Fear and Loathing in Turkey: The Backstory to Erdoğan’s Referendum
Shortly after the failed coup attempt of July 16, 2016 in Turkey, I received a frantic text message from a lifelong friend, Lale Kemal. Lale is a prominent freelance journalist with an impeccable 37-year record of non-partisan reporting and analysis. She is an internationally known expert on Turkish civil-military relations, having written for Jane’s Defense Weekly since 1991. Now, Lale texted from Ankara, she was under arrest for her columns in Zaman, which, until its court-ordered seizure four months before the putsch and its closure soon thereafter, was one of the highest-circulation daily newspapers in Turkey. Zaman was owned by men close to the influential Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is head of a conservative-nationalist transnational movement with schools and businesses inside and outside Turkey, and is now in self-imposed exile in the United States. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared the Gülen group responsible for the coup attempt. According to the government, Lale’s writings for the paper made her guilty, too.
Neither the precise course of the July 16 events nor the motive of the plotters has been truly clarified until the present day. At one point, the Erdoğan government claimed that the Barack Obama administration and the CIA had backed the Gülenists in the endeavor. Erdoğan’s own description of the coup attempt as “a gift from God” bestowed so that he could freely persecute Gülenists in the military is a clear contradiction of the official explanations. Regardless, it quickly became obvious that the government would use the foiled putsch as a pretext to undermine the rule of law, checks and balances, and civil rights and personal freedoms—inaugurating one of the cruelest episodes in Turkish political history.
The government launched an unhinged campaign of demonization of anyone associated with Gülen, however remotely, as well tens of thousands of others who could be viewed as opponents of Erdoğan, including many signers of a “peace petition” decrying the ongoing war with the Kurds in southeastern Turkey. It was much more than tarring and feathering: Lale was arrested, along with dozens of other journalists, on charges of membership in what the government and its mouthpieces now call Fethullah’s Terrorist Organization, or FETO. Her journalist’s license was revoked, her passport invalidated and some of her property confiscated. Absurd as it sounds, academics, teachers, doctors and policemen—even another professor friend’s brother, who is conductor of a government-sponsored orchestra—have been similarly deprived of their livelihoods. In all, more than 100,000 people have been rounded up and summarily discharged from their jobs. Meanwhile, hundreds of Gülen-affiliated schools, media outlets and even hospitals have been closed down.
I had first met Lale while compiling Almanac Turkey 2005: The Security Sector and Its Democratic Oversight (2006), the first publication of its kind in Turkey, promoted by the Geneva Center for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces and the Istanbul-based NGO, TESEV. As an expert on civil-military relations, with particular knowledge of military technology and procurement as well as offset agreements, Lale was a must inclusion on the roster of writers. I asked her to contribute articles on the armed forces, gendarmerie and coast guard. But now, blown away by the irony that one of the staunchest advocates I know of democratic civilian control of the Turkish army was accused of instigating a coup, I found myself writing supporting documents for her lawyer. I also tried to draw attention to her plight via PEN and other outlets, but amid the hurricane that hit Turkey, she was but one innocent in the path of the storm.
Lale spent three months in prison before being released pending trial. Five months later, an indictment finally appeared, released first, quite unlawfully, to the media, and only then to her attorney. She was charged, along with 30 other journalists, most of whom are still incarcerated, with “instigating a coup, being a member of FETO and attempting to abolish the Turkish parliament by force and violence.” The indictment, like the many others so far, was sloppily prepared: It cites just two lines from one of her many Zaman articles: “I find it dangerous that citizens are still afraid of being profiled simply because of their beliefs and ideas…. [Such things] only take place in former Communist countries or in less developed dictatorial nations.” For these words, the prosecutor is seeking three consecutive life sentences.
Against this heart-rending background of human suffering, President Erdoğan judged the moment ripe to make changes to the Turkish political system that he had been promoting with considerable vehemence for years. He proposed 18 constitutional amendments that greatly enhance the powers of the president, staking his career on their adoption. He put the package to referendum, and on April 16, by a narrow margin of 2.8 percent, the Turkish public approved.
