Turkey ‘will never be the same’ after referendum


On April 16, Turkish voters will be casting votes in the most consequential referendum of modern Turkish history, notes Henri J. Barkey, the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are urging Turks to vote “yes” to constitutional changes that will change Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential one, he writes for the Washington Post:

The new system has no parallel in the modern world. ….The consequences for Turkey are simple: 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.

Given the nearly insurmountable odds the No vote campaign has faced in getting its message out, the opposition complains it is an unfair contest, the Financial Times adds:

Throughout the campaign there has often been a blurring of the state and the AKP, which is by far the wealthiest party. Municipal resources have been diverted for AKP rallies in several cities, according to the opposition. The vote will be taking place under a state of emergency imposed in the wake of a failed July coup. More than 100,000 people have since been jailed, dismissed or suspended. The government has also muzzled what could have been the most effective opposition, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic (HDP) party, by jailing its leader, Selahattin Demirtas, and other senior members.

“It’s not really a horse race if there’s only one horse running,” said a western diplomat.

Critics contend that Erdogan’s referendum is a method for entrenching his authoritarian rule, the Washington Post reports, adding that after a failed coup attempt against Erdogan last summer, the Turkish government embarked on a widespread purge of the country’s bureaucracy and civil society.

Turkey’s independent media has also faced curbs. Prosecutors said lasy week that they were seeking jail terms of up to 43 years for 19 journalists and employees of the opposition daily Cumhuriyet, AFP reports:

According to the P24 press freedom website, there are 141 journalists behind bars in Turkey, most of whom were detained as part of the state of emergency imposed after the failed coup.

The government’s expanded powers after the failed coup included mass arrests and a wide-ranging purge of academia, the news media and civil society, The Times adds.

 Islamist ‘passive revolution’?

The actions of Erdogan and his AKP government reflect the aggressive propagation of a nationalistic Islamic ideology,” says Turkish analyst Gulistan Gurbey, a visiting lecturer at the Free University Berlin.

Erdogan’s AKP Islamists have been pursuing a Gramscian “passive revolution,” says analyst Mehmet Yanmış.

[AKP] ideology considers that in order to establish an Islamic system, a top-down change of society by the state is necessary. But the desire to transform society through the sole use of its political apparatus has often failed in practice. …. It doesn’t seem possible to raise a “pious generation” purely by ignoring the dominant values of society, changing the school curriculum, opening Qur’an courses, semi-religious schools and state-sponsored Islamic NGOs.

Turkey’s Islamic revolution is a political movement that has so far failed to have a strong enough social base, he writes for Open Democracy.

Journalist and author Andrew Finkel told Al Jazeera that Erdogan’s recent spats with Europe play well to the electorate back home. “It’s clearly an attempt to escalate the conflict,” said Finkel (left), a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Current polls show an even split between Erdogan’s supporters and opponents, which, combined with concerns over whether the vote itself will be fair, have created profound uncertainty over the referendum’s outcome, the Bipartisan Policy Center adds:

While observers worry that if Erdogan succeeds Turkey could descend into de facto dictatorship, many also remain concerned about the chaos that could follow in the wake of a defeat. Please join us for a discussion of the outcome of the upcoming referendum and its implications for Turkey, the region, and U.S.-Turkey relations.

Eric Brown  |  Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute Aykan Erdemir, Ph.D. | