Erdogan Can Celebrate The Turkish Referendum—For Now

Originally posted in The Progressive, April 20, 2017

Declaring victory in the recent plebiscite granting him extraordinary powers, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan consolidated his authoritarian rule. A new constitutional amendment abolishes the country’s parliamentary system and gives the once-weak executive almost unlimited authority. It passed in the midst of a state of emergency imposed after last year’s coup attempt.

Since the failed coup, Erdogan has jailed 45,000 political opponents, including the head of the country’s third largest party and other parliamentarians. He has fired 130,000 government workers and thousands of teachers and journalists. One hundred seventy-six media outlets have been shut down. The censorship and intimidation of opponents made a free and fair referendum virtually impossible. European Union monitors, rather understatedly, noted that the vote “took place on an unlevel playing field and the two sides of the campaign did not have equal opportunities.”

Initially, it appeared that Erdogan’s referendum was headed toward defeat. A last-minute decision by Turkey’s electoral board to accept ballots as valid without official stamps raised concerns of widespread ballot stuffing; EU monitors noted how these “late changes in counting procedures removed an important safeguard” to a credible vote tally.

In response, Erdogan claimed those questioning the results were engaging in a “Crusader mentality” and that they should “know their place.”

President Trump was virtually alone among world leaders in congratulating Erdogan on his victory. Along with recent decisions to curtail President Obama’s limited restrictions on arms transfers to Bahrain, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern dictatorships, Trump is signaling to the region that the United States is no longer even pretending to support democracy.

Indeed, the United States has for decades provided unconditional support for Turkish authoritarianism, including the three times during past sixty years in which the Turkish military seized power and engaged in gross and systematic human rights abuses.

Erdogan’s appeal is based on his ability, like the Republicans, to convince millions of poor and working-class voters to vote against their class interests with appeals to nationalism, traditional religious values, fear of terrorism, and attacks on liberal secular urban elites. Indeed, the electoral map from the referendum looks remarkably similar to the map of the United States after the 2016 presidential election, with the rural areas voting “yes” while the urban areas and regions with large minority populations voted “no.”

Turkey’s society is badly divided, with at least half the population opposed to the slide into authoritarianism under Erdogan. This opposition will likely get stronger.

The once-booming economy has slowed, as the United States and other Western countries have tightened credit. One out of every four young Turks are unemployed. In addition, tourism, a major contributor to the economy, has declined as Erdogan’s policies have simultaneously alienated Russians, Iranians, and Westerners.

Erdogan has reignited the war against the country’s Kurdish minority, jailing not just suspected militants, but nonviolent Kurdish leaders, including seventy mayors. His support for hard-line Islamist groups fighting the Syrian regime—like the U.S. support for Afghan mujahedeen fighting the Soviets during the 1980s—has begun to backfire as Turkey has become a target of terrorist attacks from Salafist extremists.

As a result, it is extremely likely that Turkey will find itself riven with growing popular opposition to what is widely seen as an illegitimate autocratic government led by a dangerous and unpredictable demagogue. If the United States continues its policy of supporting its NATO ally despite the growing repression, it will end up alienating yet another group of Muslim people suffering under a U.S.-backed dictatorship.

Given the burgeoning Turkish civil society movement, along with Islamist extremists and Kurdish separatists emboldened by these developments, Turkey is likely headed for years of domestic turmoil.

The big question is whether the United States will eventually ally with the tens of millions of Turks resisting authoritarianism or if, once again, the United States will find itself on the wrong side of history.