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The Curious Optimism of Turkey-watchers Outside Turkey

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Erdogan delivers a speech in Ankara, Turkey, May 2, 2017.
Erdogan delivers a speech in Ankara, Turkey, May 2, 2017.Credit: Burhan Ozbilici/AP

This April, Turkey’s fledgling democracy received a final death blow. Never a liberal democracy per se, 51 per cent of the population voted to grant President Recep Tayyip Erdogan additional powers that will all but eradicate checks and balances to his rule. 

International observers called the election unfree and unfair, citing voting irregularities and the ongoing state of emergency. The yes camp used state apparatus extensively to canvass support and used the country’s subdued media to air its propaganda.

Strangely, Turkey’s leading intellectual elite outside of Turkey are somewhat optimistic. They claim that all is not lost. Despite the uneven playing field, Erdogan only won 51 per cent, hardly a compelling win. For Gonul Tol of Washington’s Middle East Institute, the results show that Turkish democracy “still has a pulse” because Erdogan now needs to move to the centre to prevent the polarization of society. Similarly, Ziya Meral of Britain’s Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research contends that Erdogan’s narrow victory will humble Erdogan and strengthen the opposition.

Meanwhile, Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Affairs holds that Erdogan, “cannot impose his vision in full because Turkey is a mélange of social, political, ethnic, and religious groups.” Veteran journalist and Wilson Center fellow Amberin Zaman, is of the view that Erdogan’s majority was not enough to constitute a popular mandate to do whatever he pleases.

These wildly optimistic positions by Turkish observers, whose analyses are usually astute, represents either naivety or wishful thinking. There are plenty of instances when it was expected that Erdogan will act with restraint, but instead was more bellicose. There is no reason to believe that he will be any different now.

After the botched July 2016 coup all political parties condemned it outright. Many hoped that this would herald a period of healing and political conciliation. However, within days Turkey was under a state of emergency with large-scale purges within not only the security establishment but other governmental institutions as well as civil society groups and the media. Soon Erdogan was labeling the opposition terrorists who sided with the coup. A few months later, leading members of the Kurdish oriented and liberal Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) were arrested on trumped up charges of terrorism after their parliamentary immunities were taken away, a deliberate attempt to extinct a parliamentary political party that millions had voted for.

Supporters of the 'No' camp protest the results of Turkey's nationwide referendum, Istanbul, April 17, 2017.Credit: BULENT KILIC/AFP

Even during the run up to April’s referendum, Erdogan had no qualms to liken the opposition to coup plotters and terrorists. On one occasion Erdogan decided to visit a No campaign tent. Commentators rushed to call the move a conciliatory gesture, only to have their hopes dashed the next day after Erdogan once again likened the opposition to terrorists.

Currently, Israel and Turkey are enjoying improved relations after the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident. Just as one might have thought Erdogan might try to simmer his anti-Israel temperament, Erdogan lamented the possibility that Jerusalem might pass legislation silencing the Azan call to prayer, in terms which were not even close to being diplomatic.

Erdogan is a politician who plays the identity card through in through. He once commented that Turkey is a country divided between White Turks and Black Turks, a reference to the division between the traditional western secular elite and the pious or socially conservative Anatolian population. He added, “Your brother Erdogan is a black Turk”.

Erdogan’s partisan position is demonstrated in nearly every speech or rally he addresses. Not content to criticize the opposition, denounces their very legitimacy. He publically recites the bismillah, the Islamic praise to God, before making a speech. He waves the rabia, the four fingered hand wave in solidarity with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, in front of his supporters.

Erdogan’s partisanism is supplemented with a majoritarian conception of politics. For him, democracy is a winner takes all game whereby the victorious, regardless how slim the majority, may shape the future of the country to his liking. Erdogan claims the majority, but is only interested in serving his core supporters.

After April’s referendum, Erdogan and the AKP simply dismissed or ignored appeals against the fraudulent election and are full steam ahead in the process of endowing Erdogan with his new powers. And there were additional rounds of purges targeted especially against the police force and the judiciary. Wikipedia was blocked, journalists remain in jail, and the HDP lies in tatters while the opposition bickers amongst itself. Erdogan, of course, remains as firebrand and partisan as ever.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, delivers a speech during a rally of supporters a day after the referendum, outside the Presidential Palace, in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, April 17, 2017.Credit: Burhan Ozbilici/AP

There is a saying in Turkey that roughly translates as 'until you are dead there is still hope'. Perhaps the reality that Turkey’s democracy received its final deathblow is too depressing for Turkish liberal intellectuals to admit. Indeed, it is hard to accept that post-referendum Turkey is no longer a democracy in crisis but a democracy no more. It may be even more difficult to accept this when Erdogan’s margin of victory was so narrow, even fraudulent. 

Post-referendum Turkey is a tragedy for anyone inclned to democracy. Turkey’s liberal commentators need to wake up and smell what is brewing.

Simon A. Waldman is visiting fellow at King’s College London and the co-author (with Emre Caliskan) of the recently published The New Turkey and Its DiscontentsFollow him on Twitter: @simonwaldman1

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