Turkey’ s Erdogan perfects new authoritarians’ playbook


Turkey’ s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rejected criticism by monitors who say the referendum campaign fell short of international standards, the BBC reports:

The observers said Mr Erdogan had been favoured by an “unequal” campaign. In the referendum, voters gave sweeping new powers to the president. The narrow vote was ruled valid by Turkey’s electoral body, despite claims of irregularities by the opposition.

“The 16 April constitutional referendum took place on an unlevel playing field and the two sides of the campaign did not have equal opportunities,” the monitors, affiliated with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said in preliminary findings on Monday. “Voters were not provided with impartial information about key aspects of the reform, and civil society organizations were not able to participate.”

No level playing field

“The playing field was never level,” said Semih Idiz, a Turkish political analyst and columnist who writes for the al-Monitor news site. “All the state’s infrastructure and funds went to promote the yes vote,” he said.

Erdogan’s victory could spark radical change inside Turkey and damage Ankara’s relations with the European Union, analyst Pelin Ayan Musil told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal.

“It will give a lot of power to the president. He will be able to do many things: dissolve the parliament, appoint judges … So, institutionally, yes, [it is a radical change]. In terms of societal change, though, Turkey was already very divided. And this result [shows] the division in a [clearer] way.

With purges still ongoing in the wake of the failed coup of 2016, and government continuing with its widespread demonization of political opponents, Turkey will remain in a state of crisis for years to come, said Soner Cagaptay, senior fellow at the US-based Washington Institute.

He’ll become president of only half of the country,” he said in a phone interview before the referendum. “The other 50 percent will never fall under his rule and, to me, that’s a recipe for long-term disaster.”

The 2016 botched coup attempt and the Islamist counter-revolution did not just save Erdogan, it also placed Islamism, a virulently anti-Western ideology, at the heart of Turkish politics, said Cagaptay.

Other observers believe the referendum result represents victory for Islamists in a 60-year ideological struggle with secular Kemalism.

“Eighty percent of voters in Turkey vote according to ideology. That is, they will cast their votes in this referendum without knowing its content,” said Murat Gezici, head of the Gezici polling company.

“If ‘Yes’ emerges victorious, they’ll only find out what they said yes to by experience. Only then will they face the problems,” he predicted.

Erdogan has shown that he is the vanguard of a new breed of semi-authoritarians that includes Viktor Orban of Hungary and potentially Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland, argues Noah Feldman, a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University:

These aren’t your grandfather’s would-be fascists, who might have come to power by election but then planned to abolish them and assume total dictatorial power. Instead, the new authoritarians’ playbook calls for maintaining regular elections and the outward forms of multiparty democracy, while in fact consolidating power and cooking the books just enough to keep winning the popular vote. Erdogan, like his emulators and colleagues, has weakened the free press and free speech without completely shutting down all alternative political voices.

The deeply flawed vote has left the president with little democratic legitimacy, notes Nate Schenkkan, Project Director of Nations in Transit at Freedom House:

Erdoğan today said that the next referendum could be to reintroduce the death penalty, and cast Sunday’s vote as a rebuke of the West. With his domestic legitimacy weakened, he will lean more and more on the notion that Turkey is under threat from external enemies, as he did throughout the last month of the campaign.

“Since 2013, Turkey has been living through a series of deepening crises that are largely of Erdoğan’s making,” Schenkkan adds. “The unfortunate outcome of this flawed referendum is that the current crisis will now grow even more profound.’

The referendum result “represents a remarkable aggrandizement of Erdogan’s personal power and quite possibly a death blow to vital checks and balances in the country,” said Professor Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy..

The powers-that-be in Ankara should be chastened by the “no” camp’s ability to force a stunningly close result despite the full weight of the state working against them. But Erdogan may not hear the warning, adds Eissenstat, an associate professor at St. Lawrence University.

“Given the suppression of the ‘no’ campaign, the fact that much of the [pro-Kurdish] Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) leadership is in jail, and that the government’s effective control of the media ensured a massive imbalance in campaign coverage, the ‘no’ campaign did very well. For Erdogan, a narrow win is still a win. He is unlikely to either slow his consolidation of power or reach out in meaningful ways to the opposition. He promised a ‘yes’ vote would result in more stability and a return of economic growth. I suspect that neither of these things is true.”

Omer Taspinar, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, pointed to the significance of the “Yes” camp’s defeat in Turkey’s three biggest cities — including Istanbul, where Erdogan was once mayor.

“The fact that Erdogan failed to win Istanbul for the first time since 1994 is particularly important sign that even some of the urbanized AKP supporters have deserted him,” he told the Washington Post. “The result also shows that a united front against Erdogan has a chance of providing an alternative. The division of the opposition parties is a major liability for Turkish democracy. A galvanized opposition should start by seeking unity.”

Erdogan’s razor-thin victory is a good thing rather than a recipe for prolonged political chaos, argues Cagaptay, author of “The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey.”

“I think it’s actually the ‘best’ outcome. If Erdogan had lost, this would have unleashed a period of instability as he would have gone for a rerun of the vote as many analysts predicted he would, and if he had won with a wide margin, he would ‘gone off the charts,’ becoming completely authoritarian. Now, his wings have been clipped and he has been humbled. This is the crisis of Turkey now: Erdogan has become the most powerful Turk, but while half of the country adores him, the other half loathes him.”

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