Editorial – The Guardian
Narrow victory in a referendum is taken as legitimising the destruction of Turkey’s democratic institutions
It is no exaggeration to say Turkey has entered a daunting and unpredictable new chapter in its political history as a result of last Sunday’s referendum, which narrowly approved the introduction of sweeping constitutional changes granting its president, Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, unprecedented and wide-ranging powers. If implemented, these reforms will all but recreate Turkey as a sultanate, almost a century after Ataturk founded the republic on the ruins of the Ottoman empire.
For Europe, and for Turkey’s western allies within Nato, the transformation is likely to have important consequences. Relations, already tense, are bound to deteriorate further, at a time when Turkey’s cooperation on the refugee issue in particular is still crucial. The wary reaction in Brussels, Berlin and Paris testified to this new discomfort. In particular, President Erdo?an was warned that if he fulfilled his threat to reintroduce the death penalty he would immediately end all prospect of rapprochement with the EU.
The referendum was won by a narrow margin; the opposition alleges the vote was stained by violations. International observers say it took place “on an unlevel playing field”. None of this has prevented Erdo?an’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) and its supporters from heralding what they see as a new era destined to entrench one man’s power as well as a nation’s strength and resilience in the face of external and domestic enemies.
Turkey’s turn to autocracy is now all but complete. The Republic’s system of checks and balances is set to be crushed. Yet it also remains a deeply divided nation, one in which the clash between those who stand for Ataturk’s legacy and those who want to overturn it, between defenders of a secular system and proponents of conservative Islamic values, between Kurds and Turkish nationalists, between once dominant military structures and new AKP elites, is bound to fuel yet more tensions. That this referendum was organised in the midst of spectacular levels of political repression following last year’s failed coup attempt – with tens of thousands thrown in jail, dozens of journalists exiled or detained, and yet more tens of thousands of civil servants, teachers, and judges thrown out of their jobs – has done little to legitimise the reforms Erdo?an has long sought to push forward. The Turkish strongman has deliberately polarised his country, spreading terror through large-scale purges and the hounding of dissidents, as well as by throwing his military forces into full-on war against Kurdish separatist groups, and, more recently, by fostering multiple crises with European governments.
Turkey’s political slide is as momentous as it was hard to predict in the early years of AKP rule, the first by an Islamist government. Democratic and economic reforms were applauded by the west. Soon, the EU was ready to open tentative membership negotiations. After the political instability and corruption of the 1990s, this was a new Turkey, whose Islamic leadership seemed no more radically religious than Europe’s Christian Democrats, and whose modernisation would, it was hoped, spread prosperity and fundamental rights. Mr Erdo?an had once said “the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the believers our soldiers”, but he also promised a “pro-European” course – and for a while, he stuck to it.
The rough, working-class Istanbul kid became the voice of the rising middle classes of provincial Turkey, especially Anatolia with its pious, social conservatism. He also inherited an authoritarian streak from his father, a ship’s captain who once hung him from the ceiling by his arms for swearing. A thirst for power, combined with paranoia and a shrinking circle of advisers, played a role. Tensions and chaos in the Middle East, where Turkey once believed (after the 2011 Arab spring) that it could become a model for others, may have contributed to the unravelling. Turkey’s civil society certainly fought back against creeping despotism, including in the 2013 Gezi park uprising.
This is a complex country which one man alone, however ambitious and relentless, can neither embody nor entirely box in. Resistance may yet rise up again. But for now, as Mr Erdo?an ruthlessly upends the country’s institutions, it’s Turkey’s democrats – those who struggle bravely for values and who believe there is nothing inevitable about millions of citizens being forced to obey – who deserve, and must get, all the support Europe can offer.
Erdo?an’s referendum victory spells the end of Turkey as we know it
Yavuz Baydar* – Opinion, The Guardian
My country has voted for greater authoritarianism. What we saw yesterday was the revenge of those on the periphery of Turkish society
With the result of Sunday’s referendum on its constitution, Turkey as we know it is over; it is history.
The architecture of its governance designed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – Turkey’s founder – has, after a wobbly series of experiments with the military and a secular elite in charge, been dismantled by the leader of the Justice and Development party (AKP). The collapse of the rule of law that took place in slow motion after the Gezi Park protests has been followed by the erosion of the separation of powers and the annihilation of the independent media.
It’s hard not to notice the striking resemblance to the sequence of events in Germany from 1933: the Reichstag fire, the Night of the Long Knives, the infamous referendum in 1934. The similarities give one a powerful sense of history copy-and-pasting itself. No wonder those who once shrugged at such comparisons are now in shock – particularly when they heard the harsh rhetoric of President Erdo?an’s victory speech: he pledged to an ecstatic crowd that one of his highest priorities is to reintroduce capital punishment.
This is one possible interpretation. Another is that Sunday’s result was the closing of a chapter in which the “periphery” of Turkish society – rural and mainly pious – took its revenge on the “centre” of the old republic. That is what some figures of the AKP have called “the silent revolution”.
“The Turkish republic has an undeniably complicated history,” wrote Steven Cook, from the Council on Foreign Relations, in an essay for Foreign Policy, entitled RIP Turkey; 1921-2017.
“It is an enormous achievement. In the space of almost a century, a largely agrarian society that had been devastated by war was transformed into a prosperous power that wielded influence in its own region and well beyond. At the same time, modern Turkey’s history has also been nondemocratic, repressive and sometimes violent. It thus makes perfect political sense for Erdo?an to seek the transformation of Turkey by empowering the presidency and thereby closing off the possibility once and for all that people like him will be victims of the republic. ”
It has been painful to me to witness the immense disappointment of Turkish intellectuals, resilient by tradition, and mainly left-leaning. All I could hear by phone or on social media was tormented despair – the crushing sense of defeat. What united all those in academia and the media or in NGOs, regardless of their political stripes, was that they had hoped for democratic change under the AKP.
Many of them had given credit to the party, and its early pledges and steps towards an order where the sharing of power would break the vicious circle of the republic. They wanted to believe in human rights, freedom and an end to the decades-long Kurdish conflict. But the deliberate reversal of democratization left all of them feeling they had been duped.
This conclusion was undeniable when last summer’s attempted coup – the details of which are still unclear – led to an immense purge. Given this mood of despair and the sense of defeat, we should expect another exodus of fine human resources in the coming months and years.
Journalists – such as me, abroad, or at home – will find themselves challenged even more after the referendum. Coverage of corruption will be a daredevil act, severe measures against critical journalism will continue and the remaining resistance of media proprietors will vanish.
The Turkish media will begin to resemble those of the Central Asian republics, where only mouthpieces for those in power are allowed to exist. Inevitably, these conditions will shift the epicentre of independent journalism to outside the borders of Turkey. My colleagues have already realised that their dreams of a dignified fourth estate were nothing but an illusion.
“At the end of the day, Erdo?an is simply replacing one form of authoritarianism with another,” wrote Cook.
“The Turkish republic has always been flawed, but it always contained the aspiration that – against the backdrop of the principles to which successive constitutions claimed fidelity – it could become a democracy. Erdo?an’s new Turkey closes off that prospect.”
The old republic was already ailing, and it has just been dealt its final blow.
*Yavuz Baydar is the co-founder of P24, the Platform for Independent Media, and is a columnist and blogger. He has recently been given the Special Award of the European Press Prize, which he shared with the Guardian and Der Spiegel.