The constitutional amendments are due to come into force after presidential and parliamentary elections to be held in November 2019. Assuming that Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP, by its Turkish acronym) prevail in these contests, as both president and party leader, he would retain dual control over the legislative and executive branches. But the latter would be much, much stronger. The approved constitutional amendments abolish the post of prime minister, a hallmark of Turkey’s parliamentary democracy, and replace it with one or more vice presidents. The president is to appoint the vice presidents, as well as cabinet ministers, and is to have the power to dismiss them as well. The president would be able to legislate by decree and, in effect, would have authority to dissolve the parliament and call both parliamentary and presidential elections. Most importantly, the president would have a larger role in the appointment of judges and prosecutors. The new system also opens up the possibility that Erdoğan could seek two more five-year terms, extending his tenure, which commenced in 2014, to 2029.
There are several serious concerns about the manner in which the referendum was carried out. First, there are widespread claims of voter fraud. Second, the referendum occurred under a state of emergency declared after the botched coup attempt. Although neither coups nor emergency rule are without precedent in Turkey, this time around the state of emergency clearly enabled the Erdoğan government to affect the outcome of this historic voting, carrying out a massive witch hunt to silence criticism of the proposals in the independent media. Dissidents of all shades as well as ordinary people were subject to arbitrary arrest, dismissal from employment, expropriation, and revocation of passports and citizenships without due process. Among the many alarms raised, the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional law, expressed fear that “the extremely unfavorable environment for journalism and the increasingly impoverished and one-sided public debate that prevail in Turkey” endangered the chances that the referendum would be meaningful and inclusive. On April 25, after the amendment package’s approval, the European Union’s parliamentary assembly placed Turkey’s file under review.
The far-right nationalist party in Turkey supported a “yes” vote on the referendum, and the pro-Kurdish party is virtually broken by a wave of detentions and arrests of its officials and parliamentary deputies. So the only effective opposition party left to contest the results on the basis of voting irregularities is the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The CHP objected, in particular, to the Election Commission’s controversial decision to allow the counting of millions of votes that lacked an official stamp, and appealed to the Council of State, the highest administrative court, to overturn that decision. On April 25, however, the Council of State ruled against the CHP’s appeal on the grounds that it had no jurisdiction over the electoral board’s decision. It appears that the judicial process is exhausted.
Nonetheless, given the small margin of “yes” votes, and the other doubts about the referendum, many are now asking, “What now?” Despite all the institutional advantages at his disposal, and the far-right nationalist backing, Erdoğan hardly won a crushing victory. And he had made it a matter of political life and death.
So will the AKP leader push the pause button in his quest to forge an all-powerful executive? Or will he, with his customary bravado, ignore the thinness of the majority—which encapsulates the reality of a country split right down the middle and ready to explode—and proceed as planned?
“What now?” is not the best question to ask with respect to a leader such as Erdoğan. He flatly rejected the opposition’s claims of fraud and proclaimed the results as final, full stop. His reaction to the European criticisms was to cry Islamophobia. Meanwhile, the referendum has emboldened Erdoğan in his campaign against the Gülenists. Just three days after the balloting, his government rounded up another 1,000 “secret imams,” mostly in the police force, and stated that another 2,200 were being sought. Erdoğan is likely to plow ahead immediately with implementation of the amendments. The signal question is why.
Erdoğan’s obsessive resolve to change Turkey’s system of government from parliamentary to presidential-on-steroids represents a desire to lend de jure formality to a de facto situation. As the towering political figure in the country, the president already enjoys unchecked executive authority, uses his party as a personal vehicle, handpicks the party’s nominees for parliamentary slots, is accountable to no one and abides by no rule, not even the popular will. This last point was underscored when Erdoğan refused to accept the results of the June 7, 2015 general elections that interrupted the AKP’s inexorable 13-year rise. Instead, he plunged the country into snap elections five months later and restarted the bloody war with the Kurds to garner right-wing nationalist votes.
Erdoğan, in short, had already established himself as the most powerful chief executive since the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who was in office from 1923-1938. Atatürk’s legacy of state-enforced secularism and Westernization, or Kemalism, ruled formal Turkish politics for decades after his death. So why would Erdoğan wish to institutionalize a reality that already fulfills his dreams? The follow-up query would be: Why would he depart from the legacy of Turkish center-right parties, upon which, in its formative years, the AKP claimed to have modeled itself? When in power, the center-right parties relied on informal practices rather than formal rules, altering no institutions but reshuffling their personnel, and ruling through communal and patronage networks rather than prescribed procedures. One obvious reason is that in the early years of his party’s parliamentary majorities, when Erdoğan was prime minister (and the presidency was a largely ceremonial post), the AKP shifted the balance of power that favored the secular establishment led by the military, something that no actor on the right ever dared to try. The retreat of the secular establishment opened the space for him to make the most radical shakeup in Turkish history.
