Turkey: on the brink of a systemic suicide

If ‘holding your breath together’ would apply to large masses of concerned people, it is that rare moment.

On Sunday some 55 million voters in Turkey will go to the ballotboxes in a referendum which will define the country’s identity, and future, for many years to come; and the result, regardless of the outcome, will drag it into an even deeper crisis.

The race for the referendum is, disregarding the propaganda of all sides, neck and neck. And, all indications are, confirming those who argue that Erdoğan has always been in for winning, that the ‘yes’ side is on the rise, as days go by.

This is the point of tremendous rupture that 15-year long story of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) under the undisputed leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has brought it to.

After a turbulent period, marked by initial economic success and a long series of social benefit reforms, but also by an acrimonious and steady struggle for power, Erdoğan seems determined not to let go of his lifetime ambition to establish a system, in which he wishes to be seen as the ‘supreme leader’, a sole decision-maker on all issues – be them on macro or micro level – without the burden of accountability and transparency.

”The new system has no parallel in the modern world. It eviscerates the power of both the legislative and judicial branches of the government in favor of the executive, which will be concentrated in the hands of one person’ wrote Henri Barkey, – Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and an expert on Turkish affairs – in an article for Washington Post recently.

He went on:

‘The proposed constitutional changes have been tailored to Erdogan. The hitherto nonpartisan president would now be allowed to lead his party even as he runs the country. He would appoint cabinet members who would be accountable only to him and not to parliament. He would have the option of appointing one or more vice presidents, who, again, would not report to lawmakers. He would also appoint all senior civil servants and would have the power to directly and indirectly select almost all judges on the high judicial bodies, including the constitutional court.

 ”There are other hidden gems in the constitutional proposal. One is a tiny two-word amendment to the powers of the State Supervisory Board, a presidential body that oversees the activities of public and private bodies, including unions, business chambers, football clubs and non-profit organizations. The amendment would give the board prosecutorial powers over these institutions, meaning that the president would have wide authority to police civil society.”

 ‘‘And though the president would be limited to two five-year terms starting in 2019, when the changes take effect, a loophole would allow him to win a third mandate if national elections were held before the end of the president’s second term. The new constitution, if approved, would almost automatically allow the incumbent to run for a third term. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that Erdogan could have an additional 14 years at the helm starting two years from now.”


After 15 years, Erdoğan has managed to keep a majority of voters convinced that, if Turkey needs stability under a tough, strong, unrelenting leadership, he is the most suited choice.

He kept his stamina intact, and with a lot of luck on his side, he used his ‘wise guy’ skills to steer the fragmented opposition in a fierce battle with each other over identity politics, as he responded to the international challenges with a policy based on inventing crisis that adversaries feel forced to negotiate with him.

At home, while he expanded his control of the state apparatus to maximum, he managed to minimize his concept of democracy solely to the ballotbox, excluding all else – mainly by (ab)using religion as a tool to cement power among grassroots.

This happened at the cost of dividing Turkey into two halves: a roughly 55 % which favor a political rule based on nationalism with strong Sunni ingredients, and the other 45 % with secular leanings, divided withing by urban non-pious, Alevi and Kurdish identities which all are against what they see as Islamisation of Turkey.

This division has now turned Turkey into a battlefield, where the result will be equal to the result if it were chosen as a laboratory where Islamism, polluted by profound corruption, would still be seen as compatible with democracy.

Much of what happened in Turkey in the past decade, marked by power-driven tactics and abuses of power, has been about just that: where, in terms of morality, the surging pious middle class that the AKP has ‘produced’ would choose be. Would it favour a management format that resembles that of Azerbaijan, or a Turkic Central Asian republic, or would it follow the example of Tunisia – however fragile it might be – to prefer a path on which a complex society would go for a risk investment for a peaceful coexistence?

Regardless of all explosive, externally destructive rhetoric which Erdoğan with his fierce temperament has remained responsible of, this is, at the essence, what it is all about. And this makes next Sunday’s choice a ground-breaking moment which will have consequences far beyond Turkey’s borders.


A key point is that the referendum will be held under a strict State of Emergency. The demolishing of the structures of Turkish administrative system having begun even before the last summer’s bloody coup attempt, the country is, nine months after the military uprising, socially and economicially tarnished. The massive purge and wave of arrests turned the national stage into a wreck.

”Although hard numbers are difficult to come by, the sheer scale of the purge is staggering, with approximately 47,155 arrested and over 100,000 detained so far, according to a recent statement from Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu” wrote Howard Eissenstat, a Fellow at the Project for Middle East Democracy (POMED).

”More than 125,000 people have been sacked from civil service positions. Tens of thousands of teachers have had their licenses revoked. The day after the attempted coup, the government suspended nearly 3,000 judges and prosecutors, with more removed in the following months as the purge expanded. It was obvious that the lists of those targeted for suspension had already been drawn up. In the judiciary, as elsewhere within the state, the coup provided the AKP with cover to complete a merger of state and party which had been underway for many years.”

 ”Assets of those detained are routinely frozen. Hundreds of businesses purportedly owned by Gülenists have been seized. The government makes no attempt to demonstrate individual wrongdoing in the vast majority of these cases; vague “affiliation” is enough.  When a court ruling recently released 21 journalists and others in one case (after many months in pretrial detention), the chief prosecutor objected; by evening all were back in jail.  The three judges who heard the case were then themselves suspended from their positions.  Perhaps most alarming, torture has once again become widespread.”

”In a sense, the coup attempt and the purge that has followed represent an ugly last chapter to the consolidation of power under the AKP. The press and judiciary—the very institutions that are meant to check abuses of power—are now under ever fuller ruling party control. Avenues for peaceful opposition are closed and criminalized. The basic structures of a once vibrant civil society are being systematically dismantled.”


