Now a slim majority of Turkish voters have just approved constitutional changes designed to make the strongman even stronger.
In a razor-close referendum vote on Sunday, Turks gave Erdoğan considerable new powers while leaving him subject to few, if any, meaningful checks and balances. The results — which could require up to 12 days to fully certify, according to the chief election official — were extraordinarily close, with Erdoğan’s “Yes” camp prevailing with just over 51 percent of the vote. In what could be a harbinger of political instability ahead, the “No” camp prevailed in Turkey’s three biggest population centers, including Istanbul. Opposition leaders have demanded the review of a large number of allegedly problematic ballots.
The referendum, if fully implemented, would change Turkey from a parliamentary democracy into one run by a strong executive president who will absorb all the current functions of the prime minister. The new president will be free from accountability to the country's parliament, will wield broad budgetary powers, and will have complete autonomy to shape the executive branch as he sees fit.
In the new system, Erdoğan will also be poised to exercise significant control over the judiciary — undermining the separation of powers and leaving an incredible concentration of unregulated authority in the president’s hands.
Topping it off, the just-approved amendments allow him to run for additional presidential terms that could extend his stay in power until 2029. At best, Turkey appears set to cement its status as an illiberal democracy, where individual rights will not be guaranteed. At worst, opponents fear, the country’s frightening slide toward authoritarianism has just accelerated.
That’s bad news for Erdoğan’s own people, but also for Washington and the leaders of other countries that until recently held Turkey up as a model of Muslim democracy — and who would welcome steadier behavior from a vital ally in one of the world’s most dangerous and unstable regions.
Now, it seems that Turkey could be indefinitely under the thumb of a thin-skinned leader willing to use his vast powers to crack down on dissent at home and to pick fights with any foreign government perceived to slight him or to challenge his dismal human rights record.
This is not a theoretical concern in Turkey, which holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s leading jailer of journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
It’s not only reporters who have felt his wrath. In the aftermath of a failed coup attempt last summer, Erdoğan summarily dismissed more than 100,000 public sector employees from their jobs for suspected (but unproven) ties to the group allegedly responsible for the coup plotters. Another 47,000 people remain in jail while awaiting trial on coup-related charges; many Western observers believe the arrests were politically motivated.
How did Turkey wind up on the verge of formalizing one-man rule? Much of the answer has to do with that man himself, who inspires fear among his critics but passionate devotion among his supporters.
But another element of the story — familiar to Americans in the age of Donald Trump — has to do with the difficulty of reasoned democratic debate in a world where “alternative facts,” information silos, and conspiracy theories deprive citizens of a common view of reality. Facts have become slippery things over the past decade in Turkey, where the true alignment of political forces has often been difficult to discern, and where fake news is rife.
“The US has one Breitbart,” Soli Özel, a newspaper columnist and professor of political science at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, told me. “Turkey has many.”
A nationalist leader with authoritarian tendencies, the support of a fiercely partisan media, and a willingness to spread conspiracy theories is about to complete a political takeover that would have unimaginable even a few years ago. Sound familiar?
Meet Turkey’s populist, polarizing, and incredibly powerful president
Erdoğan spent months lobbying the public to vote “Yes” in the referendum, blanketing the airwaves and covering Turkey in billboards and giant banners featuring his face alongside simple appeals to patriotism and national unity. He and his allies have defended the system as a democratic upgrade and stressed that the new system will promote national security. “After April 16, Turkey can fight terrorist organizations and powers that support those organizations in a more determined manner,” Erdoğan stated at a pre-referendum rally on Thursday.
His many opponents saw things very differently. To them, Erdoğan was making a naked power grab allowing him to rule supreme. "Turkey is at a junction,” declared opposition party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu on the evening before the referendum. “Do we want a democratic parliamentary system or do we want a one-man regime?”
At base, the just-adopted constitutional revisions will legalize Erdoğan’s considerable informal power by transferring all authorities now lodged with the prime minister to the president (and eliminating the former position). They will also expand his ability to promulgate laws by decree, insulate him and executive branch appointees from legislative oversight, and increase his ability to pack the judiciary with allies.
While the legislature will not be completely neutralized in constitutional terms, it seems destined to become a rubber stamp for the foreseeable future given control by Erdoğan’s party.
