Erdoğan’s Trail of Victory Begins With Referendum Success

Founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the modern, secular, and democratic Turkey state represented a sharp break from the country’s Ottoman past. While the Ottoman Empire was ruled by a single man, the sultan, with both political and ecclesiastical power (as the caliph of Sunni Islam), the new state was to be the first democracy in the Islamic world. The newly created Grand National Assembly (parliament) quickly moved against the fusion of religion and politics, which necessitated the 1924 abolition of the caliphate. Next, all laws based solely on Islam were abolished, and Western-style, secular, independent courts were established instead.

The rapidly Westernizing Istanbul in the 1950’s

This was followed by more than a decade of fast-paced reforms meant to bring Turkey in sync with the West (or, in the words of Atatürk, “the civilized world”). In turn, the population of Turkey’s cities, also Westernized rapidly. New roads encouraged the use of cars, and traditional clothing was discarded in favor of jeans and t-shirts.

Gecekondu (“built overnight”) refers to hastily-build illegal houses that became emblematic of mass migration into Turkish cities

However, the two primary aspects of the West primarily venerated by Atatürk, true democracy and secularism, were not embraced in their entirety. The history of modern Turkey is rife with undemocratic rulers and even dictatorial repression. In fact, even Atatürk ruled like a strongman. And while the cities of Turkey cautiously accepted secularism, the more agrarian regions did not. The 1960’s brought the influx of economic migrants into the cities, who did not change their attitudes towards religion and politics. In addition, the still sizable population of the Anatolian heartland takes a very cynical view of the cities as massive expressions of sin and vanity. All this foretold a drastic shift in Turkish politics.

Erdoğan as mayor of Istanbul

Enter Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. A child of provincials, he grew up in an unusually conservative and working-class neighborhood of Istanbul. In 1994, he was elected mayor of the city as a moderate Islamist. Many feared he would impose some form of Islamic law, but he turned out to be quite pragmatic (this is partially because Turkish mayors have very little real power and frequently need to compromise with the central government). After being briefly arrested for reciting an Islamist poem in public and being barred from further political activity, Erdoğan changed his politics. He capitalized on the desire of many Turks to join the European Union and made himself known as a pro-business, pro-development politician. Erdoğan quickly became a potent force in Turkish politics. He was thrust into the national spotlight when he was one of the founders of the Justice and Development (AK) Party, which combined capitalistic stances with ideals of “religious liberty” (reframed Islamism) and pro-European integration.

AK Party rally

The economic crash of 2001, and the 2002 election catapulted the new AK Party to national leadership. Since Erdoğan was banned from participating in politics, AK Party co-founder, Abdullah Gül, took the coveted Prime Minister position (de facto head of state) instead. Within a year, Erdoğan’s ban was overturned, and he took on the role of PM. Since then the AK Party, with Erdoğan at the helm, has been the dominant force in Turkish politics. In 2014, Erdoğan was chosen as the next President of Turkey in Turkey’s first-ever Turkish presidential election (previously, the parliament elected the president). Although this position has always been largely ceremonial, Erdoğan frequently tried to influence politics.

A rapidly developing Istanbul featured skyscrapers contrasting with ancient monuments

During his time as Prime Minister, Erdoğan undertook a number of significant moves. He reformed Turkish law, not by making it more Islamic, but by adjusting it to be more similar to EU laws. This had the effect of boosting foreign investment, which in turn, left the Turkish government with a massive surplus. This money was invested primarily in infrastructure, especially in the long-neglected poorer areas of Istanbul (recall that Erdoğan himself grew up here). In fact, between 2002 and 2015 (during the bulk of which Erdoğan was in power), the Turkish government spent more than $600 billion on construction. Even more impressively, around a third of this money came directly from the state treasury.

Fethullah Gülen

Erdoğan’s unique combination of pro-business, pro-development, and pro-European integration nationalism and cultural conservatism earned him the favor of the cleric Fethullah Gülen and the movement which bears his name. Gülen preaches a forward-oriented form of Hanafi Islam and supports the restoration of certain Islamic laws in Turkey. His movement, and Erdoğan, formed an alliance of convenience against the secular elites, especially in the military (which is seen in Turkey as a guardian of secularism, out of reach of easily-replaceable political officials). This alliance was quite beneficial, especially for Erdoğan, who took advantage of Gülen’s millions of supporters, both in Turkey and abroad. However, it was not long before they came into conflict, in a power struggle which culminated in the 2013 corruption scandal. Erdoğan turned on Gülen, denouncing his ideology and supporters.

