Analysis: Did Erdogan just win a sixty-year political struggle in Turkey?

The roots of the “yes” vote, which the government barely won, are much deeper and the election is symbolically part of a decades old revolution in the country.

Supporters listen to the speech by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a rally for the upcoming referendum in Istanbul, Turkey (photo credit: REUTERS)
Supporters listen to the speech by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a rally for the upcoming referendum in Istanbul, Turkey
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The “yes” votes led the Turkish referendum count from the very beginning on Sunday. By 8 in the evening they had 62%. Things began to narrow as the count neared completion and the result, with 99% of ballots opened, was 51.3% in favor of strengthening the powers of the presidency.
There are still hurdles. Election monitors from the Council for Europe criticized the referendum’s standards and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said the Supreme Court should annul the results due to voting irregularities. It was a momentous day for Turkey, but largely symbolic, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had already entrenched himself in power over the last decade and a half and created a revolution in the country.
Erdogan’s ascent to the presidency three years ago, formally a weak and ceremonial position similar to the role the president plays in Germany, Israel and other parliamentary democracies, foretold major changes ahead. But the real changes occurred years earlier, when the Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept the polls in 2002. Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul known for his economic expertise, became prime minister in 2003.
Along with the party, he set about dismantling the secularist agenda of Kemalism, the guiding ideology of Turkey since the 1920s.
Some saw this as democratization, allowing women to wear head scarves in the civil service and reducing the role of the military in politics. But it replaced one kind of moral policing with another; in 2009 legislation blurred images of cigarettes on television, and in 2013 the country also banned images of alcohol on television. Critical journalists found themselves prosecuted, with some 148 arrested in 2016, according to the Turkish Journalists Association.
Turkey rounded up hundreds of military officers and others – alleged secularist coup plotters – between 2007 and 2012 through the controversial Sledgehammer and Ergenekon court cases. It was a prelude to the real coup attempt that came in 2016, blamed on an Islamist network associated with the now exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen’s Cemaat Movement, which has resulted in up to 130,000 people being fired by the government and many arrested for their alleged roles.
Erdogan has skillfully used each sign of opposition to strengthen his power. In May 2016 parliament voted to lift immunity for members of parliament from prosecution, and since then more than a dozen, mostly Kurdish, opposition MPs have been arrested.
A referendum approved in 2007 supported direct election of the president. When Erdogan was subsequently elected president in August 2014 many saw it as yet another stepping stone for the leader who was bent on transforming Turkey under his rule.
“Sunday’s victory will extend Erdogan’s more than 10-year rule over the country for another five years,” reported Al Jazeera. Sinan Ulgen, an analyst with Carnegie Europe, told Voice of America that “he will get to the presidency under the current constitution which indeed tends to gradually erode the power of the president to the advantage of the power of the prime minister.”
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Supporters of the referendum this week argue that it is just about improving how the country is governed and will be good for everyone. Gulnur Aybet, an international relations professor at Istanbul’s Yildiz Technical University and a recently appointed senior adviser to Erdogan, argued in an op-ed in The New York Times that it aims “to fix flaws in the current system.”
The opposition CHP doesn’t see it that way. “If you try to impose one color, one man’s rule, to this colorful place, the problems will deepen, legislator Sezgin Tanrikulu told Al Jazeera. People on social media were more assertive: “Goodbye Turkey, my old friend,” wrote David Patrikarakos, an author and contributing writer at Politico Europe. “Bye bye Turkey, hello Erdoganistan,” wrote Julie Lenarz, director of the Human Security Centre and senior fellow with the Israel Project. “RIP Turkey 1921-2017,” Foreign Policy titled a piece.
But some Turks wondered: Why is it okay for the UK to have a referendum and not Ankara, as Turkish journalist Hilal Kaplan noted on Twitter.
In Turkey the AKP and the right-wing National Movement Party (MHP) supported the referendum while the CHP and the left-leaning People’s Democratic Party (HDP) opposed strengthening the presidency. Many thought Kurdish regions would solidly oppose Erdogan due to a two-year war with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) armed group that has led to curfews and urban devastation, but the referendum often received equal or as much support as the AKP received in those areas in 2014 and 2015.
Analysis of turnout shows that despite fears, there was not widespread voter suppression; for instance in mostly Kurdish Siirt district, 65,500 voted HDP in 2014 and 74,365 voted “no” on Sunday. More important to Erdogan was the fact he lost Istanbul and Ankara, where he previously enjoyed more support.
Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess champion and critic of President Vladimir Putin, noted that Erdogan’s referendum has similarities with how Putin maneuvered himself into presidential power. “We think of dictatorship as military coup, but people vote their way into authoritarianism with tragic frequency.”
In some ways Putin’s rise and that of Erdogan mirror each other. Putin came to power in 1999 and has served two nonconsecutive terms as president since then. Like Erdogan he sought to increase Russian power and position it as a counter-balance to the West. Hopes that Turkey might join the EU after European Commission accession negotiations began in 2005 have been dashed. Turkey, like Russia, has wavered on relations with the US.
Erdogan has enjoyed a rocky relationship with Israel; for example he stormed out of a panel at Davos in 2009 after clashing with Shimon Peres over the war in Gaza. He was harshly critical of Israel over the Mavi Marmara raid that left Turkish citizens dead who were trying to break the Gaza blockade. In late 2016, Israel’s ambassador returned to Turkey after five years’ absence, and it appears the two countries that once enjoyed close relations now have a more pragmatic understanding. They share tensions with Bashar Assad and Iran, for instance.
For those eulogizing Turkish democracy, the reality is that Turkey was previously a republic that concentrated power in the presidency under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Ismet Inonu. Its military played an outsized role and despite its veneer of secularism, it has been fighting a Kulturkampf about the role of Islam since the time of prime minister Adnan Menderes in the 1950s.
Secular Turkey didn’t die on Sunday, it has always had a tenuous hold on power and enjoyed significant support in certain regions, such as the coast. An empowered presidency doesn’t guarantee Erdogan lifetime powers; in the next election the opposition could unite. However, the opposition is made up of coastal secular nationalists in the west and rural Kurdish leftists in the east, who often despise each other. To change Turkey’s course would require AKP leaders like Ahmet Davutoglu who have been sidelined by Erdogan, to put the brakes on the president.
Bur for now, Erdogan is at the high point of his 14 years in power thus far.