The new system will go into effect in 2019, following national elections that Erdoğan is expected to win. He’ll also continue to wield significant power in the meantime with the cooperation of a compliant prime minister and through the state of emergency measures in place since an attempted coup last summer.
This vote may have changed Turkey forever
Erdoğan, the central actor in Turkish politics since his party swept to power in 2002, has always been distrusted by many members of Turkey’s more established and highly secular middle and upper classes. They worry about his efforts to give Islam a larger role in public life, including supporting laws limiting alcohol sales and making statements urging women to assume traditional roles focused on childbearing and child care. On International Women’s Day in Ankara last summer, for instance, he said pointedly that “a woman is above all a mother.”
A segment of Erdoğan’s critics also felt anxiety at his efforts to roll back the powers of the country’s military, traditionally the guarantor of the country’s secular traditions (and which have mounted three successful coups when they were uncomfortable with the direction of the country).
To his supporters, though, Erdoğan was a defender of their values dedicated to modernizing and opening up the Turkish economy, making the Turkish government more effective and less corrupt, and giving Turkey a place in the EU. In a move dear to its base, Erdoğan’s party also expanded civil liberties for observant Muslims, particularly for women who, under laws intended to uphold a strict interpretation of secularism, were previously banned from wearing headscarves in schools, at universities, or on other state property.
Under Erdoğan’s leadership, Turkey’s Kurdish minority — which accounts for roughly 20 percent of the population — gained expanded cultural rights and more freedom to use their own language. Erdoğan also initiated peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a secessionist group whose bloody insurgency has killed more than 40,000 people since 1984. Erdoğan managed to secure a ceasefire that held from 2013 to 2015.
Along the way, Erdoğan moved to reduce the political role of the military, designated by Turkey’s founding constitution as a “guardian” of republican values — a duty used as justification for coups in 1960, 1971, and 1980 and for a range of more subtle military interventions.
Liberal Turks who had long felt the military had too much power initially supported those moves, but Erdoğan began to alienate them with attempts to accumulate more power himself, including through legal proposals for an executive presidency. That project went nowhere for years, until parliamentary approval earlier this year set up the referendum that has now given him the kind of power he has wanted for so long.
Liberal flight from Erdoğan — and even criticism from within his party — reached new heights in 2013, when he responded harshly and with force to a national wave of demonstrations that began with a sit-in defending Istanbul’s Gezi Park from destruction to build a shopping center and ended with criminal charges against 255 people. Riot police actions injured an estimated 8,000 people and killed four, including a teenage boy hit in the head with a tear-gas canister whose death sparked ongoing outrage and resentment.
On the evening of July 15, 2016, a faction within the military launched an attempted coup against Erdoğan, whom they unsuccessfully tried snatch from a seaside villa. Coup leaders bombed the Turkish parliament and engaged in gunfights with pro-government forces on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara. By the next morning, the poorly organized takeover attempt had collapsed — in large part due to Erdoğan’s success in rallying massive popular resistance by his followers through FaceTime.
A brief moment of national unity followed, but this quickly vanished in an aggressive hunt for followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric that Erdoğan accuses of masterminding the coup. Erdoğan has demanded that the US extradite the cleric back home, a step Washington has refused to take because of the unconvincing nature of the evidence that Turkey has presented on Gülen’s coup involvement.
Back home, Erdoğan has used the coup to rapidly consolidate power and eliminate his real and perceived enemies. As of April 2, when the latest official figures were released, more than 113,000 people had been at least temporarily detained in connection with the coup plot, and more than 20,000 police officers, military personnel, judges, and prosecutors were in custody. Many thousands more teachers and other state employees have lost their jobs on the basis of alleged Gülenist ties.
The post-coup crackdown also led to the arrests of member of the press and intelligentsia, including a veteran newspaper columnist and a best-selling novelist, accused of Gülenist links. The leaders of the party representing Turkish Kurds, meanwhile, have been jailed since November on charges of involvement with the PKK. University professors who signed a petition calling for a renewed peace process with the PKK are reportedly under investigation, and many have been dismissed from their jobs.
More broadly, many Turks speak of a tense post-coup atmosphere characterized by self-censorship and a sense that any conversations conducted in the open are subject to state surveillance.
It was in this climate of repression, paranoia, and confusion that Erdoğan renewed his controversial bid to shift Turkey from its parliamentary roots to a system where he stands to wield nearly unfettered power. And it’s in this atmosphere that he’s now gained it.
