Reasonable people have long believed that the first person in a conversation to mention Adolf Hitler or the Nazis loses the argument. Turkey’s President Recep Tayib Erdogan does not subscribe to this view, and he has no intention of losing the argument.
The argument – the referendum, more precisely – is about whether Erdogan should be given absolute power in Turkey for the indefinite future. He was seriously annoyed when various German municipalities dared to doubt his rendezvous with destiny.
Their crime was to withhold permission for Erdogan’s government to hold referendum rallies in German cities. Germany is home to 1.4 million Turkish citizens, and in a tight referendum their votes matter, so Erdogan was quite put out.
“Hey, Germany,” he said last week in a rally in Turkey. “You know nothing about democracy. Your practices are no different from those of the Nazis.” The German government was astonished and rebuked him publicly.
Erdogan’s devout supporters only grow more enthusiastic when foreigners criticise him. And with 140,000 Turkish officials, judges, soldiers and journalists arrested, dismissed or suspended since last July’s failed coup attempt, most of his domestic critics have fallen silent: Reporters Without Borders now ranks Turkey 151st out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom.
And yet, the referendum that is supposed to grant Erdogan virtually unlimited power could go either way. It will certainly be close, because the country is still split right down the middle – and it’s no longer left vs. right. It is primarily secularist vs. Islamist.
When Erdogan first appeared on the Turkish political scene as mayor of Istanbul in 1994, he was an openly religious politician in a country that had suppressed any public expression of Islamic values for decades. He even did four months in jail for reciting a religious poem in public.
In 2003, Erdogan became the country’s first devout prime minister, and many secular Turks welcomed him in power. “Kemalism”, named after modern Turkey’s secular liberator Kemal Ataturk, had become corrupt and oppressive, and Erdogan spent his first two terms in office dismantling the secularists’ stranglehold on the state apparatus.
His main ally in this exercise was Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher whose followers
were appointed to tens of thousands of positions in the civil service, the judiciary, the police and the army. But Turkish liberals also supported his attempt to negotiate a peace deal with the militant Kurdish separatist movement PKK, and all the while the Turkish economy grew at a highly satisfactory 5 percent a year.
Things began to turn sour in 2013, when protests grew at Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and there was a bitter split between him and the “Gulenist” movement. His policy of keeping the border with Syria open for Islamists fighting the Syrian regime (including Islamic State) drew strong criticism both at home and internationally, and secularists began to suspect that his ultimate goal was an Islamic state in Turkey.
These suspicions deepened when Erdogan gave up the prime ministership in 2014 and got himself elected president instead. The presidency was a ceremonial non-political office, but he planned to turn it into a powerful executive post that concentrated all power in his own hands. That required a referendum – but his ambition may have played a big part in his loss of the parliamentary election in early 2015.
In order to win back control of parliament he had to make an alliance with the hard-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP). To get their support he had to break the ceasefire with the PKK and reopen the war against the Turkish Kurds. Then Russia and his own NATO allies forced Erdogan to close the border to Syrian Islamists, and Islamic State terrorists started bombing Turkish targets as well.
Erdogan narrowly won the second parliamentary election in 2015, but he almost lost power to a military coup last July. He calls the coup attempt a Gulenist plot, but it was so badly organised that it was probably a panicked last-minute response to a secret government plan to purge all Gulen’s followers in state institutions, including the army.
Since last July Erdogan has used the coup attempt to whip up support for the planned referendum in April that would grant him untrammelled power as executive president. Turkey has been under emergency rule, with mass arrests and government by decree. Nasty, but not necessarily effective.
His default mode is outraged anger, so incidents like his “Nazi” accusation against Germany are ten a penny. Nobody in Turkey is even surprised – but the Turks may yet surprise him.
