An upcoming referendum and a vicious war of words with Europe could end up making Erdogan more powerful — and isolated — than ever.
ANKARA, Turkey — In a half-destroyed temple overlooking the Turkish capital, there is a carved inscription of a text known as “The Deeds of the Divine Augustus.” It is the most complete surviving version of the funerary inscription of the first Roman emperor, Augustus. Following its hagiographic accounts of wars won, gladiatorial spectacles commissioned, and money showered upon the populace, it concludes with a line that would later be echoed by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk: Augustus, it says, was considered by the people of Rome as the “father of the country.”
Two millennia after Augustus, the conspiracies and political machinations of ancient Rome have nothing on modern Turkey. Today, the debate revolves around whether its current ruler, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is echoing Augustus once again — this time by gutting the country’s democratic institutions and concentrating all power in his own hands. On April 16, Turks will vote in a referendum over a package of constitutional amendments meant to concentrate more power in the office of the presidency, the position currently held by Erdogan.
The vote serves as a stand-in for the country’s views on Erdogan’s 14 years of rule. The rest of the world, meanwhile, is staging its own informal referendum on Erdogan.
Over three days of meetings last week in Ankara, government officials defended the amendments as commonsense measures to ensure administrative stability and reform an undemocratic constitution devised by the country’s former military dictators. The opposition leaders spearheading the “no” campaign in the referendum, meanwhile, warned that the country was sliding into authoritarianism — in some cases, comparing Erdogan’s style of governance to dictators like Saddam Hussein.
It’s too soon to predict whether Erdogan will win the upcoming referendum, but his government is already proving incapable of making its case to the West. The referendum has already sparked a new rift between Turkey and several European states. Both Germany and the Netherlands, which are both approaching their own elections amid rising anti-immigrant sentiment, recently banned demonstrations by Turkish officials seeking to drum up the “yes” vote among expatriate Turks.
Erdogan responded by accusing both countries of Nazism, warning that the Netherlands will “pay the price” for its decision.
The spat with Germany and the Netherlands is just one example. On a range of issues — from the state of Turkey’s democracy to the Turkish role in Syria to Turkey’s extradition request for the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom it accuses of planning last summer’s coup attempt — Western countries have refused to adopt Ankara’s views.
Ankara is partially responsible for its own alienation. Consider last week’s trip to Turkey organized for more than a dozen American journalists from outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal by Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek. The event was billed as a chance to meet with the country’s top officials, including President Erdogan, to hear their narrative of the coup attempt and why the United States should extradite Gulen.
The meetings, however, failed to materialize, and reporters were treated to a four-hour meeting with Gokcek himself. The majority of reporters left the meeting in protest. During the talk, Gokcek failed to present a single piece of evidence implicating Gulen in the coup and instead laid out his own conspiratorial worldview.
“A recent earthquake in the gulf [off Turkey’s western coast] was triggered by the United States and Israel with a ship.… With a little bit of energy, they tried to trigger the fault line,” Gokcek said.
The Ankara mayor, a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), has warned before that foreign and domestic enemies were causing earthquakes in Turkey. He also mused that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had founded the Islamic State, citing the statements of U.S. President Donald Trump as corroboration.
“I investigate a lot,” he said, when asked for further evidence. “I have the largest intelligence service in the world. You know what it is? Google.”
Other officials made the government’s case more successfully. Several argued for a “yes” vote by pointing to the instability of governing coalitions — the republic has had 65 governments in its 94-year history — as a key factor in blocking much-needed reforms and empowering a cadre of unelected bureaucrats and army officers.
“I genuinely believe that the current system is not sustainable.… [It] is prone to crises and conflicts,” said Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek.
“I would fully recommend that instead of just focusing on fears and theories about President Erdogan, just look at the text.”
The constitutional amendments would concentrate executive power in the hands of the president, a position that until now has been largely ceremonial. The amendments would give him the power to appoint and fire ministers, as well as design state budgets. The president would be able to serve two five-year
terms and, unlike now, continue to serve as the head of a political party. With the changes going into effect in 2019, this would potentially allow Erdogan to stay in power until 2029.
Government officials, however, contend that the package would actually enhance the separation of powers in Turkey by dividing parliament’s existing powers with the office of the presidency. Parliament would maintain the power to approve the president’s budget, ratify international treaties and declarations of war, and overrule a presidential decree through legislation.
The legal merits of the constitutional changes aside, government officials also portray a “yes” vote as a victory against their domestic opponents — most prominently, the supporters of Gulen and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the state.
“I’m convinced that April 16 may serve as a closure,” Simsek said. “Because Turkey’s efforts against the religious cult [the Gulenists] are largely done. The cases are at the court; it’s up to the courts to decide. And the PKK, their strategy once they got emboldened with gains in Syria, it backfired, because Turkey is no ordinary country.”
But “closure” is precisely what Turkey’s opposition fears. They think it means they would lose any remaining political influence they have held on to since last summer’s coup attempt, and Erdogan’s subsequent domestic crackdown, by entrenching his position as the country’s preeminent political figure.
“We don’t want one-man rule, which is an authoritarian regime,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the largest opposition party, told Foreign Policy from his office in parliament.
“The authority to enact laws will be given to one man with this draft change, and we find it very dangerous.”
Kilicdaroglu, the head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), is leading the campaign for the “no” vote. But he argues that he is doing so while the playing field is tilted against him.
The state of emergency governing Turkey since last summer’s coup attempt has had a chilling effect on public debate, he said, preventing civil society and business associations from expressing their opinion on the referendum for fear of the government. He also contended that the vast majority of Turkey’s media is sympathetic to Erdogan after a crackdown on the press over the past year. Amnesty International recently reported that more than 160 press outlets have been shuttered since the coup attempt and more than 120 journalists are currently imprisoned, making Turkey “the biggest jailer of journalists in the world.”
“There is no press freedom in Turkey,” Kilicdaroglu said bluntly. Erdogan, he said, had brought the country “to the edge of the abyss.”
The second-largest opposition party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), has the most reason to fear a post-referendum government crackdown. Thirteen of the pro-Kurdish party’s parliamentarians are currently imprisoned, accused of links to the PKK. The party’s co-leaders, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, have both been jailed, and Yuksekdag was stripped from her seat in parliament after being convicted on terrorism charges.
Among those arrested was the party’s spokesman, Ayhan Bilgen. At the HDP headquarters in Ankara, Osman Baydemir, a former mayor of the majority-Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, has been thrust into the role.
“If you come here next month, I’m not sure who you will meet as a party speaker. I hope Ayhan Bilgen gets out of jail.… But it looks like, unfortunately, I will go to prison, too,” Baydemir said. “This is actually Figen Yuksekdag’s room we are using now. I’m pretty sure that in just this hour, at just this time, [Turkey’s security services] are listening to this room.”
However the referendum turns out, the war between Erdogan and his domestic and international foes only seems poised to escalate. As Turkey’s president accuses his antagonists in Europe of Nazism, his political enemies at home are only too happy to throw equally bombastic accusations back at him.
“Erdogan’s political style looks like Saddam Hussein’s or Bashar al-Assad’s style,” Baydemir said. “They want to make a one-party state — this is like the example of North Korea.”