No winners in Turkish referendum

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Middle East analyst Abel Bari Atwan says that despite President Erdogan’s narrow win in Sunday’s referendum, he presides over a completely polarised nation.

It was no surprise that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed to win Sunday’s constitutional referendum. He and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) currently have a broad base of popular support. They are skilled at mobilising their supporters, weaving political alliances (such as with the country’s ultra-nationalists) and picking enemies to direct Turkish public opinion against. They also had ample state resources at their disposal to help secure the victory of the “yes” campaign.

President Erdogan has thus reaffirmed that he is the principal player on the Turkish political stage – a status achieved in part by impressive economic achievements during his first decade in power, a weak and fragmented political opposition, and turmoil in neighbouring countries.

The victory was achieved through the ballot box rather than a military coup, but that does not mean it gave Erdogan a decisive or open-ended mandate enabling him to run the country single-handedly for several more years without problems or impediments. It was a narrow win, by less than couple of percentage points.

Setting aside allegations of massive electoral fraud, nearly half of Turkish voters denied him the mandate he wanted and will remain opposed to him, especially in the big cities that are Turkey’s political, economic and cultural hubs such as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. The referendum revealed that sectarian, ethnic and regional polarisation has reached unprecedented levels in Turkey, in addition to the country’s big political split into pro and anti Erdogan camps.

Ataturk’s legacy

By winning the referendum, Erdogan moved closer to realising his ambition to undo the legacy of Musafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey who sought to replace its Islamic identity with a Western/European one, and revive the country’s Ottoman glorydays – with himself as Sultan. This is a reality which will have an impact not just on Turkey but the entire region, and should not be disregarded or downplayed.

Erdogan exploited last summer’s failed military coup to advance his “sultanic” ambitions by getting rid of thousands of his actual or potential opponents. Under the new presidential system, which abolishes the post of prime minister, he will be able to hand-pick ministers and a host of other officials and wield near-total control over state institutions, including the military and the courts.

Istanbul and other big cities voted “no”

In practice, Erdogan does not really need these additional constitutional powers. His party has controlled Parliament since 2002 and can pass any legislation it wants. Erdogan selects the prime minister and members of government, controls military and judicial appointments, and is in charge of foreign and security policy — sending troops into Syria and Iraq and agreeing or cancelling ceasefires with the Kurdish PKK. What further powers does he need?

Yet he has been obsessed with the need to secure a “yes” vote. When it began looking like the result would be close, Erdogan picked fights with successive European countries in order to stoke up nationalist passions in his favour, portraying himself as the victim of a foreign conspiracy and defender of five million Turkish expatriates in Europe. His supporters were told they were choosing between patriotism and treason, or between Islam and infidels – the AKP’s top cleric even declared a “yes” vote to be a binding religious obligation and a short-cut to Paradise.

Secular opponents

But for Erdogan opponents the referendum outcome deals a body-blow to secularism, reinforces dictatorship, the denial of freedoms and continued imposition of emergency rule, and shatters what remains of Turkey’s liberal-democratic image.

Erdogan is doubtless a skillful operator and tactician. He has overcome many crises in the past and does not give up easily. But in addition to the political rift at home, he faces crises with almost all his country’s neighbours. He is fighting simultaneous wars against Islamic State and the PKK, embroiled militarily in the Syria crisis, and faces the increasingly realistic prospect of a quasi-independent Kurdish entity taking shape on his southern border.

Is the Turkish army completely loyal to Erdogan?

But his overriding personal ambition clouds his judgement. From long acquaintance with members of his inner circle, I can say that he really does want to become an all-powerful Ottoman-style Sultan. He pays no attention at all to views that are opposed to his, even when voiced by his closest associates – as illustrated his ditching of former prime ministers Abdullah Gul and Ahmet Davutoglu.

Erdogan’s megalomania is reminiscent of the mind-sets of others who led their countries to ruin or provided pretexts for foreign powers to conspire against them. Some of Turkey’s Western allies were alarmed by its spectacular economic and political resurgence during Erdogan’s early years in power, and it is not out of the question that it, too could be subjected to the dismemberment schemes targeting its southern neighbours Syria and Iraq as well as nearby Yemen and Libya.

President Erdogan’s true test begins today. His supporters are celebrating a victory that could prove very costly if it is used to benefit the ruling party rather than Turkey as a whole and to settle scores against the losers.

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