Never underestimate the power of government propaganda
I’ve seen many of those changes firsthand. I've been traveling to Turkey on at least an annual basis since 2004, first as a tourist, then to conduct PhD research on the role of the military in Turkish politics. My tenure as a Turkey-watcher has coincided with the Erdoğan era. From one visit to another, I see the changes over which he has presided: the massive increase in women wearing headscarves, the expansion in prosperity, and — in the wake of last summer's coup -- both the absence of soldiers where I'm accustomed to seeing them and the disappearance of familiar newspapers that have run afoul of the government.
Erdoğan’s staying power and his success in the referendum appear to owe much to his ability to use conspiracy theories as a motivating force, painting repression and the search for power as defenses against sinister forces. And if his followers buy into the notion of secret forces arrayed against their leader and the nation, this may stem from the fact that some of his previous conspiracy theories seem to have emerged as at least partly true.
The leading example concerns the Gülen movement. Once allied with Erdoğan and his party, Gülenists in the police force and judicial services are suspected of leaking recordings of phone calls between Erdoğan and his son that imply his receipt of, and attempts to conceal, large sums of money, the recordings surfaced in the midst of an investigation into government associates’ receipt of bribes to rig state tenders, suggesting Erdoğan’s involvement in the scheme.
Erdoğan claimed that recordings were false creations of enemies who were targeting him as part of a sinister bid to take over the state.
Any doubts about such claims were largely erased by the July coup, where even many Erdoğan critics rallied around the president. Claims of Fethullah Gülen’s personal involvement in the coup and Erdoğan’s designation of the Gülenist movement as a terrorist organization face continued skepticism and resistance from the governments of the US, UK, and Germany, but the narrative of Gülenist responsibility is now well entrenched and widely accepted in Turkey.
That, in turn, played an important role in the referendum campaign, with Erdoğan claiming that the executive presidency will enable him to better fight terrorism, from both the Gülenists and others.
Erdoğan spun other conspiracy theories in the lead-up to the referendum. These include suggestions that the “No” campaign amounts to a front for an alliance composed of the Gülen movement, Kurdish separatist terrorists, and hostile European governments, all tacitly united by a desire to weaken Turkey. In the latter days of the campaign he alleged that the leader of the “No” campaign had secretive contact with the July 2016 coup leaders on the night of the attempted takeover — an unsubstantiated charge vehemently rejected by the target.
The propaganda worked.
“Regardless of their actual views on the constitutional changes, Erdoğan's supporters feel the need to support him after the coup,” Berkay Mandıracı, an Istanbul-based analyst at the International Crisis Group, noted in an interview. “Many of them probably sincerely believe that in strengthening him, they will be strengthening Turkey against the kinds of external and internal threats, some real and some perceived, that the president has constantly emphasized during his efforts to mobilize them."
Erdoğan won’t technically gain his new powers until after simultaneous presidential and legislative elections scheduled for November 2019. Growing speculation, however, suggests that he may prefer to move this election forward in order to take on his new powers at an earlier date. Assuming he wins, which seems likely but is far from guaranteed, how will he use his long-sought executive presidential role?
Optimists hope that having gotten what he has long desired, Erdoğan will abandon the confrontational style of recent years to make an at least partial return to his earlier reformist self. A softening of his rhetoric in recent referendum campaign addresses to Kurdish audiences has hinted that he is open to restarting stalled peace talks with the PKK. Ankara-based political commentator Özgür Ünlühısarcıklı has predicted a possible post-election “charm-offensive” in Europe.
But other recent promises, such as one to reinstate the death penalty, removed from the Turkish law code to conform to EU standards, appear to cut the other way.
Foreign governments are just as curious about his future course of action. The Trump administration is waiting to see whether Erdoğan will change course in Syria, where Turkey has mixed attacks on ISIS with attacks on US-supported Kurdish militias also fighting the terrorist group. European governments are waiting to see if he’ll stop calling their leaders Nazis. Israel is waiting to see if Erdoğan will abandon his lacerating public criticism and rebuild the longstanding military ties between the two countries.
It may take years to have answers to those questions, and few things are ever certain in Turkey. But if Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gets his way, he will be the one making all the major decisions for this country well into the future.
Author: David Stevens