The constitutional referendum in Turkey was held at a time when its outcome was promising for neither side, even for President Erdogan who won the contest. Now the post-plebiscite situation in Turkey is a very tough and sensitive one. Many believe social rifts in the country are widening, which would strongly affect Ankara’s foreign relations. To discuss that further, the Etemad daily newspaper has interviewed Sadeq Maleki, an expert on Turkish affairs, who has shared his views on the different dimensions and possible ramifications of the referendum.
The following are excerpts from his remarks in the Farsi interview.
How Erdogan Emerged Victorious in Referendum
Erdogan sees the challenging referendum held in his country as a triumph. However, even if impartial observers regard it as a victory, it is a weak one. The plebiscite was held against the backdrop of mass arrests following the abortive coup. Pressure piled up on the opposition so much so that one would think Turkey is gripped by another coup in the wake of the first one. One of the key objectives that Erdogan has pursued since 2002 has been to change the country’s constitution and turn its parliamentary system into a presidential one. Erdogan announced his goal after he assumed power as President through popular vote.
He cashed in on the post-coup climate and removed his opponents. If these opponents were in power today, we wouldn’t be witnessing such a restructuring. He managed to lay the groundwork for changing the parliamentary system to a presidential one by garnering just over 51 percent of the vote. So, one should bear in mind that the referendum was held under a state of emergency regarded as a military-security rule. Given the security atmosphere, especially in the Kurdish-dominated regions, Erdogan managed to secure the votes he needed by pressing for and achieving the considerations he had in mind.
All in all, one can say the Turkish referendum was an engineered vote. Moreover, the narrow margin of votes between the rival camps indicates that if the referendum had been held under normal circumstances, Erdogan would have lost. Erdogan’s narrow victory has prompted impartial circles and his opponents to seriously raise the possibility of vote rigging. Opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has called for a recount of 60 percent of the ballots. He has also demanded the votes which were supposed to be declared null and void, but were tallied, be removed from the counting process.
With this referendum, Turkey in fact entered a second republic phase. If we consider Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as the founder of the first Republic of Turkey, the recent referendum has made Erdogan the founder of the second Republic. The only difference is that the powers of Erdogan, who is a political and non-military figure, will be much more than the authority of Atatürk, who was a military man. This comes as Erdogan has time and again accused Atatürk of being a despot.
Dream of Ottoman Empire Posing Threat to Turkey, Region
Erdogan moved toward success by climbing up the ladder of democracy. However, as his performance has shown, especially since 2011, he has failed to remain stable on the path of democracy. The current situation of Turkey both at home and abroad shows an increase in Erdogan’s powers could further deepen the bipolar atmosphere inside the country. Irrespective of Turkey’s internal issues, sweeping presidential powers can affect the crises in Syria and Iraq.
One of the contributors to the crises in the two countries has been Erdogan’s performance. Polls show if Erdogan does not change tack, and given his past performance in the Middle East, the situation will become more critical. A powerful Erdogan will be dangerous to both Turkey and the Middle East. Experience shows dictators mostly seek to achieve their ambitions rather than considering what is good for people. Most dictators crave for power. Erdogan’s performance could partly be inspired by his dream of reviving the Ottoman Empire. But one should bear in mind that history is there to serve as an object lesson to us. The continuation of the policies that Erdogan has pursued, especially since 2011, will be detrimental to both Turkish people and regional nations.
Authoritarianism, Sectarianism, Economic Crisis to Cost Turkey Dearly
Authoritarianism, sectarianism, and economic crisis are three factors that amount to the Achilles’ heel of Turkey under Erdogan. Turkey will have to pay a heavy price for authoritarianism and marginalising the opposition. For instance, a kind of civil war is going on in the southeast of the country. It is in civil strife where tanks and personnel carriers make their presence felt. The army went into action with its tanks in some areas. We witnessed the shelling and bombardment of Kurdish opponents as part of the crackdown on voices of dissent. Erdogan has announced loud and clear that Ankara killed some 6,000 opponents last year. The figure is even higher than the number of those killed at the height of conflicts between Turkey and Kurds in past decades.
This is the result of a gap caused by Erdogan. Statistics show cities and areas near the Mediterranean and the Sea of Marmara, Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir voted “no” in the plebiscite. The social gap can adversely affect the performance of the Erdogan administration in the future. The gap will be more tangible if economic and social crises spread as well. At the moment, signs of an economic crisis are emerging. The value of the Turkish Lira against foreign currencies has decreased compared to the past. The unemployment rate is on the rise, and investment in the country has dropped. These are not good signs for Turkey. The most important measure on Erdogan’s track record which has secured his 15-year rule has been his successful economic plans. But at the moment, this brilliant background has been tarnished in certain sectors, and if his authoritarian approach continues, it can deal a blow to the position of Erdogan and Turkey on the international stage in the long run.
Elimination of Opponents Affected Referendum
Keeping opponents out of the political arena under the pretext that they helped stage the abortive coup has affected the plebiscite. Before the voting, Erdogan pressurized his opponents, and after it was held, he announced publicly that those who voted “no” are not equal to those voted “yes.” It should be mentioned that some 60,000 people have been apprehended and dismissed from their jobs on Erdogan’s orders since the coup. We have witnessed many coups in Turkey, but none has been associated with so many arrests as we are witnessing now. The referendum has been held at a time when Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the left-wing pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), is behind bars. Many leftist and rightist and even Islamist figures whose articles could influence millions of people are now in prison. These people stand accused of having links with Fethullah Gülen, who was considered Erdogan’s ally before 2013 and somehow was Erdogan’s mentor. Even Erdogan removed many of his opponents from the political scene with Gülen’s help.
Iran-Turkey Ties after Referendum
The language that Erdogan has used about Iran in recent months has been inappropriate and not the kind of language that a president would use. Erdogan has publicly accused Iran of imposing sectarian and religion-based policies based on Persianism. This comes as Erdogan himself is well known for using such policies and has pursued the same approaches in Iraq and Syria as well as in his own country. Even when Erdogan talks about his regional policies, he gets into Iran’s sectarian issues. The danger is predictable: Erdogan may meddle in Iran’s internal affairs and further complicate the existing tensions with his interference.