation signed by the Turkish President and published on Wednesday, May 22, has made Recep Tayyip Erdogan the man solely responsible for declaring a state of war and ordering national mobilization.

According to the “Mobilization and State of War Regulation”, the President can unilaterally order a national mobilisation but still needs the Parliament’s approval within the same day. Currently, Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party and his allies in the National Movement Party (MHP) under the “People’s Alliance” coalition hold 322 seats in the 600-seat Grand National Assembly. The new regulation would expedite preparations “to be able to quickly and effectively transfer all the power and resources of the State from a state of peace to a state of mobilization or war”, enabling a quicker deployment of mobilised troops and adapting the economy to a wartime footing. The “Mobilization and State of War Regulation” replaces the previous “Mobilization and State of War Decree” which placed the executive’s war powers with the government’s cabinet.

Concerns have been raised that Erdogan could employ the new measure to mobilize the country’s armed forces at short notice to suppress large demonstrations and popular dissent at home, like the Gezi Park protests in May 2013, or the recent pro-Kurdish demonstrations at Van.

Former Turkish Navy commander, Mehmet Dagci, has criticized the new resolution for stripping the Council of Ministers of its war powers and entrusting them to a single person, fearing that the Erdogan government seeks to protect itself “against its citizens […] imagining a possible uprising and rebellion”.

“This approach shows once again that the regime will become even more oppressive, authoritarian and imposing! […] I consider this situation as an extremely objectionable, extremely dangerous point of view!”.

“Why did they feel the need to make such a change now?”

Deputy Chair of the People’s Equality and Democracy Party (DEM Party) parliamentary group, Gülistan Klliç Kocyigit, noted that the regulation comes as an additional step to the implementation of the country’s governance transition to a Presidential system but that the majority of similar measures had already been passed.

“One of the most critical changes is that, in addition to the state of war, a very vague definition such as insurrection, which they can fill in as they wish, has been included in the new regulation. For example, it says ‘in case of internal or external behaviour that endangers the indivisible integrity of the nation’. Now, it is truly an error of mind to reduce such an important issue as mobilization to something that is quite vague […] Apart from that, it is defined as a period of crisis, and from this aspect, we can understand that the regulation is not intended to protect the country from a possible danger, but to prevent issues that Erdogan himself sees as a threat.”

Kocyigit also suggested that it is no coincidence that the regulation was introduced after the outbreak of Kurdish protests in Turkey’s Van province and nationwide spillover following an attempt by Erdogan’s governing Justice and Development (AK) Party to annul the election of the DEM Party’s mayoral candidate in Van.

“Again and again, they want to make Kurds, democrats and revolutionaries targets. They are trying to stifle and suppress their legitimate resistance with these regulations,” she added.

As Koçyigit maintained, the change is indeed an additional step towards the legal consolidation of Turkey’s post-2017 presidential system. Following the results of the 2017 referendum on Erdogan’s proposed presidential powers, which were approved by 51% of voters, the Republic has seen the most radical constitutional amendments since its democratization and introduction of a multi-party political system in 1946. A total of “18 measures, or articles, that revise or repeal 76 articles, or 43 per cent, of the 177 articles in the Turkish Constitution” were proposed.

Eventually, the 18 amendments affected a total of 71 existing constitutional provisions, modifying nearly 50 and repealing an additional 21 that effectively ended the Republic’s parliamentary system, introduced by modern Turkey’s ethnarch, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923, ushering an executive Presidency that has since 2017 allowed Erdogan to unilaterally and decisively shape the country’s domestic political arrangements and foreign policy.

The 2017 reforms have since bestowed upon the President expanded influence and authority that have included among others the power to legislate by presidential decree on executive matters, the power to determine national security policies, the sole power to declare a state of emergency and the power to issue emergency decrees.

In this context, the recent regulation appears to align with the presidential remaking of Turkey’s political system, a fact that by no means mitigates the valid criticism and concerns raised over Erdogan’s innermost intentions when acting upon his newfound war powers.

After all, the Turkish armed forces find themselves engaged on multiple fronts at home and abroad. In light of Turkey’s war against the PKK in the country’s southeastern provinces and northern Iraq, its occupation of northern Syria (Rojava) and Cyprus, its offensive posture towards Greek islands and forces in the Aegean since 1974 and the threat of war since 1995 against Greece’s right to extend its Aegean territorial sea to 12 nautical miles, the new regulation might seem superficial.

Erdogan has already centralized decision- and policy-making to an imperial degree within his government’s cabinet and beyond, yielding a vastly disproportionate degree of power for democratic standards over all aspects of Turkish politics and life.

The Turkish government’s 17-day alcohol sales ban during a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown on April 29, 2021, awakened memories of a previous prohibition in 2013 and is an exemplary case of the Islamist President’s ability to impose his will upon an increasingly less religious nation.

Yet, Erdogan’s latest executive power grab speaks more to the President’s self-preservation and survival instinct rather than his ability to impose his Islamist agenda to undermine modern Turkey’s Kemalist-secularist foundations. Military coups have been the Turkish Armed Forces’ favourite pastime activity since May 27, 1960, when the Turkish military acted upon its then-constitutional mandate to safeguard the Kemalist Republic, its institutions and values by overthrowing Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and executing him shortly after. Much debate still surrounds the failed 2016 coup d’etat on July 15 which in hindsight functioned as a much-sought excuse by Erdogan to purge the country and armed forces of any real and imagined opposition and dissent. The unprecedented crackdown throughout a two-year state of emergency that followed brought the once Kemalist-dominated armed forces to their hill and paved the way to consolidate power through a presidential remaking of the Republic.

The Regulation is certainly designed to function as a means for the rapid reactionary deployment of loyalist forces and supporters against any future contingency that threatens the AKP’s monopoly on power. There is indeed merit in the argument that the recent Van protests against the mayor-elect’s disqualification, an anti-democratic repression of the Kurdish-majority electorate’s popular will that echoed a repeat of the 2016 mass disqualification of pro-Kurdish elected officials, alarmed Ankara. The AKP’s crushing defeat at the March 31 local elections marked the first time in its 22 years in power that its largely undisputed hegemony over domestic politics was decisively challenged.

Despite his Islamist credentials and sensitivities, Erdogan is no idealist but a Machiavellian statesman whose political survival has been predicated on a successful and deeply statist consolidation of Turkish politics and power around himself. Whether the measure, however, would successfully function as the Turkish President intends remains to be seen. Ultimately, it all comes down to whether the inevitable coming of the post-Erdogan era and transition of power to a person of his own approval or the Kemalist opposition would allow the septuagenarian President a peaceful retirement in his Black Sea home-town of Rize or in prison.

Konstantinos K
Konstantinos K
Konstantinos is postgraduate student, researcher and founder of Polity21. He writes primarily on Greek-Turkish relations, conflict and power politics in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. Academic and journalistic interests also include among others Astropolitics, Remote Warfare and U.S. Grand Strategy.


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