Turkey After The Referendum: An Untouchable President And His Wobbly Country

Is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the strong man the Turkish people wanted? Or does he cut the legs of Turkish society off, turn the country upside down, and cause irreparable damage?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is one of the most fascinating figures in today’s international political scene. Under his guidance, the country between Bosporus and Kurdistan enjoyed a period of economic prosperity and societal progress until a few years ago, when Mr Erdoğan started cementing his position as the undisputed leader.

The referendum on 16 April 2017 strengthened the rights of the president to the extent that he now seems untouchable. ‘The new constitution will bring about the most radical overhaul of the state since 1923, when it went from being an imperial Islamic power to a secular republic under Kemal Atatürk,‘ The Economist wrote the week after the referendum.

Following the elections in 2019, Mr Erdoğan will be able to appoint judges and senior officials, while the office of prime minister will cease to exist and the parliament will be significantly weakened. That the referendum was overshadowed by controversy, mainly because the country’s electoral board decided to accept unstamped ballot papers, could become a footnote in the long run. Nevertheless, some observers such as Soner Cagaptay, a fellow at the Washington Institute, predict an even stronger polarisation of Turkish society going forward. Mr Erdoğan may be ‘the most unassailable Turkish leader since Atatürk but this legitimacy issue will hang over his head,’ Cagaptay states.

Already prior to the referendum, Mr Erdoğan had been the strong figure who turned the political scene into a one-man show. His supporters are happy that the decision-making lies in the hands of their strong leader. His enemies fear that he could tyrannise the country even more and only his death would change the situation.

Just a few days after the referendum, the Turkish president cut another 13,000 people from the civil service, military, and police and ordered the detention of an additional 1,000 policemen for alleged links to the network of the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen. Some 120,000 people have already been suspended from jobs ranging from the civil service to the private sector, and more than 40,000 have been arrested following last year’s failed coup d’état.

 Anti-coup rally in Istanbul, 22 July 2016.
Anti-coup rally in Istanbul, 22 July 2016.

Parts of the constitutional changes came into effect immediately. For instance, the impartiality clause is gone, which allowed Mr Erdoğan to rejoin the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), as the clause had prohibited any links between the president and a political party. Moreover, the changes include that the Council of Judges and Prosecutors, Turkey’s most influential juridical body, will be appointed by parliament and the president, replacing the current electoral system.

Similar to when Vladimir Putin launched a power-switching operation in 2008 when his presidency ended, Mr Erdoğan has become the sole ruler of his country and will try to suppress political opposition and divert attention from domestic issues.

At the same time, just like Mr Putin, the Turkish president is keen to play hardball with other countries. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, he repeatedly attacked Germany and the Netherlands, countries with significant Turkish minorities and important dialogue partners from the European Union. The negotiations for Turkey’s accession to the EU, however, are basically over, which signals a new course for its foreign policy.

Once considered a reliable partner by many Western countries, Mr Erdoğan now surrounds himself with other outsiders from the international community. After the referendum, U.S. president Donald Trump was the only Western leader that called and congratulated him. The other prominent congratulator was Mr Putin.

Russian president Vladimir Putin and Erdoğan during a meeting in Baku, 13 June 2015 .
Russian president Vladimir Putin and Erdoğan during a meeting in Baku, 13 June 2015 .

Many comparisons have been made between the two presidents recently. The Times went even so far to compare the Turkish president to a Kremlin leader from the past. ‘Some people believe Mr Erdoğan wants to create a loyal corps of paramilitary police as a counterweight to the army, the target of repeated purges,’ the British daily wrote.

Reminding that the purges started after the failed coup d’etat, the Times drew parallels to the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in the 1930s. ‘Stalin launched his purges after the assassination of Sergey Kirov in 1934; Hitler rushed through the enabling legislation that saw thousands of opponents arrested after the burning of the Reichstag a year earlier.’

As much as the leaders in Moscow and Ankara have in common, Mr Putin and Mr Erdoğan have struggled to come to terms in Syria. Turkey’s regional agenda in regard to Syria and the ongoing war is not in line with Russia’s. However, Mr Erdoğan is aware of the important geopolitical position his country has and that it is unlikely that Russia, one of Turkey’s most important economic partners, would turn on Ankara. That being said, neither the U.S. nor Russia has done what Erdoğan wanted them to do in Syria.

‘Putin inherited the institutional structure of the Soviet Union and is pushing for Russia’s interests according to this,’ says Professor Ilter Turan of Istanbul’s Bilgi University. ‘Erdoğan, however, is dismantling Turkey’s established institutional structure and replacing it with his own institutions. With advice from advisers who are clearly not apprised of international realities, he is pushing his own interests, which he mistakes for Turkey’s interests.’

Mr Erdoğan certainly tries to emulate the political style of Mr Putin and wants to copy much of the Russian president’s domestic and foreign strategies, but the recent excesses, with mass layoffs in the public sector and mass arrests of oppositionists, intellectuals, and journalists, have jarred Turkey. At the moment, the country might be in the hands of a leader who cannot be brought down but needs time to recover from the shake-up, which would only happen if Mr Erdoğan ended the madman policy and even undid some of his decisions.

Otherwise, he might be able to quell any disturbance in the country, yet, in the long run, Turkey would suffer intellectually, economically, and geopolitically—probably to the extent that would make it almost impossible to make a comeback in the next few decades.