Referendum in Turkey: The choice is between more or the same authoritarianism

12 April 2017
VoxEurop

Despite a self-confident campaign led by president Erdoğan, a “Yes” in the 16 April referendum on the reinforcement of presidential powers is by no means a foregone conclusion. But whatever the result, the regime will strengthen its hold, and the de-westernisation of the country will continue, argues Cengiz Aktar.

Hardly a day goes by without Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan scolding a European politician, or preaching morals to some European institution. Terms like “Nazi” and “fascist” are thrown around all-too casually, and nothing indicates that things will calm down any time soon. Europeans, mostly silent at first, have responded more or less with tact and deliberation, which is understandable given the shock.

So what is it all about? Is it, as certain politicians (including many German politicians) argue, a tactic designed to bring more votes to the “Yes” campaign in the 16 April referendum? If so, there may be hope that the tension dies down in the following days. Or does it signal a much more serious rupture, a more long-term strategy?

In an article published in Le Monde just after the 15 July failed coup, I wrote:

after the abortive coup attempt, Turkey will no longer be democratic, as declarations from the government have intimated, however vaguely. Turkish politics no longer oscillates between democracy and dictatorship, but rather between two different dictatorial modes. In effect, the Turkish government feels strong enough to impose at the constitutional level a strong-armed presidential system à la Putin, with no checks and balances. The military putschists, whatever their position, initial motivations and final goals, effectively handed Erdoğan the kind of presidential regime that he'd been dreaming of since 2010. For 'The hero of democracy', the main concern has been initiating the process of presidentialisation by referendum (or early elections), which he'd be assured of winning. In ostensibly declaring the 15th of July Democracy Day, those in power have crowned their new legitimacy by taking absolute power.

Turkey has been in a state of exception since the June 2915 general election in which Erdoğan lost his ability to form an absolute majority – this was seen as a result of events in Gezi Park, and corruption scandals that hit in 2013. The regime is greedy for power, in the interior they feel insecure, and even internationally the errors pile up on nearly every front. The muzzling of the press, numerous unsolved terrorist attacks, the forced repeat of elections in November 2015 – where Erdoğan nevertheless regained his absolute majority – and widespread insecurity: none of this has satisfied the regime's desire for absolute power. The failed coup came at exactly the right time to embolden the regime and instigate a forward-march on all levels.

If the “Yes” wins, the 16 April referendum will allow this power to become constitutional. A botched constitutional amendment of 18 articles, containing multiple contradictions with the existing constitution, lacking correspondence with any other constitutional principle in the world, and giving absolute power to the President, will be put to a public vote. Anything, absolutely anything, is justified in the eyes of the regime if it clears the way for a convincing 'Yes'. The tensions with Europe should be seen in this context, but not exclusively.

The rhetoric may have only broken out in the last few weeks, but the malaise had been around since long before, in any case long before the failed coup. Turkey, for years, no longer conforms to the requirements for EU candidacy. The harmonisation of its legislation with the acquis communitaire has been dropped since 2006, moved or even encouraged by anti-Turk and anti-Muslim politicians such as Nicolas Sarkozy. Today, all the member states recognise the break but complacently close their eyes, hoping the candidacy might just rot away. And in the end, the candidacy hasn't just been ruined: Erdoğan's Turkey has ascended to the status of a second major headache at the continent's eastern borders, the first being Putin's Russia.

Thanks to this break, the regime has been completely “liberated” from European (or even international) criteria and constraints. More than just European criteria, the country is at odds with with all the institutions of the European Council: the Venice Commission, which gave a negative opinion on both the constitutional amendment and the organisation of the referendum, given the state of emergency; the Commissioner of Human Rights brought attention to the issue of torture and the significant shortcomings in the judicial system; and the Council's parliamentary assembly looks likely to establish a monitoring mechanism for Turkey on account of its lack of democratic values. Relations are also strained with the OSCE on matters of press freedom and the organisation of free and fair elections. As for the UN, Turkey has been referred to the Security Council for refusing to release an international judge of Turkish origin with diplomatic immunity. One could say that this is a regime which is isolating itself from the international system and couldn't care less about the consequences. But that's not all.

With end of the European contract, the regime feels capable of spreading its wings and transforming both the political system and society itself. Today the educational, military, judicial, economic, administrative and diplomatic systems function on the basis of loyalty to the Islamist regime, contrasting strongly with the country that existed towards the end of 1999, when the European process was begun. In the end, there is a direct link between the collective failure of that process and the authoritarian, anti-Western radicalisation. Just like Russia, Turkey is de-westernising, faithful to a predisposition which existed prior to the reforms of Peter The Great and Tanzimat respectively.

This is why the hopes of certain politicians in Europe who believe things will stabilise after the referendum are unfounded. The dominant tendency in a Turkey ruled by the Islamists will still be de-westernisation, regardless of the result of the referendum. In the case of a “yes”, the regime will have constitutional justification. But in the opposite case, it will continue its authoritarian path, supported by the state of emergency. In both cases, there's no reason to believe that the de-westernising tendency will deviate, as long as European values, norms, principles and standards exist in opposition to the values, norms, principles and standards of the current regime. We know from experience that authoritarian regimes never transform into democracies by themselves, especially when they have constitutional backing.

There is also the Atlantic context to consider, as the US administration grows more bullish and brings with it the specter of a growing Russian influence. This uncertainty is perhaps all that remains between the west and Turkey, a Turkey which tries to order SS400 anti-aircraft systems from Russia – systems which are incompatible with the arsenal of NATO.

Translated by Ciaran Lawless

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