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Turkish referendum and the problems stirred

Apr 26,2017 - Last updated at Apr 26,2017

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s narrow victory in the April 16 constitutional referendum has strengthened his drive to overthrow the modern, Western-style Turkish state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.

Ataturk’s aggressively secular state, modelled on France, was quasi-democratic and parliamentary. 

Ataturk decreed that the military would act as guarantor of the state and the polity he put in place, a role the army command took seriously.

As the system evolved over the decades, checks and balances between executive, legislature and judiciary were adopted with the aim of preventing the rise of a dictator and abuses of power.

By securing the approval of 51.4 per cent of Turks who voted, Erdogan confidently proclaimed a famous victory in spite of his government’s unfair campaign to secure a “yes” vote and alleged tampering with the result.

If the consultation had been fair and properly run, the “no” vote would have almost certainly prevailed.

Erdogan apparently does not intend to take this into consideration while implementing the 18 amendments to the constitution he proposed.

Since taking office as prime minister in 2003, Erdogan initially adopted Ataturk’s pro-Western external orientation by pursuing Turkey’s accession to the European Union, but on the domestic front, he began to erode his country’s secularism by adopting conservative norms and promoting religion.

He was able to carry out this transformation because his Justice and Development Party, modelled on the Muslim Brotherhood, was the largest in parliament and could count on re-election.

The party’s rivals were, and are, weakened by division and competition, while Erdogan has the strong support of devout, conservative Turks who had been marginalised and alienated by secular governments applying the Ataturk model.

Erdogan systematically marginalised the military by conducting purges and, after last summer’s failed coup, jailed and fired hundreds of army officers and their supporters.

The armed forces no longer have the power to act as guarantor of Ataturk’s model.

Erdogan used the pretext of the coup attempt to jail 35,000 civil servants, policemen, academics and teachers, and dismiss 140,000 from their jobs.

He shut down critical media and jailed journalists to silence critics and opponents.

The constitutional amendments will transform Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential form of governance by abolishing the role of prime minister and conferring on the president, previously a ceremonial figure, super-executive powers.

The president will no longer be considered non-partisan but head of his own political party.

If that party enjoys a majority in parliament, he will also exercise control over the legislature. He will draw up state budget and appoint Cabinet ministers, members of the National Security Council and 12 out of 15 judges to the constitutional court.

Prosecutors and lower court judges will be chosen by parliament and president. Checks and balances will be abolished. Erdogan could reign until 2029. 

Having assured his position and boosted his power, Erdogan will be able to step up his efforts to replace Ataturk’s secularism with a religion-based system where conservative Islamic tenets and social practices dominate.

He claims he wants to return to the model of the Ottoman Empire, regarded by Erdogan and many of his followers as Turkey’s “Golden Age”.

However, Erdogan is, as they say in the US, “cherry picking” elements of the Ottoman model he seeks to emulate and eschewing those he does not.

Notably, he rejects the Ottoman embrace of multiple ethnicities, various religious faiths and different cultures. Instead, he adopts the ethnically Turkish and nationalist aspects of Ataturk’s model which forced Christians to flee, persecuted Alavis and stirred the 30-year rebellion of Turkey’s Kurds, 20 per cent of its population, who seek federation or independence.

Erdogan’s detractors come from Turkey’s three major cities — Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir — while his supporters live mainly in rural areas and provincial towns.

The divide is, therefore, largely between educated, secular urban Turks and devout, conservative, urban working class, small town and village Turks.

If Erdogan continues to rely on his constituency without conciliating his opponents, he could face revolt and resistance in Turkey’s cities.

His nightmare would be a revival of the protests that erupted in May 2013, when he tried to build a mosque and mall on Istanbul’s Gezi Park, the city’s popular green zone.

Demonstrations against this effort took place at 90 sites in Turkey, including all the chief cities, as well as in the Turkish diaspora.

The protesters took up a wide range of issues: corruption, lack of freedom of the press and expression, destruction of the environment, the challenge to secularism, Erdogan’s war against the Kurds and involvement in Syria.

He used force to quell the uprising without dealing with its causes.

Erdogan’s most risky domestic policy has been reviving the 30-year war on the Kurds who have been fighting for recognition as a distinct ethnic group and federalism.

When he took power, Erdogan pledged to end the conflict by appealing to the Kurds to merge with ethnic Turks as Sunni Muslims.

He called a halt to army action and engaged in negotiations with the Kurds from 2013 until mid-2015, but resumed attacks on the Kurds to stir Turkish nationalism as a means to secure a parliamentary majority for his party in the November poll. 

His most risky regional policy has been his promotion of the war in Syria by facilitating the transit of foreign fighters and weapons across Turkey into Syria and offering Ankara’s full backing to expatriate Syrian dissidents, many of whom belong to the Muslim Brotherhood.

After he allowed Daesh and Al Qaeda to form cells in poor areas of Turkey’s cities, Erdogan was repaid by deadly bombings in Ankara and Istanbul.


Turkey’s reliability as a member of the Western alliance has eroded. Ultimately, Turkey could be blamed for Daesh attacks in Europe since some perpetrators have been radicalised in or travelled through Turkey to join jihadist groups before returning to their home countries and staging bombings and shootings.

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