What Now for the Turkish Republic?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

April 28, 2017

Turkish voters have approved — by a thin margin — constitutional changes transforming Turkey’s government into a presidential system. The vote is seen as an endorsement for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who now may occupy the powerful seat of the presidency until 2029. For many supporters of the constitutional changes, the reforms were necessary to meet the challenges of regional instability and internal division. Critics fear that a newly empowered Erdogan will continue his purge of rivals within the country and may overplay his hand abroad.


Daily Sabah’s Cemil Ertem considers the affirmative vote a repudiation of international interference in Turkish politics and the beginning of a more assertive and independent Turkey: “Certainly, this historic transformation highlights a new democratic government model that is independent of big states and the capital power behind them in the vast territory spanning from Eastern Europe to the Middle East.… This period is coming to an end now, as Turkey has democratically ended this historic imposition through the popular will… This is the greatest fear of powers which survived … two big world wars in the previous century. They will use all institutions and instruments to defame this democratic transformation. …The Turkish public voted for a new path and system change in the April 16 referendum which saw a high voter turnout in an uneventful environment.… In response to those who say that the Constitutional amendment was voted by a razor-thin majority, I must say that the U.K. started its process of secession from the EU as a result of a slight difference in favor of yes votes…. Turkey, as part of Europe, laid the foundations of a new union and a new Europe in this referendum. Certainly, Turkey will not break away from Europe, but nothing will be the way they used to be.”


Ibrahim Karagül, in an op-ed for Yeni Safak, delivers a similar message, interpreting the verdict as a validation of Turkey’s efforts to take charge of its own destiny amidst difficult and troubling times: “Turkey can no longer be forced in to a kind of ‘Turkey Baathism.’ It can no longer be trapped into Anatolia and be controlled through instructions from Western capitals…. We are in a period which those who play small will not be able to remain standing, the power map is rapidly changing, top organizations like the European Union are beginning to collapse and new power axis are forming. The game-setters of the campaign against the presidential system know all this. It is because they know that they did everything they can to ‘stop Turkey.’… Pay attention to the new world trends. We have entered a very rough international climate…. Turkey is entering this new climate by rebuilding its history, political identity, strengthening its hand, reinforcing its power.… It will not tolerate the terror corridor on its south border or the terrorist extensions on the inside or the myriad West-based impertinence…. A new history has started and everybody needs to read this new situation well and take position accordingly. A new Turkey reality will stand out with the political identity of our past, our efforts on the inside to be free and our new global-scale road map.”


It is not only the Turkish media that sees the referendum outcome as a boon for Turkey and the region. In an Arab News op-ed, Ray Hanania praises the decision of the Turkish voters, pointing out that the Turkish president may be the region’s best hope against extremism and Western interference: “In recent days, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of the few truly democratically-elected leaders of the world’s 50 predominantly Muslim nations, won a referendum that expands his powers by eliminating the nation’s antiquated parliamentary system and implementing a new government similar to the one established by the U.S. …. Despite his faults, Erdogan is one of the most moderate Muslim leaders in the region and he represents the survival of secular government in a Muslim world…. Erdogan offers a balance that strengthens the moderate Arab world. He serves as a buffer to the West and a forceful line in confronting growing Israeli political extremism. He is the strongest voice against the alliance of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, the real threat to the survival of the moderate Arab world. Despite the criticism levied against him, Erdogan stands as a dependable ally for the moderate Arab world in the war against religious extremism.”


But not all commentators agree with these effusive comments. For example, Gulf News’s Yavuz Baydar fears that the outcome of the referendum marks the end of a liberal and democratic Turkey, ushering in a more uncertain future for the Turkish people and those in the region: “With the result of Sunday’s referendum on its constitution, Turkey as we know it is over; it is history…. It has been painful for me to witness the immense disappointment of Turkish intellectuals, resilient by tradition, and mainly left-leaning…. But the deliberate reversal of democratization left all of them feeling they had been duped. This conclusion became undeniable when last summer’s attempted coup — the details of which are still unclear — led to an immense purge. Given this mood of despair and the sense of defeat, we should expect another exodus of fine human resources in the coming months and years. Journalists — such as me, abroad, or at home — will find themselves challenged even more after the referendum. Coverage of corruption will be a daredevil act, severe measures against critical journalism will continue and the remaining resistance of media proprietors will vanish…. The old republic was already ailing, and it has just been dealt its final blow.”


