The end of Turkey’s democratic experiment
Erdogan now has the power to make his country more authoritarian and more Islamist
On the grounds of the Turkish Embassy facing Massachusetts Ave. in Washington, D.C. is a statue of Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, father of the Republic of Turkey, the nation-state he built from the rubble of the defeated Ottoman Empire and Islamic caliphate. He is wearing a three-piece suit that would look stylish today but he is steely-eyed in a way that is peculiar to early 20th century revolutionaries. He appears to be gazing into the future — a future in which Turkey would be modern, prosperous, secular and democratic.
If truth in advertising applied to governments, that statue would now be removed.
In a referendum on Sunday, Turkish voters were asked to give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sweeping new powers. To no one’s great surprise, it’s been announced that they did — albeit by a narrow margin: 51.2 percent approving, 48.8 percent opposing, according to the state-run news agency. People in rural areas mostly voted yes, people in the cities — including Istanbul where Mr. Erdogan was once mayor — mostly voted no. But a win is a win and Mr. Erdogan has won.
I made my first visit to Turkey 13 years ago. With the 2001 attacks on the United States still a vivid memory, Turkey struck me as a hopeful place. The people were friendly. The food was good. Istanbul was vibrant and cosmopolitan. This was not a Muslim country but rather a Muslim-majority country — a distinction made repeatedly and with pride. Turks, I was told, understood the importance of separating mosque and state.
A NATO member, Turkey appeared to be the one sturdy bridge between the Middle East and Europe. It maintained cordial relations with Israel, too. While no Jeffersonian democracy, Turks had been going to the polls on a fairly regular basis for decades. Surely, democratic habits were being acquired and democratic institutions were being built. A persuasive argument could be made that this was the direction history was taking throughout the Middle East and perhaps the world.
Sunday’s referendum contradicts that thesis. For a decade, Mr. Erdogan has been slowly concentrating power in his own hands. After a failed coup last summer — it’s unclear who launched it or why — he went full throttle, firing or arresting more than 140,000 military officers, academics, judges and civil servants, shutting more than 150 media outlets, and jailing journalists who dared criticize him.
The new referendum will significantly diminish whatever checks and balances the legislature and judiciary have left. And the rules on term limits will be adjusted so that the 63-year-old Mr. Erdogan can remain in the new 1,150-room presidential palace until 2029 or longer. In democratic societies, presidents do not serve for so many years. In the Ottoman Empire, sultans occasionally did.
Can we be confident that the announced results of the referendum are accurate? Those who campaigned for a “no” vote had limited access to media and in some instances were prevented from holding rallies. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party complained of unstamped ballots affecting 3 million voters — more than the margin of Mr. Erdogan’s victory.
In Cermik, a town in northeastern Turkey, two members of the opposition CHP party were reportedly killed and two ballot observers were wounded as they were trying to prevent “ballot stuffing.” On Monday, European election monitors said the vote “fell short” of international standards.
Mr. Erdogan quickly fired back. “The crusader mentality in the West and its servants at home have attacked us!” he told a crowd at Ankara’s airport. That is not the kind of language you expect to hear from the leader of a secular country. It is the kind of language you expect to hear from an Islamist demagogue.
Mr. Erdogan claims that he will use the additional powers he is being granted to solve Turkey’s not insignificant problems, including political and economic instability, the strain caused by the refugees pouring in from Syria, and unrest among Turkey’s Kurdish minority, estimated at up to 20 percent of the country’s 80 million people.
What I think we can more realistically expect is for Turkey to become less free, less democratic and less secular. Already we’ve seen Mr. Erdogan closing churches and detaining Christian clergymen. He has implied that only Muslims, not Christians, should be helped to rebuild their ancient communities in and around Mosul where he has sent Turkish troops — uninvited by the Iraqi government.
He appears to expect Turks living in Europe not to assimilate or even integrate but to remain loyal to Turkey and, of course, to him. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, he dispatched envoys to campaign in the large Turkish communities of the Netherlands and Germany. When local officials turned them away he leveled accusation of Islamophobia and even Nazism. “Those who treat me, my ministers, my deputies with disrespect will pay the price for their actions!” he threatened. That is not the way leaders of NATO nations generally address one another.
Many Turks regard the referendum as illegitimate. It’s possible that Mr. Erdogan will feel the need to make peace with them. On the other hand, he may feel the need to make them submit.
More than a quarter-century ago, when he was Istanbul’s young mayor, Mr. Erdogan quipped that democracy was “like a streetcar. When you reach your destination you get off.”
In other words, he sees liberal democracy not as the best way to organize a government but only as a means to an end. If that’s correct, on Easter Sunday 2017, Turkey’s democratic experiment failed. An Islamist, neo-Ottoman and neo-imperialist experiment began instead. It should surprise no one if a statue of Mr. Erdogan replaces that of Kemal Ataturk on Massachusetts Ave.