Turkey

Sultan Erdogan

Print edition : May 26, 2017

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the victory in the referendum, addressing his supporters, in Ankara on April 17. Photo: Elif Sogut/Getty Images

Supporters of the President at a rally near the headquarters of ruling AK Party in Ankara after the initial results of the referendum began coming out on April 16. Photo: ADEM ALTANAFP

Supporters of the opposition Republican People’s Party anxiously watch the referendum results, in Ankara. Photo: Erhan Ortac/Getty Images

At a May Day march in Ankara, protesters carrying letters that make the word “hayir”, which means “no”, in reference to the referendum. Photo: ADEM ALTAN/AFP

Demonstrators in Istanbul on April 23. The banner says "Annul the referendum!" Photo: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS

The mandate for enhanced presidential powers, notwithstanding the narrow margin of victory, tightens President Erdogan’s grip on power in Turkey.

THE whirlwind campaign launched by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to enhance presidential powers has succeeded narrowly. The country’s Election Commission officially confirmed the win for the “yes” camp in the referendum on the new Constitution. The Election Commission stated that 51.41 per cent of the electorate voted in favour of the amendments backed by the President and the ruling AK (Justice and Development) Party. Those who voted against the controversial amendment constitute 48.59 per cent of the electorate, showing how sharply polarised Turkey is now.

The opposition has alleged widespread fraud, saying that the decision to count 1.5 million unstamped ballot papers was illegal and had led to widespread rigging. The Election Commission has defended its decision to count all ballots, saying that it was meant to ensure that all the votes cast were counted and attributing the presence of unstamped ballots to clerical error. In all previous elections, unstamped ballot papers were deemed invalid and not counted. All the same, the key cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir voted against Erdogan. Surprisingly, it was in the Kurdish-dominated areas of the country where Erdogan found much of the support. It only served to fuel suspicions about the vote.

The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, has taken the issue to the European Court of Human Rights. European election monitors have reported many incidents of irregularities in the conduct of the referendum process. European governments are not happy with the fact that the Turks resident in their countries voted overwhelmingly in Erdogan’s favour. The German and Dutch governments had prohibited Erdogan’s senior Ministers from campaigning on their soil.

There were serious recriminations between Ankara and a few western European capitals in the run-up to the referendum. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has said that many votes could have been manipulated in favour of the government during the counting process. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe issued a statement saying that “the late changes in the counting procedures removed an important safeguard”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that she is closely watching the response from Ankara over allegations of electoral malpractices, and Germany has threatened unspecified action against Turkey. Angela Merkel said that Germany would talk to its European Union (E.U.) partners “about which precise consequences are appropriate and at what time”.

Erdogan has not shown any signs of being perturbed by the threats coming from Brussels and Berlin despite his narrow margin of victory. (The ruling AK Party had expected a much higher margin.) Erdogan knows that the E.U. is essentially a Christian club and that Turkey, with its large Muslim population, will never be accepted as a full member. Besides, Turkey has many cards to play in case the E.U. imposes sanctions. Last year, after the E.U. criticised the Turkish government’s “disproportionate response to the coup” of July 2016, Turkey threatened to lift restrictions on the movement of over three million refugees residing on its territory. Erdogan has time and again threatened to “open the border gates”.

It was the refugee influx, mainly from Turkey, two years ago that shook up European politics and led to the rise of xenophobic right-wing parties. The Europeans had after all encouraged Erdogan in his full-throated pursuit of regime change in Syria. They had looked the other way when many of their own radicalised citizens went to Turkey to cross over into Syria to wage jehad. Turkey was the principal staging point where these foreign fighters were armed and trained by intelligence agencies of the West and the Gulf kingdoms. Europe is complaining about the authoritarian tendencies of Erdogan after the chickens have come home to roost. On the other hand, President Donald Trump of the United States was among the few Western leaders to call up Erdogan to congratulate him on his latest electoral triumph.

Erdogan did not waste any time in declaring victory. Even before the full count was completed, his supporters started celebrating. Erdogan told his supporters that Turks were witnessing “the most important governmental reforms in our history”. With the constitutional changes now having electoral validity, the President will have full control over the government. After the 2019 presidential election, the parliament will be reduced to a virtual rubber stamp. The new Constitution abolishes the post of the Prime Minister. Before Erdogan occupied the centre stage of Turkish politics, the office of the President was ornamental. Decision-making powers lay with the parliament and the Prime Minister. But de facto power passed into Erdogan’s hands when he shifted to the presidency after serving three terms as Prime Minister. The constitutional amendments that have been approved in the referendum have only served to make this fact a reality.

Power trip

Under the new Constitution, the President can issue decrees and appoint judges and officials responsible for vetting his decisions. Four members of the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors, Turkey’s highest judicial body, will be appointed by the President. The other members will be appointed by the parliament. Although the new Constitution limits presidential terms to two consecutive five-year ones, he can seek a third term if the parliament decides to call for new elections before the end of his second term. Erdogan loyalists insist that checks and balances remain. They point out that the opposition in the parliament, especially if it has a majority, will be a moderating and restraining influence on the presidency. The Constitution that was junked by the voters was after all written in 1982, when the military was at the helm of affairs, they say. The parliamentary system of government that had been in place since independence produced 65 governments in Turkey; few of them survived a full term.

