Turkey’s lonely messiah

Seeing all this, one can’t but realize that results of the upcoming referendum will not change much for Erdogan.

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan shout slogans on the back of a truck during a pro-government demonstration on Taksim square in Istanbul, Turkey, July 16, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan shout slogans on the back of a truck during a pro-government demonstration on Taksim square in Istanbul, Turkey, July 16, 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS)
April 16 marks a historic moment for modern Turkey – the nation voted to transform the country’s current political system into a presidential republic with a head of state enjoying considerable political powers without any effective control from the legislative and judicial branches.
Turkish president and a main advocate of constitutional changes Recep Tayyip Erdogan already enjoys considerable political clout, and thanks to a silent opposition within the former AKP leadership, his ambitions are likely to grow further. Indeed, many Turks sincerely believe that the referendum on constitutional amendments turns Turkey into a super-presidential republic.
For Erdogan’s supporters, a new Turkey was born with a triumphant rise of now ruling AKP party in the early 2000s. In the past 15 years, Turkey under the AKP government has witnessed tremendous political, social, economic and cultural changes.
And no doubt the secret behind the impressive electoral success of the party lies in the ability of its leaders to distribute the benefits of progress in these areas to the majority.
Among those party leaders to whom many Turks tend to ascribe the rapid development and rise in standards of living is the current head of state, Erdogan, an ambitious politician who happens to be the most vocal proponent of the constitutional changes. No wonder that the current campaign of the “Yes” camp focuses on promotion of Erdogan’s image as a national leader, the first popularly elected Turkish president, thanks to whom Turkey has been in consistent development and who is today in dire need of more powers to be able to continue the pace of development and finally bring the Turkish nation into a new era of stability and prosperity.
Erdogan’s popularity over several years allowed him to attract votes in favor of his constitutional project.
This support was built not only by skillful maneuvering among major electorate groups but also, more importantly, by his ability to consolidate power within the AKP in his own hands. To understand why Erdogan’s charisma and popularity persist despite numerous political crises Turkey is facing today, and noticeable opposition to his policies, one should look at the changes that have taken place in the past several years both in the AKP’s electorate and leadership.
It may seem like a paradox, but despite some of its electorate groups in the past couple of years turning away, the AKP has gained a series of sweeping electoral victories. Liberals, who were at first attracted by the AKP by its rhetoric about human rights in the early 2000s, eventually had to reconsider their views on the party after 2007 when it became clear the party leadership no longer felt obliged by its promises on human rights policy, opting instead for gradually limiting personal freedoms for the sake of elimination of secularists within the state apparatus.
By the same token, AKP’s Kurdish voters, who first welcomed party’s pledges to settle the Kurdish issue, were later disappointed by the party’s apparent inability to resolve the conflict between the PKK and Turkish state. Finally, considerable changes occurred in the AKP’s core constituency – the religious and conservative layers of the Turkish society. People who once supported the AKP for its vows to reform the aggressively secular regime, a legacy of the Kemalist reforms, later realized that the AKP’s long-term power had led to the subjugation of the private lives of citizens and religious organizations to direct state supervision. This tendency to restrict religious freedom increased after the coup attempt of July 15 last year and subsequent political purges and arrests.
Many famous people in Turkey who once openly supported the AKP claim now that their hearts lie no longer with the party. When asked why their views changed, many say that it is not their views that changed, but rather the AKP. Indeed, even looking only at how party leadership changed over time we can see what the AKP has gradually morphed into. This is why Sunday’s referendum’s results should not be considered a game changer.
Built in the early 2000s by the young, reform-minded, world-conscious politicians of the former religious conservative Refah party as a protest targeting the concentration of the inner-party politics in the hands of a closed circle of its leaders, the AKP was doomed to repeat the fate of its predecessors: initial electoral success and rise of popularity of the AKP in 2000s opened broad avenues for the party’s founding figures to realization of their political ambitions. After more than 10 years of political evolution, the AKP finally turned into a one-man party with Erdogan sidelining his former party fellows. The enormous popularity of the party, mainly stemming from successful economic reforms, and the gradual democratization of the political process in Turkey since the mid- 2000s were used by Erdogan, who managed to present the AKP’s victories as his own, and thus consolidate his authority over his party, as well as local and national politics.
In the past five years, respected politicians like Turkey’s former president Abdullah Gul, prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu and former Parliament speaker Bulent Arinc all abandoned the party and today scrupulously abstain from national politics or even commenting on Erdogan’s policies. Even those who decided to come out and criticize the current state of affairs in Turkey did it in a very restrained way by complaining, for instance, about crippled freedoms and the rise of an authoritarian state without directly pointing at Erdogan, who has been leading the country single-handedly since 2014.
Lack of any considerable opposition from within his own party and the political community in general makes it easier for Erdogan to suppress opposing voices from other political camps. With Kurdish politicians being jailed en masse based on charges of supporting terrorism, and the nationalist MHP party and Kemalist CHP party being marginalized due to enormous social divisions, Erdogan easily uses all his propaganda resources today to tilt the playing field to his advantage and portray himself as the only person behind Turkey’s tremendous economic development of the past decade, and, most crucially, as the only guarantee of stability. The messianic image of a national savior who allegedly needs more powers to bring Turkey into the age of prosperity should contribute to success of the proposals on the constitutional amendments.
Seeing all this, one can’t but realize that results of the upcoming referendum will not change much for Erdogan. In fact, even if there had been a “no” to the referendum, Erdogan would have enjoyed considerable powers and influence over the national politics. The Turkish messiah, faced with no real criticism from his own former party fellows and no effective opposition from other parties will be allowed to sacrifice state in the name of his own political ambitions.
The author is an Ankara-based freelance journalist writing about politics and society in Turkey.