Erdoğan’s own response to these questions is obviously more accommodating of himself: His moves are not dictated by self-interest or personal ambition but instead are part of a nobler project of good governance. In fact, Erdoğan has repeatedly defended his unflinching commitment to an empowered presidency as a way to avoid the inefficiency and gridlock caused by a divided parliament and “multiple decision-making centers” in Turkish democracy.
From Politics of Redress to Politics of Fear
Yet structural instability, government shutdowns and legitimation crises lead to political impasses in many presidential systems—and do not induce yearning for an Erdoğan-style solution. What, therefore, are the real agendas behind Erdoğan’s pursuit of a change of political system? To address this question, it is necessary to look more analytically at the invisible catalysts at work in the background.
A good place to start is to recognize that Erdoğan is the poster child of a new genre of world leaders who embody a major shift toward the decline of democracies. The leaders in this genre give voice to some fierce, deeply rooted resentment. In the US, it is the once dominant white conservative plurality’s indignation at the dislocations of global capitalism; in Turkey, it is the historical alienation of the conservative-religious masses, who felt excluded from key institutions, as well as the decisions and benefits of the secular, Westernized regime. In the eyes of this restless base, the AKP governments have restored freedom of religion (for instance, ending the ban on headscarves in public-sector workplaces), delivered enviable economic growth that elevated their constituents’ social and financial standing, and made Turkey a big player in the region. This last effort, by opening up Middle Eastern markets, also serves the wellbeing of the rising conservative middle classes.
This politics of redress created a sizable pious middle class ready to do whatever the AKP leader asked, but the downside is that it also produced the need to sustain the advantages of the new landscape for the party’s constituents. An argument could well be made that Turkey’s new Islam-friendly middle classes live in a state of constant insecurity, fearing that if the party loses its 15-year grip on the levers of power, its supporters will suffer at the hands of the victims of Erdoğan’s own measures of recrimination. Those measures are marked by a profound disregard for democracy; an interest in cracking social fissures wide open rather than healing them; an appetite for revenge on opponents; and an itch to send shock waves rather than peaceful messages to the secular establishment and the West. Erdoğan’s style of leadership has exacerbated the conflict between the secular establishment and the Islam-friendly conservative middle classes, the very conflict that birthed the grievances of Erdoğan’s base in the first place. Moreover, it reproduced this fault line, in a different modality perhaps, but with even more animosity and segregation than before.
For Erdoğan and his allied pundits, a strong and institutionally secure presidential system provides long-term insurance for the recently achieved status of the formerly aggrieved Islam-friendly social classes. It permits Erdoğan to blaze his own warpath, and attack his enemies without being undercut by democratic constraints like separation of powers, a free press and an independent judiciary.
These insecurities exist not only at the grassroots but also at the regime level. Erdoğan’s design to impose a more centralized authority on the country by way of a presidency-on-steroids is not simply a mindless power trip or a manifestation of vindictive impulses toward perceived enemies. The wounds inflicted on thousands without due process suggest that the president’s increasing preoccupation with power and his antipathy for critics stem less from primal instincts than from a sense that his accomplishments are precarious.
The coup attempt and the subsequent crackdown, the harshness of which is by now an Erdoğan trademark, have also heightened the unpredictability of the military, which might be tempted to stage a revanchist coup. The Gezi protests of 2013; the elections of June 2015, when the AKP lost its bearings for the first time since 2002, and the leadership’s resulting move toward a more nationalist discourse to recoup the votes lost to the far-right party; the ongoing bloodshed and resistance in the Kurdish regions; and finally the underwhelming results of the referendum all add to the threat perceptions in the Turkish president’s mind.
The Regime’s DNA, and What Else?
The troubling response of the AKP leadership to these worries is often traced to the Kemalist regime’s secular republican roots, from which grew a leadership tradition of cult of personality, obedience among the citizenry, intolerance of non-ethnic Turkish and non-Sunni identities, and obsession with the security of the state. There is a great deal of truth in contentions that the central tenets of Erdoğan’s dispensation are symptomatic of the regime’s DNA—marked by an absence of a democratic propensity to accept diversity, difference, freedoms and identity rights, morally as well as legally. Coupled with a political tradition that allows for few true meeting points and consensus-seeking mechanisms between diverse groups, this inheritance has boxed the actors into demagoguery, resulting in an authoritarian stance and “pragmatism” as a disguise for poverty of ideas and isolation from reality.