The Turkish economy is crashing, internal and external wars are multiplying, and there are far too many people in jail for months on end without being charged. Despite a reign of terror in the Turkish media, Erdogan’s victory in the referendum is still not assured.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 15. (“When…public”; and “His default…him”)
For Turks, the burning question after last weekend’s election is whether they will now get the fully democratic, pluralist country that so many of them want. The defeat of President Tayyip Recep Erdogan’s AK Party does open that prospect, although translating it into reality will be very difficult. But for everybody else, the question is whether Turkey will stop backing the Islamist insurgents who are on the brink of winning in Syria.
Compared to the head-choppers of ISIS and the only slightly less extreme Al Nusra Front that now dominate the military campaign against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, Erdogan – the “Sultan”, as his devoted supporters often call him – is a very moderate Islamist. But his support for those two organisations is the main reason that they have been winning so many battles recently.
Turkey shares a 800-km border with Syria, and for four years Erdogan’s government has left it open for arms, supplies and foreign recruits to flow to the Syrian Islamists. When Al Nusra seized most of the strategically important Idlib province last March after three years of trying, Damascus claimed that a major reason for its loss was that Turkey had jammed the Syrian army’s telecommunications.
In March, according to reports by the pro-rebel Al Jazeera network, Erdogan even made a pact with Saudi Arabia to coordinate assistance to the Syrian rebels – most of which flows through Turkey. But all that could change quite quickly if Erdogan’s party cannot form a government that supports this policy – and the signs are that it cannot.
The Turkish election was not about Erdogan’s policy in Syria. It was, above all, about his ambition to become a mini-Putin who would dominate Turkey into the foreseeable future. In order to achieve that goal, he gave up the prime ministership and got himself elected to the relatively powerless and ceremonial office of president in 2014. But his intention was to transform the presidency into the all-powerful centre of political power in Turkey.
Changing Turkey from a parliamentary system to a country ruled by an executive president would require a constitutional change, which can only be done by a “super-majority” of three-fifths of the votes in the 550-seat parliament. Since 2002 Erdogan’s party had won three successive elections with ever-increasing majorities, so he was confident that he could pull it off. He was wrong.
Turkish voters didn’t even give him a majority of the seats in parliament. Too many people had turned against this always angry and abusive man who condemns his political opponents as “terrorists, marginals, gays and atheists,” and who now wanted to consolidate his position as the unchallengeable “Sultan” of Turkey.
Erdogan began as a reformer whose entirely reasonable and legitimate goal was to end the Turkish state’s open hostility to the more pious members of its overwhelmingly Muslim population. It was an historical leftover from the time, some 90 years ago, when Kemal Ataturk trying to build a modern, secular state in the face of huge opposition from religious conservatives, but it had no place in a 21st-century democracy.
Erdogan broke the power of the army, which had repeatedly carried out coups in alleged defence of the “secular” state, and deeply conservative and religious Turks who had felt excluded from that state rewarded him with their votes in three successive elections. But as his confidence grew he stopped bothering to accommodate the views of the younger and mostly urban half of the population whose values were liberal and secular.
The Turkish media, once relatively free, came under such concentrated attack that by 2012 there were more journalists in jail in Turkey than anywhere else in the world. The government’s response to public protests became more and more violent, and Erdogan’s determination to gather all power into his own hands became more and more evident.
More than one-fifth of AK Party’s voters abandoned the party in this election. They weren’t abandoning their religion; they were just still committed to the party’s original aim of a democratic Turkey that respected everybody’s rights (including their own). Most of them migrated to the new People’s Democratic Party, which also welcomes Kurds, gays, and non-Muslim religious minorities and strongly promotes gender equality.
Erdogan will find it hard to form a coalition with any of the three big opposition parties in parliament – none of which support his policy of backing Islamist extremists in the Syrian civil war. He will have 45 days to try to form a government, and if that fails Turkey will probably face another election before the end of the summer.
It is unlikely that the AK Party can improve its position in a second election: once the illusion of invincibility has been shattered, it is very hard to rebuild. What follows may be a coalition government made up of opposition parties that find it hard to agree on most things – but none of them share Erdogan’s fondness for ISIS and its friends. If Assad can hang on in Syria until the end of the summer, he may yet survive.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 10. (“Erdogan…evident”)