Tuesday, April 18, 2017
It was a classic red-state, blue-state schism. Rural religious fundamentalists seeking to return to their traditional roots versus urban progressives committed to modernity and global growth. It was the big April 16th referendum that has literally polarized Turkey into two very hostile factions. The call to vote was fueled by a failed military coup nine months ago, allowing Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to place the entire country under emergency restrictions, which were extended for a further 90 days following that referendum.
Rank and file soldiers, with no knowledge of any coup, were rounded up and imprisoned (along with their superiors) as their officers ordered their units into a very short-lived fray, quickly contained by the police. The often progressive press was severely muzzled, with senior journalists arrested and jailed. The Erdoğan administration quickly blamed cleric, Muhammed Fethullah Gülen who is living in exile in the United States for the coup but presented little hard evidence to support this accusation. Many even accused Erdoğan himself for the coup, claiming he encouraged the revolt to allow him to push his power-centralizing agenda forward.
Ostensibly a U.S. ally (and member of N.A.T.O.), Turkey reluctantly joined the battle against ISIS in neighboring Syria, allowing U.S. airstrikes from a Turkish airbase and pledging to join those forces fighting ISIS in the air and on the ground. The United States was relying heavily on Iraqi forces (with exceptionally strong ties to Iran) aligned with Peshmerga Kurdish fighters whose fierce success against ISIS has become legendary.
So what did Erdoğan’s forces actually do when they entered the battle? Citing the desire of eastern Kurds to break away from Turkey to form an independent nation – an internal struggle that has consumed Turkey for decades (with rising and falling levels of violence over the years) – Erdoğan ordered his military to strike hard at these Kurdish “terrorists.” ISIS was unscathed. He complained to the United States about harboring Gülen and about our support for and use of those highly-effective Peshmerga forces.
Facing constitutional limits imposed by Turkey’s parliamentary form of government, Erdoğan set a referendum that would completely transform his nation’s governmental structure, moving from a parliamentary system with strong power embedded in the legislature to a government where the most powerful branch of government would become the president, relegating the legislature to second-class status. Term limits would be rewritten to enable Erdoğan to continue to run for the highest office for the rest of his political life.
Critics argued that Erdoğan used the failed coup to silence critics, imprison his enemies, repress a criminal investigation of his purported corruption (including some pretty damning evidence from a record telephone call), intimidate voters who championed a rejection of the proposed constitutional reform and resurrect strong Sunni Muslim priorities in a country that was designed, following World War I, as a strongly-secular nation by the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Unlike the Shiite faction of Islam, where senior clerics interpret the Qur’an and control every facet of life within their purview (resulting in the rather direct theocracy we see in Iran), Sunnis instead have believed, since the time of the ancient caliphate that followed the death of the Prophet Muhammad, that the government must be the “protector” of Islam, a role that Erdoğan seems to have embraced like no other Turkish leader since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. You can hear the call for a new “caliphate” from ISIS, but Erdoğan’s new direction for his country has brought Turkey out of the era of 20th century secularism and closer to becoming a theocracy than it has been for almost a century.
The April 16th referendum was a narrow victory for Erdoğan’s red state constitutional reform. While the larger cities and coastal areas strongly opposed the constitutional restructuring (see above map, left), the conservative heartland ruled the day: “A slim majority of Turkish voters agreed on Sunday to grant sweeping powers to their president, in a watershed moment that the country’s opposition fears may cement a system of authoritarian rule within one of the critical power brokers of the Middle East.
“With nearly 99 percent of votes in a referendum counted on Sunday night [4/16], supporters of the proposal had 51.3 percent of votes cast, and opponents had 48.7 percent, the country’s electoral commission announced.” New York Times, April 17th. The margin of victory was a mere 2.5 million votes. Erdoğan’s veer to the right seemed to reflect both a growing political power within the Islamic world and a strong populist fervor that seems to be consuming western powers as well, certainly including the United States. The new message: Eschew progressive values and push the country back to an earlier, simpler time, not particularly-defined by immigrants, where religion and regional values were the governing norm.
