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Referendoom’s day:

How the Outcome of the Constitutional Referendum will Shape Turkey

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s disputed victory in the referendum has made Turkey more unpredictable than it was before April 16, both in terms of its internal stability and its foreign policy.

Text : Mikayel Zolyan

 


Several days before the constitutional referendum in Turkey, “The Economist” went into press with the title “Turkey’s Slide into Dictatorship”, and the cover featured an image of an angry Erdogan, making it clear to everyone who the dictator is. On the day after the referendum Foreign Policy shocked its readers by pronouncing Turkish Republic dead: “RIP Turkey: 1921-2017”. Obviously, if Turkey’s international partners in places like Washington and London were worried, it is easy to imagine how nervous Turkey’s immediate neighbors are: Erdogan’s close win in the referendum made Turkey even more unpredictable than it was before April 16, both in terms of its internal stability and its foreign policy, and, at least for the time being, it dashed hopes that Turkey might return to the track of the European integration.

“The mosques are our barracks”: How Erdogan used nationalism to defeat Kemalism
The referendum marked the end of an ideological transition that Erdogan and his AK Party went through: from a liberal version of political Islam, akin to “Christian democracy”, to an explosive mix of Islamism, populism and nationalism. Starting out as supporters of a more traditional Islamist prime-minister Necmettin Erbakan, who was deposed by the military in 1997, in the early 2000s Erdogan and his allies redefined political Islam in Turkey. In 2001 they founded the Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials, as AKP, which claimed to be an Islamic version of conservative Christian-Democratic parties in the West: a party that stands for democratic rights and freedoms, while upholding conservative family-oriented values. Anti-Western rhetoric of older Islamists like Erbakan was largely gone, at least for the time being, as AKP advocated democratic reform and integration with Europe. The reformed Islamists won the election in 2002 and set out to transform the Turkish state.
In the beginning this meant significant liberalization of Turkish society, removal of some of the old taboos, limiting the influence and the so called “deep state” (i.e. the security apparatus). If we add to this economic liberalization, carried out by Erdogan’s party, it would be easy to understand the popularity Erdogan and AKP enjoyed for years. Erdogan managed to create a wide coalition, which included diverse groups of the Turkish society, such as the pious conservative voters from Central Anatolia, his core electorate that supported his Islamist message; liberals from big Western cities, who supported democratic reform and European integration; as well as many Kurds in the South-West, who saw an opening for a peaceful solution of the Kurdish issue. It is no coincidence that at the time many in Turkey’s Armenian minority also supported AKP policies, as they saw in them an opening for minority rights, as well as for normalization of relations with Armenia. Even though Erdogan and AKP largely continued the traditional policy of denial regarding the issue of Armenian Genocide, increased political openness inside Turkish society meant that more and more Turkish intellectuals and journalists were able to speak openly about the events of 1915, stirring a discussion that was unimaginable under AKP’s predecessors.

Interestingly, all this did not prevent Erdogan from flirting with the nationalist discourse. In theory, turning to nationalism would be a strange choice for Islamists, as the Kemalist tradition of nationalism was closely tied to the Kemalist tradition of secularism: both nationalism and secularism were considered the pillars of Kemalism and were protected by the Turkish military, the nemesis of Islamists. But in Turkey, when it comes to religion and nationalism, things are much more complicated. Erdogan’s version of political Islam also had a nationalist streak to it.
Back in 1997, Erdogan received a jail sentence for inciting ethnic and religious hatred, for citing a poem by the founder of Pan-Turkist nationalism, ZIya Gokalp: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers...”. At the time, the arrest was seen as part of the secular establishment’s repression against Islamists. However, the quote from Gokalp is highly indicative of Erdogan’s mix of nationalism and Islamism. Today we can see that while Erdogan largely succeeded in dismantling the Kemalist version of Turkish secular nationalism, he seeks to replace it with his own version of Turkish nationalism, which blends nationalism and political Islam. As time passed, not only Erdogan’s leadership style took authoritarian turn, but he also gravitated toward Turkish nationalism. It was against this background that the negotiations on the Kurdish issue stalled, while Turkey’s policy of “zero problems with the neighbors” was turning into “zero neighbors without problems”, to quote some of Erdogan’s critics.
As Erdogan’s policies were changing, so was the electoral coalition that provided him with power: while he was losing support among the liberals and minorities, he was working with the ultra-nationalist sector of the electorate. Xenophobic rhetoric on Erdogan’s part became a part of the electoral campaigning. Thus, in 2014 he raised eyebrows by implying that being called “Armenian” was an insult, and one worse than being called “Georgian”. “I was called a Georgian [by my opponents]... I apologize for this, but they even said [something] worse: they called me an Armenian”, he said in an interview at the time. The recent campaign was not very different in this sense, but this time Erdogan went beyond Turkey’s immediate neighbors: Erdogan’s accusations of Nazism levelled against Holland and Germany made headlines all over the world. The proponents of the “No” camp were presented by pro-Erdogan media as “stooges” of the imperialist West and, essentially, traitors of the Turkish nation.
It may be a sign of this trend that Erdogan’s position in the constitutional referendum was supported by Devlet Bahceli, the leader of ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Though Bahceli’s support was not shared by all his party members and actually led to bitter divisions within the party, the fact that the only major politician who supported Erdogan came from the ultra-nationalist camp, says a lot about the direction of Erdogan’s political evolution. Ultimately, in the referendum on April 16, it was this mix of political Islam and Turkish nationalism that prevailed over the secular nationalism embedded in the Kemalist republic.