Soldiers who took part in the 2016 coup attempt surrendering

Over a decade of repression and desecularization by Erdoğan brought about the 2016 coup d’état attempt. Orchestrated by a small portion of the military, and organized as the “Peace at Home Council”, the coup plotters sought to return Turkey to Atatürk-style secularism. The coup ultimately failed, and the perpetrators arrested. In addition, Gülen was blamed. However, Gülen resides in the United States, and the American government won’t extradite him, since it does not believe he is behind the coup. The coup was followed by a large purge, which removed thousands of people from government positions and led to numerous arrests. In addition, Erdoğan declared a state of emergency, which gave the AK Party-controlled government nearly unchallenged powers

Although transforming the Turkish Presidency (currently a ceremonial position as previously mentioned) into an executive post has long been a staple of the AK Party platform, they were historically unable to ratify a new constitution which would do this. In 2011, Erdoğan declared that it would finally happen, within one year. However, the parliamentary commission tasked with writing the constitution was too diverse and was unable to draft a satisfactory draft. As such, Erdoğan resolved to wait until the AK Party had the necessary supermajority to ratify a constitution created within the party. However, both the first and second 2015 elections didn’t produce this supermajority for the AK Party. As such, Erdoğan had to accept a series of constitutional amendments instead, which would have to be ratified both both by the Grand National Assembly and the people of Turkey (through a referendum). These amendments granted sweeping powers to the new, executive president, including the right to dissolve parliament. In fact, the Grand National Assembly would be the only check on the power of the president. However, this check is ineffective, since Erdoğan is a member of the party which controls parliament (AK Party) and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. As a result, these amendments were widely criticized for granting Erdoğan dictatorial powers.

Erdoğan took advantage of his popularity following the 2016 coup attempt to push these amendments through. Parliament accepted them in January of 2017, which meant that it was time for the decision to be offered to the nation. The result was the recent constitutional referendum. Predictably, the “yes” campaign was led by Erdoğan himself, while the “no” campaign was led by the opposition parties. While irregularities and suppression of the “no” campaign were reported, most incidents were not fully investigated. As such, the voting went as scheduled, and by the end of April 16th (the date of the referendum), “yes” was declared the winner.

Although Erdoğan and his supporters are already celebrating their victory, these celebrations are premature. Erdoğan still has a number of hurdles ahead of him before he become the dictator of Turkey, ruling with the mandate of tyranny by majority. First, in order to keep the power his party gained through the state of emergency, the parliament needed to extend it (which it recently did for the third time). Next, he needs to organize early elections, and win them. The next election is scheduled for 2019, however, the Grand National Assembly has the power to declare them early. Turkey is currently in the midst of a small economic crisis, which means the sooner elections are held, the sooner Erdoğan can capitalize on this fact and promise to restore the economy. The unemployment rate of Turkey recently hit a 7-year high, with the overall unemployment at 13 percent. In addition, the sooner elections are held, the less times Erdoğan needs the state of emergency extended.

Erdoğan’s rise to what can be described as absolute power will not be without consequences for Turkey’s international relations. It is unlikely to significantly impact relations between Turkey and the United States, as President Trump actually congratulated Erdoğan on the referendum result. However, it will put President Trump in the position to request Erdoğan accept US-allied Kurdish forces in Syria, which is something President Trump is looking to receive from Erdoğan.

Despite this, the European Union will not follow in America’s path of accepting Erdoğan’s new position. To begin with, the EU was never happy about the seemingly undemocratic outcome. The fact that Erdoğan constantly used the motif of “us versus the West” in his recent campaign didn’t help. And Erdoğan’s campaigning in Germany and the Netherlands (including the associated incident where he called the Dutch “Nazis” after the Netherlands refused to allow “yes” campaigning) to Turks living in those countries only made the situation worse. As such, Turkey is unlikely to join the European Union any time soon. However, for the EU, there is another, more important factor here: the over 3 million (primarily Syrian) migrants that live in Turkey as part of a deal with the EU. Erdoğan has the ability to force many of them to cross the border into Europe and he has threatened to use this power more than once. Now that his power will be even more unchecked, it is becoming more and more likely that he will do this.

There is also a real chance that the win will encourage Erdoğan to play a greater role in the Syrian Civil War. This is even more likely if, at some point in the future, he will feel threatened and will need a fabricated geopolitical crisis to mobilize nationalist voters. That being said, this is a risky move for him, because Turkey already suffered hundreds of casualties in Syria (not to mention tremendous amounts of money spent).

Ultimately, the recent referendum is only the beginning for Erdoğan. While he remains popular in Turkey, he still has numerous challenges to overcome – both at home and abroad. Dismantling what remains of Turkish democracy will take time, although the referendum result certainly accelerated the process.