The end of Turkey’s demo­cratic ex­per­i­ment

Er­do­gan now has the power to make his coun­try more au­thor­i­tar­ian and more Is­lamist

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Clif­ford D. May Clif­ford D. May is pres­i­dent of the Foun­da­tion for De­fense of Democ­ra­cies and a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times.

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.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY LINAS GARSYS

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