The AKP, in its wariness of opposition, is no different from its Kemalist predecessors. The party’s efforts between 2002 and 2010 to establish a modicum of civilian supremacy, for instance, were not motivated by commitment to the principle of democratic civilian control. This project was driven, rather, by the behavior of an aggressive and potentially hostile secular establishment (the military, the judiciary and then president Ahmet Sezer), which was treating Erdoğan’s administration with overt disdain and threatening to outlaw the AKP via the courts. Similarly, the reforms to align Turkey with the European Union were a means for the party to shore up its own political credentials free from the restraining and demeaning strategies of the military as well as bolster religious freedoms in public spaces.
And, with regard to Erdoğan’s current bêtes noires, the aftermath of the bungled coup was not the first time that he was embroiled in struggle with the movement of Fethullah Gülen. The movement had backed the AKP in its consecutive electoral triumphs since 2002. And it played an important part in curtailing if not completely eroding the political aspirations of the infamous Turkish military, which helped Erdoğan to reshape Kemalist power centers.
But the Gülen movement’s domination of the police force and sectors of the judiciary also enabled it to orchestrate the revelation of a huge corruption scandal in December 2013, which implicated Erdoğan, three cabinet ministers and a clutch of trusted bureaucrats. Erdoğan hit back hard by purging the police—which he once regarded as a counter-power to the military—on the basis that it had laid the groundwork for a graft investigation without “permission.” Ostensibly, Gülenists have been at odds with Erdoğan over the government’s hawkishness toward Israel, its stalling of EU reforms, its erstwhile search for compromise with the Kurdish movement and its plans to shut down the Gülenist network of schools. In reality, it is safe to say that the battle between the sides is not ideological; nor is it about distinct understandings of Islam and its role. It is about jostling for positions of power in the AKP administration. For Gülenists these posts offer ways to safeguard and expand their vast internal and global political and economic networks.
Yet there is more to Erdoğan than rigid principles of republican tradition resurfacing in a neo-Islamist. In the New Yorker, David Remnick quoted a conversation between Barack Obama and his senior aide, Valerie Jarrett, that occurred just before the November 2016 US election. Jarrett asked Obama if he would run for another term if he could. Obama’s response: “No. Look, at some point you lose touch. You get worn down. At some point, you start getting into bad habits.”
The same question might be asked of Erdoğan, who, counting his premierships, has been at the helm in Turkey for 15 years: Does he not feel “worn down”? The Jarrett-Obama conversation goes to the heart of why there is a yawning gap between Obama’s thoughtful leadership and Erdoğan’s hard-headed heedlessness of the perils of the choppy seas ahead. Erdoğan is no political novice, and he has learned lessons of endurance that Obama probably could not have. He weathered rough sailing through the AKP rank and file to become mayor of Istanbul, then prime minister and then president. Erdoğan’s kind of leadership is driven more by night-and-day scheming to capture, exercise and (at all costs) keep power than by thought-out ideas or political programs. Fatigue would be a distraction.
It follows that Erdoğan is known not just for macro- but also for micro-politicking. His political profile has been marked by a confrontational style that entails provoking, playing to his base while dividing, and then managing, without necessarily resolving, crises. The liberal, democratic and state secular critiques of Erdoğan tend to assign his authoritarian traits to an “Islamist” character rather than pure jockeying for political power. Busy denouncing the AKP as religious reactionaries, these critics overlook the bitter reality that the AKP’s original reforms were motivated as well by real grievances of the masses. For the staunchly secular critics, whose own commitment to democracy is dubious, religion conveniently continues to serve to explain everything.
True, Erdoğan is a social conservative who seems committed to raising a pious new generation of Turks with at least three children per household. He scorns abortion and C-section operations; and has made legislative changes to tighten controls on the sale, consumption and promotion of alcoholic beverages. Despite these moralistic salvos, most Turks have come to admit that there has been no systematic Islamization of the state. Contrary to the assumptions among some secular circles, the troubling features of Erdoğan’s AKP do not appear to be rooted in “Islamism” but to a large extent in an understanding of democracy that drops plenty of hints that the party leader is, in fact, a political hack puzzling out how to harness and entrench his power. Even his strong belief in the popular will, a watchword of the Turkish right, secular and religious, has proven to be conditional, as seen in his aforementioned refusal to accept the June 2015 election results. Immediately afterward, the armed forces resumed extensive operations against Kurdish militants, ostensibly because the peace process had become impossible for the state to sustain. Kurdish militants retaliated in sanguinary fashion, resulting in the declaration of special security zones in 15 provinces in southeastern Turkey, where nearly 100,000 people are said to have fled their homes to escape the violence.