Free and Fair Voting or Election Fraud?
Thus, skillfully using the nationalist card, Erdogan was able to win the referendum. However, even though this is obviously a success for Erdogan, the referendum also exposed serious challenges for him and his party. First of all, the advantage that allowed “yes” vote to win was minimal: 51.41 vs. 48.59 %. The two parties supporting the “Yes” vote, AKP and MHP had together gained over 60 % in the last election (respectively 49.5 and 11.9 %). This means that some of MHP supporters refused to support Erdogan, in spite of the calls for support voiced by MHP’s leader, and it could also mean that some AKP voters refused to support Erdogan’s constitutional reform.
Moreover, “No” camp won in all major Turkish cities, not only in the Kemalist stronghold Izmir (by 68.8 %), which was expected, but also in the capital Ankara (51.15 %), and in Turkey’s biggest city, Istanbul (51.35 %). The loss in Istanbul was especially painful, given the fact that it was from this city that Erdogan’s rise to power began, when he was elected mayor of Istanbul. It is no coincidence that to an extent the advantage of “Yes” votes was due to voting in Turkish Diaspora communities, who received the right to vote recently, under Erdogan’s government: the first election they were allowed to vote was the presidential election of 2014, which Erdogan won. In the referendum about 1.4 million votes were cast by Turkish citizens abroad and about 60 % of those were for the “yes” camp. “Why should they decide our country’s future, when they do not live even here”, complained some furious “No” supporters on social networks.

All the above mentioned numbers are based on the official results of the election. However, for the first time in recent Turkish history, the official results of the vote are disputed, as the opposition has accused the government of election fraud. In the past, in spite of numerous flaws of Turkish democracy, at least in one sense Turkey could have claimed that it was ahead of various authoritarian and hybrid regimes around the world: the official outcomes of the elections were usually accepted by the losing political forces. This time, however, both the opposition and observers put the election results under doubt. Moreover, while some post-Soviet autocrats have mastered the art of an election fraud to an extent that it is often almost impossible to detect and prove, in Turkey everything has been done in somewhat crude way, undermining Erdogan’s victory. The big issue was the decision of the Supreme Electoral Council (the body overseeing the election process) to lift the rule that required all ballots to be stamped. This meant that unstamped ballots could also be counted as legitimate, unless there was a proof that such ballots were a result of a fraud. This decision, which essentially meant changing the rules of the game in the middle of the game itself, raised serious doubts, especially as the number of unstamped ballots reached it about one and half a million.
In addition, the conditions for campaigning were extremely unequal. The referendum was taking place against the background of mass arrests and purges that started after last year’s failed coup d’état. Some politicians advocating the “No” vote, particularly from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), were arrested and thus deprived of opportunity of campaigning. Moreover, the media coverage was deeply skewed toward “Yes” camp. State owned media, as well as private media owned by figures close to Erdogan, actively propagated the “Yes” vote, marginalizing the voices arguing against it. International journalists reporting from Turkey in the days before the election said that while “Yes” posters were everywhere on the streets of Turkish cities, posters advocating for “No” were difficult to come across. Taking all this into account, even OSCE and PACE observing mission, who are usually known for using diplomatic formulas, gave a harsh: the election failed to meet international standards. Erdogan’s response was defiant: he accused the monitors of prejudice against Turkey and told them that they “should know their place”.


