Erdoğan's "new beginning" overshadowed by rail disaster

Turkey’s newly enshrined presidential system is a “new beginning” in Turkey’s “150 year quest for democracy,” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in his inaugural speech after being sworn in as president on Monday.

The inauguration ceremony was attended by 22 heads of state, including Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov and Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

Yet the absence of most leaders from Turkey’s long-term NATO allies, and the poor showing from countries from the European Union, for which Turkey is still nominally a candidate or accession, are likely the sign of a new beginning in foreign policy that has been foreshadowed by a long series of spats under Erdoğan’s rule.

The only EU representative in attendance was its Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, and Rumen Radev, the Bulgarian President, was the only head of state in attendance from the EU, also the only one from a NATO country. The presence only of the migration official seemed to be a clear message - it may be a new Turkey, but the EU's priorities remained the same.

The executive presidential system of government, which Erdoğan won the premiership of in the Jun. 24 elections, is doubtless also a new beginning in Turkish politics, doing away with the office of prime minister and greatly enhancing the president’s powers, which now include the authority to legislate by decree.

Yet for Turkey’s opposition, it will feel like more of the same – the country has been subject to decree laws for the past two years under the state of emergency, first put in place after the failed coup attempt in July 2016. While the state of emergency is set to end under the new system, the laws brought in by decree will likely remain.

Erdoğan was eager to mark the new system as a break from the “political, social and economic chaos” that he said had plagued the country under the old system, and he said it marked a “the first critical turning point since the Ottoman period” at which the country’s future had been decided by its people.

Yet he also took pains to place the 95-year-old Republic of Turkey as part of a far longer tradition, a “representative of a state tradition going back over 2200 years,” referring to the ancient Turkic peoples who inhabited Central Asian regions.

This appeal to a pre-Islamic Turkish greatness, and the light nod to pan-Turkism in his acknowledgement of “sister states that we cannot see ourselves as separate from,” underline Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s drift towards Turkish nationalism that was solidified by their alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leading up to the June elections.

The first test of his government’s “new beginning,” said Erdoğan, would be to reach its targets by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic, and a highly significant date for the AKP, which set out a list of grandiose goals for the landmark during the 2011 general election campaign.

In his speech, Erdogan made many references to the failed coup attempt in 2016, which he blames the exiled leader of the Gülenist religious movement, Fethullah Gülen, as the main culprit. 

The president referred to the AKP’s record in meeting similarly ambitious goals as the party’s “greatest reference,” adding that in the future they would work to “put (their) signature to much larger projects.”

Yet at the end of the day it was a disastrous failure in the country’s infrastructure, one of the areas the AKP has claimed as its greatest success, that made one of the deepest marks on the night.

A train crash in the northwestern province of Tekirdağ killed dozens and injured hundreds on Sunday; shortly afterwards the government called a media blackout on the disaster. President Erdoğan called off the celebratory section of the inauguration as a result.

Since his inaugural speech, the Turkish lira has taken a sharp plunge after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s announcement of a loyalist cabinet with a marked absence of old and trusted economic hands.