The most European Muslim country, which has struggled for European Union’s membership for years, has just stepped backwards to its ‘roots’. In Sunday’s referendum, a majority voted to give more powers to the Turkish president, which could make Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ‘a modern sultan’.
The Turkish Republic, created by Turkish hero Kemal Ataturk almost a hundred years ago, sought to end the country’s sultan past and become a secular, modern, democratic state. Women gained new rights, including the right to study at universities. However, in his speeches, the Turkish President declares that Islam has reserved a place for women – motherhood. It is no surprise that Erdogan’s electorate comes from traditional rural locations, while in big cities – Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir – many of the country’s intellectuals and elites are opposed to the government, which was very visible in the referendum.
In the new era of populist and nationalist victories elsewhere in the world, why should Turkey be different? With the latest shocks of Brexit, Trump’s victory, the rise of far right parties in the EU, the Turkish referendum becomes just one more confirmation of the liberal world order’s decline.
In times of crisis, people tend to turn to populism and nationalism, and tend to believe in strong charismatic leaders – choosing dictatorship as a way to fight instability. The main argument Erdogan and his supporters used to convince to people for a ‘yes’ vote is the promise of stability.
In the developing chaos of this new world, new strong leaders must make new decisions. Turkey has a centuries’ long history of strong power concentrated in one’s hands. The fragile coalition government restrains from fast decisions needed with modern threats. While Western democratic leaders spend days of discussion to come to a solution that satisfies everyone, dictators are much faster in their actions, as they do not need to consult anyone. In such a way, democracies are slower to respond to terrorism and aggression in different parts of the world.
Nevertheless, fighting terrorism on Turkish territory and ISIS’ presence very close to the country’s borders – are great challenges for Turkey. Erdogan campaigned that new powers will bring Turkey victory in these struggles, and many citizens believed him.
Russia’s leadership is happy to welcome Turkey into its ‘dictatorship club’. Russian analysts claim that the country would not be able to come to this decisive point without Russian support. Some call it even a ‘divorce with the West’, a split Russia meets with joy.
Turkey has the second biggest army in NATO, G-20 membership, a strong economy, and a strategic geopolitical position. The West, therefore, should worry about losing the country’s partnership. Turkey is a gateway for alliances’ attacks against ISIS, as well as for ISIS terrorists to enter Europe. After the EU’s deal with Turkey to control the refugees coming to Europe, the refugee crisis stabilized to some extent. The European Union is highly interested in continuing this cooperation. However, the EU promised Turkey a visa free regime, a membership perspective, and funds, providing incentives to Turkey to join in discussions.
After the July coup, allegedly organized by the exiled Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, Turkish democracy was on thin ice, which was much criticized by Western leaders. At least 40,000 people were arrested; 15,000 education staff and 21,000 teachers were fired for allegedly being supporters of Gülen. More than 100,000 people were purged. Journalists with any opposition thought were jailed. Professors could not be sure in their jobs. Any opposition was crushed. Before the referendum, any opposition was restricted from providing its ‘no’ campaign. The West was already concerned with the government’s brutal response and, after Erdogan’s desire to resurrect the death penalty, threatened to stop Turkish EU membership negotiations.
Looking at the referendum, the summer coup resembles a preparation for Erdogan’s plan to secure his rule. With all the new responsibilities the president will gain, the division between the three branches of power will disappear, and Erdogan will likely remain in power for many years. There will be no checks and balances. With this new legislative prerogative, Erdogan may fulfil his promise of bringing back the death penalty – a reform he wanted following the July coup.
The Turkish population was bitterly divided after the coup; the referendum results confirm the divide – 51.36 percent voted ‘yes’, and 48.64 percent cast a ‘no’ vote. With his new powers, Erdogan does not seem willing to unite Turkish society. Rather, he will likely sweep off everyone who disagreed with his mandate. Erdogan has already started persecution against any kind of opposition views; if he continues with more terror – such as restoring capital punishment – soon there will be no opposition, and the country will live under authoritarianism and fear.
Presently, the opposition tries to prove fraud in the referendum – due to the electoral authorities’ decision to allow unsealed ballots to be counted. The opposition will question the results with the supreme election board. However, with Erdogan’s control over the courts, the media, and all government institutions, there is a little chance for the opposition to prove anything. Will Western democracies intervene in any way? Or is this a final Turkish decision to abandon European values and to join Russian tyranny? Could Turkey become a leader in the Middle East? Time will show – but for now everything remains very uncertain.
This article was edited by Nathan Stormont.