So, while Erdogan did achieve his immediate goals, the referendum result was hardly the one he had hoped for. Several hours after the results were announced, a photo of Erdogan preparing for his “victory speech” went viral on social networks: the man in the photo does not look like a winner, the photo shows him visibly shaken and confused. Instead of a definitive mandate, on which Erdogan could rely in order to cement his power, he received questionable legitimacy and an even more divided society, as opposition against him is likely to grow. So far, the groups who have opposed Erdogan have been too different to unite around a single agenda: it is not easy to imagine liberal intellectuals, traditional Kemalists and Kurdish activists coming together around a common platform, let alone a common candidate in the upcoming presidential election. However, the challenges presented by the opposition are likely to grow, especially as the economy is showing no signs of quick recovery.
In this situation, it may have made sense for Erdogan to try to find a compromise with at least part of the opposition, and to abandon some of his most divisive positions. However, this is unlikely to happen, since nationalist rhetoric and marginalizing opponents, together with arrests and purges, have so far worked for Erdogan, at least in the short term. Thus, most probably, we are likely to see more repression against government opponents, more violence in the Kurdish-populated areas, as well as more nationalist and populist rhetoric. All this may help Erdogan in the short term, but it is likely to undermine Turkey’s internal stability further.

Rally Around the Flag: What to Expect from Erdogan’s Foreign Policy
How will all this influence Turkey’s foreign policy and its relations with neighbors? Obviously, the fact that someone as impulsive and unpredictable as Erdogan, will now wield almost unchecked power, can spell more complications on the international scene. In the late 19th century Ottoman Empire, which was going through a crisis, was known as “the sick man” of Europe. Erdogan, who in the past has picked fights with various neighbors and international actors, created a reputation for himself, which can be summed up as “the crazy man of Europe”, a leader, whose actions can be as radical and dangerous, as they can be unpredictable. It is enough to remember the whole story that involved the shooting down of the Russian airplane, or the tone, with which Erdogan has essentially blackmailed EU using the threat of unleashing migrants through the border, to understand why Erdogan is a tough leader to deal with for his international counterparts.
Of course, this image of unpredictable strongman that emerged around Erdogan, should not hide the reality behind it: Erdogan is a pragmatic and calculating leader, who realizes his own interests and limitations. Besides, he has to deal with leaders, who have been cultivating a similar “tough guy” image, like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin or Benjamin Netanyahu. No wonder that in relations with such important players as Russia or Israel, periods of staunch confrontations have been followed by attempts to mend relations. And, with all his anti-Western rhetoric, there is so far no indication that Erdogan is actually planning to pull Turkey out of NATO. In fact, relations with the USA, it seems have improved. Observers are noting that Trump and Erdogan share some important characteristics as politicians and this may have helped to establish a new relationship between the two leaders: Trump was quick to congratulate Erdogan with the victory in the constitutional referendum.
However, while Erdogan certainly can be pragmatic and compromising when it suits him, it is highly likely that internal politics will push him to be more aggressive on the international scene. Gaining popularity at home by being tough to the “enemies” abroad (and within) is one of the most common tricks successfully employed by autocratic leaders of all times. As the rift in Turkish politics is deepening, insecurity as a result of various terrorist attacks is growing and economy is facing serious trouble, Erdogan’s support at home is likely to fall. To prevent this from happening Erdogan may opt once again for what has so far worked well for him: foreign policy based on populist nationalism. Such policy may involve more xenophobic rants, like accusing the Dutch of “being Nazis”, but it may also include more serious steps, such as increased military intervention in Syria, military operations against Kurds inside and outside Turkey, rejection of the migration deal with the EU, and many other things. Even before the constitutional referendum, Erdogan and his allies vowed to re-introduce death penalty, which would automatically mean an end to EU entrance negotiations (which have been stalled anyway). Erdogan’s love affair with Turkish nationalism, which has so far brought him significant political dividends, is unlikely to be over soon.
What does this mean for Armenia? Obviously, if the Armenian-Turkish normalization process failed during much calmer times, it is extremely hard to imagine the political process going forward today. In the past, however, even when the political relations between the two countries stalled, still there was a continued active dialogue on the level of civil societies. Today, this dialogue is also threatened. Turkish civil society has found itself in a restrictive environment, very different from the one several years ago, when Turkish NGOs engaged in numerous projects with their Armenian counterparts. Besides, absence of realistic perspectives of Armenian-Turkish normalization could mean that international organizations and donors may lose interest toward funding Armenian-Turkish initiatives, and international funding has been a major factor, which allowed the Armenian-Turkish civil society dialogue to happen. Finally, the atmosphere of intolerance and repression which is on the rise in Turkish society, will make it more difficult for open-minded Turks to continue their work on dismantling taboos, especially when it comes to such sensitive issues as the memory of Armenian Genocide.