‘EVET’ OR ‘HAYIR’?
I’ve been learning Turkish for the past six months and although my progress is slow, I know the difference between ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
So did the Turks who voted in last Sunday’s referendum and by not much more than two percentage points to transform Turkey’s system of government into an executive presidency.
In practice this means some scary things. It means the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, can run for election to the new role in 2019 and at the end of his five-year term, could run again. Turkey could be ruled by Erdogan until 2029 and his reassurance made to a CNN journalist, that he could drop dead at any time, is not very comforting.
Though Erdogan supporters rightly point out that both France and the US have executive presidencies, the “checks and balances” in their systems are stronger. Turkey’s presidency will bear some comparison to that of the US: the president will be able to sign presidential decrees without consulting parliament, though in the US a much more independent judiciary has been able to overturn some of Donald Trump’s wildest orders.
Turkey’s president will have sweeping powers to appoint his own men to most influential positions including the military, intelligence agencies, universities, and the civil service. Because Turkey is, like the US, very divided, this rightly terrifies Erdogan’s opponents who have already been the victims of a massive purge since the failed military coup last July: 168 generals have been arrested or sacked; the judiciary has lost 4,000 members; 6,300 academics have been sacked or jailed, several hundred because they signed a letter opposing counter-insurgency against the Kurds in the south-east; 160 media outlets have been closed; and thousands of social media users have been detained.
Erdogan is threatening to reinstate the death penalty which his AK Party abolished in 2004 as part of its bid to enter the EU, saying he will put the matter to a referendum if it is not approved by parliament. Such a move would be a humanitarian disaster and would end Turkey’s right to even enter EU accession talks.
Turkey is in total crisis — and this is also a crisis for Europe and the wider world. It marks the collapse of the most strategic bridge between East and West.
But this is the thing no one’s saying: We blew it up. And our main reason for blowing it up was that Turkey is largely Muslim.
Erdogan’s AK Party came to power in 2003 with the expressed aim of progressing Turkey’s EU accession. The death penalty was quickly abolished and massive economic reforms were instituted, by which the fortunes of the country began their amazing transformation.
“He delivered phenomenal economic growth and helped elevate the majority of the Turkish population to the middle class,” says Soner Cagatay of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy whose new book on Erdogan will be published this month.
So what did the EU do? Humiliated the Turks. In 2005 the Turkish foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, was left waiting on the tarmac of Ankara airport to see if he could fly to Luxembourg to commence formal accession talks. France and Austria went ballistic, promising their populations they would hold referendums on Turkey’s membership before allowing it to join the EU.
The aftershocks of this continuing rejection were still intense when I visited Istanbul for a conference organised by the European Parliament 10 years later. Turkey was, after all, a founding member of the Council of Europe in 1949 and made its formal accession application in 1987.
No other country has been left waiting in this way, even countries which are less developed than Turkey in many ways, such as Romania and Bulgaria. Erdogan’s supporters are angry at this rejection. They look to him to express their anger and make them feel better about themselves.
“They made us wait at the door for 54 years.” he thundered at a rally this week. “We have tried hard to accept all the requirements of the EU but the EU has not kept its promises.”
Erdogan’s progressive agenda began to go off piste from the time of the EU rebuff but the final catalyst for Sunday’s result was surely the failed military coup last year. We stayed up all night watching the internet in horror as the State’s military attacked its own people.
Since its foundation by a general, Kemal Ataturk, in 1922, Turkey has been ruled by a military which has wrested power back from democracy at will. When I first went to Turkey after I left school, I walked into a state run by armed and much-braided soldiers in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup.
Last summer, the people had had too much of a taste of freedom and affluence and they stood up to the tanks. But many are left with more than a suspicion that Nato must have known about a planned coup orchestrated by high-ranking military personnel in the second largest army in the organisation.
CNN even carried an interview in the wake of the coup in which a retired senior CIA officer, Robert Baer, said he’d “been involved in coups in the past” and had been discussing the prospect of a coup in Turkey with senior military in recent times, though they said none was planned.
Turkey has never been “free” in the Western sense of the word. It has been secular, yes, but that’s hardly the point if it’s authoritarian, is it? Islam is not the issue here at all. What is happening, as the Economist rightly points out this week, is a slide back to the authoritarianism of the 1980s.
But this time NATO is not in charge. Where will Turkey look for its allies now? To Russia or the Gulf states?
Erdogan has said this week that Turkey isn’t interested in Europe anymore and he may be making the right decision because he has diagnosed our problem correctly: We have a “crusader mentality”. We shut ourselves into what Erdogan called “a Christian club”.
It doesn’t matter anymore to a majority of Turks that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, examining the manner in which the referendum was run, found a failure to achieve any balance in campaigning, and the sudden inclusion of 1.5m unstamped votes. Turkey has been kicked in the face so many times that it is going rogue.
Ironically, it is those happiest with the “Christian club” who will shudder most at the prospect that Turkey might curtail its role as host to some 3m refugees.
But it is our fault. Ten years ago we had a chance to build what Erdogan called “an alliance of great civilisations” and we blew it.
We blew it up. And our main reason for blowing it up was that Turkey is largely Muslim