Turkish observer Cengiz Çandar, in a recent op-ed posted by Al Monitor, using terms like “rigged” and “Pyrrhic victory,” highlights the narrow margin of the vote, cautioning Erdogan against policies that risk dividing the country and polarizing it further: “The outcome of Turkey’s April 16 referendum wasn’t exactly the victory President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was aiming for: clear support for constitutional amendments that would give him more executive power than even republic founder Kemal Ataturk had envisioned for himself. Dissent was strong in the country’s largest cities, and European officials also have registered their disapproval…. Erdogan’s win can best be defined as a Pyrrhic victory: victory, but at what cost?… It should never be forgotten that — even if the election proves to be fraud-free — Erdogan’s Pyrrhic victory was achieved in an unprecedented, unfair campaign. The campaign was conducted under a state of emergency…. In fact, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on legal issues, the Venice Commission-European Commission for Democracy through Law, issued a report on Turkey in March saying that holding a referendum under the state of emergency conditions must be considered invalid if not illegal…. Notwithstanding Turkey’s foggy EU prospects, life went on and Turks and Kurds awoke April 17 to a ‘New Turkey.’ After a probably rigged referendum and a Pyrrhic victory, the future is no more certain for its main protagonist, Erdogan, and even more uncertain for the almost 80 million citizens of Turkey.”


The independence of many media outlets in Turkey has been curtailed recently, with many shuttered, under new management or self-censoring amid the post-coup-attempt purges. So some Turkish commentators, such as Adnan Oktar, are looking to regional outlets, including the Jerusalem Post, to voice dissenting or even moderately critical views of what is happening in Turkey: “Surely the fact that it was a narrow win for the ‘yes’ camp sends an important message.…. It is crucial that when the constitution is changed it should be welcomed by the entirety of the people…. Turkey is a democratic, Muslim country. It is one of the few countries throughout the world, and the only Muslim one, that has the word ‘secular’ in its constitution. … some circles sought to twist the excellent democracy and freedom introduced by Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and attempted to persecute religious people. As a result, military coups happened, religious people were blacklisted and Turkey went through times that certainly didn’t befit a democracy…Turkey is sharply divided into two in every election. Unless both sides work on their practices and narrative, the situation doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon…. Democracy is plurality and is a blessing. However, such a sharp divide in a country is a risk, especially for countries like Turkey. It is essential to maintain stability in Turkey, which is one of the most important allies of the US and of Israel in the region, and the only Islamic country to be a member of NATO. We hope that the coming days will usher in policies that will end this polarization and alleviate any lingering fears.”


But even within Turkey, there are some who have cautioned the Turkish president against interpreting the vote as a broad mandate for change. Otherwise, as Hurriyet Daily News’s Mehmet Yilmaz suggests, Turkey may be heading toward an even more dire authoritarian future: “The report prepared by international observers from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe to monitor the referendum reveals that the referendum did not take place under fair circumstances.  This is not a secret; we have lived through this process all together. We witnessed the fact that several gatherings and demonstrations were cancelled due to the practices of the state of emergency. Nearly all the leadership cadres and mayors of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) are in prison. There was a serious black out toward the opposition in the media… We have witnessed such reports written about countries like Russia and Azerbaijan, where elections have not taken place in the form of a democratic race. After this report, Turkey’s place is next to Russia in the eyes of the world. Will Turkey be like Russia, Azerbaijan and Belarus, where elections do not take place under fair and democratic conditions?”


Finally, in a recent editorial, the National staff urges the Turkish president to “reach out to his Arab allies” and consider taking a more conciliatory approach with his neighbors: “Mr Erdogan is certainly popular — there is no political figure as dominant in the country — but his personal popularity is not inexhaustible. That is an important lesson in humility for a leader who often acts as if he alone has the answers, but it is only a lesson if he chooses to heed it. For the sake of the Middle East, he must. Turkey is an important country in the region, one of the most important. And, without a doubt, he faces a difficult environment…This referendum puts Mr Erdogan in a strong position. But he must not confuse it with total victory. Within Turkey, he still needs to appeal to voters in the major cities, which by-and-large voted no. Beyond Turkey’s borders, he must also understand that his country is not the only one that matters in the region. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, even the UAE, have legitimate views and interests, and it would be better if there was cooperation rather than competition. Even a figure as dominant as Mr. Erdogan does not have all the answers for an entire region.”


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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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