“Many analysts were surprised by the close result, saying they had expected Mr. Erdogan to achieve a larger majority because he had held the referendum within an atmosphere of fear… Since a failed coup last summer, Turkey has been under a state of emergency, a situation that allowed the government to fire or suspend about 130,000 people suspected of being connected to the failed putsch, and to arrest about 45,000.
“The campaign itself was characterized by prolonged intimidation of opposition members, several of whom were shot at or beaten while on the stump by persons unknown… The opposition questioned the legitimacy of the referendum after the election board made a last-minute decision to increase the burden needed to prove accusations of ballot-box stuffing. At least three instances of alleged voter fraud appeared to be captured on camera.
“‘We are receiving thousands of complaints on election fraud,’ said Erdal Aksunger, the deputy head of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, known as the C.H.P. ‘We are evaluating them one by one.’
“The new system will, among other changes:
■ Abolish the post of prime minister and transfer executive power to the president.
■ Allow the newly empowered president to issue decrees and appoint many judges and officials responsible for scrutinizing his decisions.
■ Limit the president to two five-year terms, but give the option of running for a third term if Parliament truncates the second one by calling for for early elections.
■ Allow the president to order disciplinary inquiries into any of Turkey’s 3.5 million civil servants, according to an analysis by the head of the Turkish Bar Association.
“Academics and members of the opposition are concerned that the new system will threaten the separation of powers on which liberal democracies have traditionally depended… ‘It represents a remarkable aggrandizement of Erdogan’s personal power and quite possibly a death blow to vital checks and balances in the country,’ said Professor Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington research group. ‘Judicial independence was already shockingly weak before the referendum; the new system makes that worse.’” NY Times.
In the end, Turkey seems to be drifting away from its once-stated desire to join the European Union (3% of Turkey is physically in Europe), moving away from the West and presenting a deep threat to its status as a trusted N.A.T.O. member. Europe, in turn, seemed equally shocked: “[Observers] from the Council of Europe issued a scathing report, saying the [referendum] campaign took place on an ‘unlevel playing field’ and that the rules for organizing the referendum were not up to international standards.
“For the 63-year-old leader, the muddied result was a fury-inducing affront. Addressing supporters in the capital, Ankara, on Monday, Erdogan denounced the ‘crusader mentality in the West’ — a loaded reference to Europe’s medieval holy wars aimed at Islam… Bashing the West, particularly Europe, is a well-thumbed page in the Erdogan playbook, a sure-fire way of appealing to his conservative, nationalistic base at home… In recent months, the Turkish president has quarreled repeatedly and publicly with European leaders. Most recently, he accused the Netherlands and Germany of Nazi-like behavior when they prevented Turkish politicians visiting those countries from campaigning for the referendum in front of crowds of expatriate Turks.
“[Once] a leader who had once touted himself as a bridge between East and West [, Erdoğan] appeared determined to issue a rebuke to Europe that was more than symbolic. At several appearances Monday [4/17], he emphasized his readiness to restore the death penalty, a step that would all but kill Turkey’s decades-long campaign to join the European Union.
“Playing to popular Turkish sentiment, Erdogan has also said the question of whether to continue seeking EU membership should be put to a referendum… ‘That resonates well with his constituency, and beyond,’ said Gonul Tol, the director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies. ‘If you talk to a regular Turk in the street about the European Union, you hear this often: ‘They won’t accept us because we’re Muslim.’ ‘ ”
“Although Erdogan may be grappling with Europe, he seems to have retained one Western friend: Donald Trump.” Los Angeles Times, April 18th. There are troubling parallels with the initial days of the Trump presidency: government by executive fiat (Trump has failed so far to get any legislation through a deeply divided Congress), withdrawal of support for DOJ efforts in favor of assuring minority rights against certain police practices, extreme hostility to a critical press, bringing and prioritizing fundamentalist religious policies (from climate change denial to encouraging clerics to embrace partisan politics from the pulpit) into his administrative agenda, blaming minorities for what seems to be wrong with America and pulling back national vectors into a distant past, to name just a few. Trump called Erdogan immediately after the referendum to congratulate him on his victory. Buddies. Did I mention that there are two conjoined Trump Towers in Istanbul (pictured above)? One is an office building while the other is residential.
I’m Peter Dekom, and if democratic rule is about the will of the majority while projecting minority rights, democracy took a terrible hit on April 16th.