Erdogan’s supporters argue that political stability is essential for unity and economic progress. They deny that the new Constitution gives the President control over the judiciary. Instead, they claim, there will now be more civilian monitoring of the judiciary. After the adoption of the new Constitution, the two remaining military courts, the last vestiges of the military-inspired 1982 Constitution, will be dissolved. Political pluralism had never taken root in Turkey. The first multiparty elections in the country were held only in 1946, though the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923. The military has staged four successful coups since 1960 to “restore order”. Last year’s coup nearly succeeded.

That attempted coup, it can be reasonably concluded now, was the handiwork of the Gulenist network, which had infiltrated all key institutions and had the support of disaffected junior officers. It is clear that had the putsch attempt succeeded, sections of Turkish society and, more importantly, some of Turkey’s Western allies would have welcomed it. The West was getting increasingly fed up by the recalcitrance of Turkey’s strongman on key issues such as illegal mass migration and the repression of the Kurds. The West is, in fact, busy these days trying to prop up a Kurdish statelet along the border with Turkey by openly aligning with Kurds in Syria who support the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The formation of a Kurdish state with the PKK calling the shots is anathema to the Turkish political establishment.

Turkey was also threatening to move closer, militarily and politically, to Russia. It may not have been a coincidence that the military plotters were mainly based in Incirlik, the military base used by the U.S. The U.S. has steadfastly refused to repatriate the exiled leader of the Gulenist movement, Fethullah Gulen, from his retreat in a Pennsylvania estate. But some credit for the initial taming of the military should also go to the Gulenists. When they were working in tandem with Erdogan and the ruling AK Party, they played a key role in curtailing the role of the army in politics. The methods used may not have been above board, but by the end of the last decade, the army ceased to have veto power over the government. Army representatives were removed from important institutions like the National Security Council.

Political turmoil

Erdogan’s bitter parting of ways with the Gulenists in the beginning of the decade, coupled with his interventionist policies in Syria, contributed to the political turmoil of the past few years in Turkey. To pursue his ambitious political agenda, Erdogan reignited the war with the Kurds in order to stoke nationalistic fervour. The move paid him handsome dividends electorally, both in the national elections two years ago and now in the referendum on the Constitution. The country and the people, however, have paid a high price for the kind of stability Erdogan has wrought. His much-flaunted “zero problems with neighbours”, which had earned peace and prosperity for the country, is now in tatters. Today, Turkey is at loggerheads with all its neighbours, and its once booming economy is in the doldrums.

Assassinations, suicide attacks and other myriad forms of terrorism have plagued the country as Erdogan single-mindedly implemented his political agenda. Daesh had initially kept its powder dry in Turkey because of the support it got from Ankara in the initial years of the Syrian civil war. But after the Turkish army joined hands with the U.S. in targeting it, Daesh has changed tack. It has been responsible for most of the major suicide attacks. Erdogan has been claiming that the only sure way of ending terrorism in the country is to usher in the presidential form of government, which would give him untrammelled powers. On the campaign trail, he branded those opposing the constitutional changes as “supporters of terrorism”.

Repression and stifling of dissent

The referendum itself was held under less than ideal conditions. It came in the wake of the failed military coup and the declaration of emergency law. People from all walks of life were incarcerated, including those suspected of having links with the banned Gulen movement or the proscribed PKK. All arms of the government and the security forces were affected by the widespread purges. The media came in for particular attention from the authorities. The Gulen-controlled media, which had a big presence, were completely liquidated, with most of the editors and writers put behind bars. The repression extended to secular media professionals, too. The authorities targeted people even slightly sympathetic to the Kurdish cause.

Some 1,45,000 people were arrested; 1,34,000 people suspected of having connections with the Gulenists or of having links with the coup attempt were either dismissed or suspended from their jobs. Anyone expressing dissent was characterised as a “terrorist” and detained. The purge is still on, and there are few signs that it is going to stop anytime soon. Parliamentarians do not have immunity under the draconian provisions of the emergency laws. Many prominent Kurdish politicians, including the two leaders of the People’s Democratic Party, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, are behind bars. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, speaking after the referendum results were out, reiterated his government’s resolve to further intensify “the struggle with our internal and external enemies”. Unless there is internal peace and stability and normalcy returns to the neighbourhood, Turks are in for a roller-coaster ride.

Warm welcome from Modi

Erdogan was in India on a state visit in the first week of May. Before his departure for New Delhi, the Turkish government announced more restrictions on the media. Access to Wikipedia was blocked and another 4,000 civil servants were sacked. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who also likes to nurture a strongman image, welcomed Erdogan warmly. Recently, there have been suggestions from think tanks sponsored by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh on the need for a strong presidential form of government in India. The present government’s eagerness to have simultaneous parliamentary and Assembly elections could be part of this game plan. Erdogan has won election after election on the twin planks of religion and nationalism. The Erdogan recipe is tempting to many would-be strongmen in the world.

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