What if Erdoğan wins, even by a marginal ‘yes’?

In its latest note of alert, Human Rights Watch summarized it as such:

Two changes would take effect immediately. The president would have increased authority over the body that administers the judiciary and controls the appointment of judges and prosecutors, and the prohibition against the president having a formal party affiliation would be lifted. The courts in Turkey are already under political influence and these changes would further reduce judicial independence.”

”Further changes would take effect following presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for November 2019, when the role of prime minister would be abolished. The president would be given sole power to appoint or dismiss vice presidents, ministers, and high state officials. The president could legislate by decree and secure the presidency’s budget without parliamentary approval being a precondition. The president would have the power to dissolve parliament and trigger parliamentary and presidential elections. The president would be able to run for two five-year terms and, in the event that parliament were dissolved before the end of the second term, a third.”

”The Turkish government has framed the referendum as a victory for democracy”, wrote Eissenstat.

”It is not.  To be sure, the constitutional system currently in place in Turkey is in bad need of reform.  It suffers from inadequate protections for individual liberties, weak protections for minorities and a marked inability to check government abuses or protect judicial independence.  But the referendum would resolve none of these issues, and exacerbate many of them.”

Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador in Ankara who is currently a Visiting Scholar at Carnegie Europe, commented in a fresh analysis that, ‘The outcome of the April 16 referendum will make little difference.”

”If the yes camp prevails, Turkey’s leadership will be comforted, and the country’s rule-of-law architecture will remain at its current very low level for many years to come. If the no side wins, emergency decrees will stay in place, and a de facto executive presidency will remain the rule. In addition, the government might call a snap parliamentary election in the hope of reinforcing its current majority. In either case, Turkey’s religious-conservative societal concept will prevail, and the country’s democrats will suffer.’

”The consequences for Turkey are simple” according to Henri Barkey.

”A ‘no’ vote could potentially unleash a period of profound uncertainty and instability. By contrast, a ‘yes’ vote would institutionalize a populist authoritarian system that risks cataclysmic collapse, similar to what is currently happening in Venezuela, except that Turkey is far more important. In either case, there would be a crisis. A ‘no’ vote would result in an immediate shock to Erdogan and his AKP, potentially allowing for a search for alternative leadership. A ‘yes’ vote would simply postpone the reckoning until much later.”

I agree fully with Barkey’s conclusion.

Crisis continues no matter what the result, while Turkey remains face to face with a legal, administrative rubble as a result of Erdoğan’s policies of power concentration.

What about the relations with its negotiating and main trading partner, the EU, in post-referendum?

Pierini saw three trends coming together, more or less, since Erdoğan was elected as President in the summer of 2014.

”First, Turkey’s economic successes are being impaired as the rule of the arbitrary takes over, and the public is increasingly feeling the domestic consequences. Second, the country’s recent foreign policy evolution risks making Turkey a pawn on Russia’s continental chessboard, where Moscow’s game is distinctly anti-EU and anti-NATO. Third, the tactics of constantly bullying the EU, a major political, economic, and social partner, for domestic political purposes have now reached their limits, especially concerning future relations between Turkish and EU leaders.”

He concluded:

”These developments leave EU leaders with a decision to make on both the style and the substance of future relations with Turkey. To maintain an active relationship, EU and Turkish leaders might agree on a package of policies: modernizing the EU-Turkey Customs Union, which has brought immense benefits to both sides and for which the European Commission has submitted a modernization proposal to the EU Council of Ministers; cooperating on counterterrorism; and implementing the refugee assistance deal to which Brussels and Ankara agreed in March 2016. Such a package might seem rather thin, but if accepted by all EU governments, it might offer a realistic way forward…”

”EU leaders have no appetite to sever all ties with Turkey and ignore the aspirations of liberal-minded Turks, but Turkey’s interference in Europe’s political life has reached clear limits.”

Yet, Europe’s strained leaders will have to choose between a ruler with an iron-hand, who they may perceive in many aspects as a symbol of stability, or continued confrontation over basic human rights and democratic values.

I agree with Barkey once more, when he lays out his assessment:

”Paradoxically, the same European and U.S. leaders who are now being maligned by the Turkish authorities are afraid of the potential instability a rejection of the new system would engender. They are, therefore, quietly rooting for Erdogan to win with a convincing majority.”

Needless to say, be that a yes or no, the result will see Turkey in an even deeper turmoil.

It has already become a ‘party state’, surrounded by an oligarchy feeding off of a system out of checks and balances.

Kurdish issue is unresolved, as many other social demands remain unanswered.

Unlike, for example, Tunisia, Turkey lags far behind with a constitution that is failing to meet the needs of the day.

And it is rudderless after a series of severely erratic decisions in its foreign policy, making it part of the problem rather than a solution.

Gareth Jenkins, is the one that put it in his recent analysis astutely:

”Despite the delusions of Erdoğan’s hardcore supporters, Turkey is not strong enough to flourish in isolation. Indeed, Erdoğan’s relentless purges are accelerating the hemorrhaging of the country’s human resources – and further reducing its ability to resolve its own problems, much less shape the future of its region.”

‘Autocrats have a habit of remaining in power long after rationality suggests that they should have gone. However, there currently appears little prospect of Erdoğan realizing his ambition of remaining in office for at least the next decade. A “Yes” vote on April 16 would not be regarded as legitimate, either internationally or by his domestic opponents, although it would prolong his political life expectancy. A “No” vote would shorten it. But, whatever the outcome, Turkey is unlikely to enjoy stability – much less peace, prosperity and prestige – while Erdoğan remains in power.”










About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
This entry was posted in AKP, Erdogan, EU, Gülen, Kurdish peace process, Media, Politics, Turkey. Bookmark the permalink.

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