Although they were all driven strongly for power, in many ways, Erdoğan departs from the tradition of Turkish republican leaders. He defies the traditional “over-cautiousness” in rattling the status quo. He lacks the thick skin and willingness to compromise that almost all the leaders of the Turkish Republic have shown themselves to have. Moreover, as he is virulently anti-Western—which also serves to boost his electoral fortunes—he is not as interested as past leaders in modern trends in politics, technology or literature. Shunning the serious mien of most republican leaders, he covers up his lack of intellectual curiosity with arrogance and a macho image. Erdoğan has always taken pride in appealing to Turkey’s male voters as a “doer.”
Erdoğan’s pious middle-class base is the main catalyst that makes it possible for him to put his plans into action. As a corollary to having improved their lifestyle to a world-class level, and having poured their trust into Erdoğan to protect that status, these middle classes have given precedence to material enrichment over anything else, which includes turning a blind eye to the extrajudicial abuse of their friends, neighbors, teachers, professors, doctors and lawyers. The same desensitization is observable among a significant portion of Turkey’s secular non-democrats, who keep dredging up the secular-Islamist binary and rejoice at the specter of the violation of human rights and due process for Erdoğan’s “religious” opponents, the Gülenists.
The future that looms ahead looks as grim as the new system of government. Very few in Turkey believe that, in the next ten years, the country can be stable, peaceful and economically rock-solid—a place that inspires hope and optimism in its own citizens as well as among Westerners and Middle Eastern neighbors. Most feel that the AKP leader has lost his way, and the cause, vision and direction of his party, by jerking from a centrist position to the far right, killing the dream of EU accession, reigniting war with the Kurds and exploiting a thwarted coup attempt to consolidate his own power while pretending to follow the public’s wishes. It is highly significant that even key figures in Erdoğan’s own party are silent about the new system that the referendum introduced.
And yet, many Turks also feel that they need to be positive to survive this profound crisis. Constitutions, leaders and political parties, after all, construct frameworks for various groups to get organized and engage. To be sure, even if the AKP’s constitutional amendments package were a liberal-democratic fairy tale come true, it would take a truly remarkable popular mobilization to bring about a groundswell in Turkish politics. In any case, for the tens of thousands of victims of Erdoğan’s repression—including my journalist friend Lale—the groundswell might come too late to alleviate the injustices imposed on them and validated by a politicized judiciary. But it can be imagined: Recall the “democratic” amendments to the Turkish constitution approved by referendum in 2010. Then, Erdoğan swerved from the promise of a more liberal order, one that had just been endorsed by the people, and trampled on rights and liberties. On this occasion, the opposite may happen: An authoritarian constitutional order is in the offing, and Turks desirous of greater democracy may summon the will and the wherewithal to resist. Perhaps the deep sociological cleavage in the country can be transformed into a promising agenda of activism.
The hope stems, as with the social origins of the AKP’s rise, from a resentment. Almost half the country is deeply angry about Erdoğan’s politics of manipulation. At the same time, the infuriated 50 percent harbors a sense of helplessness that can sour into depression. It is probably this paradox that will provoke a serious challenge to Erdoğan in the future, transcending the impotent opposition parties, spilling into unorthodox channels and inventing new forms of protest.
The younger generation of “lifestyle democrats” adopts democratic sensibilities mostly on those issues that concern the preservation of particular habits. They are adept in the digital world and jealously guard themselves from the gaze of conservatives by retreating into private safe havens. It seems, nonetheless, that they are the most energetic candidates for the job of starting a new story for Turkey. They were the driving forces in the Gezi protests, aligning themselves with a rainbow coalition of identities, ideologies, ages and causes.
Failure to redefine secularism to address the real issues of politics and instead harking back to a corrosive dichotomy between secularists and Islamists to explain everything wrong in Turkey continues to deprive the old generation of secularist elites of a chance for a meaningful role in post-Erdoğan Turkey. But there is also a different brand of the old generation of secularists. They believe in separation of state institutions from religion; they have abiding antipathy for Erdoğan but are not steeped in the old secular ways. When the organizational and digital skills of bubble-preserving young democrats are combined with the talents of globally minded, middle-aged professionals and the more genuinely and broadly democratic older generation of Turkish men and women, it may be possible for the country to overcome its present predicament of outrage and powerlessness.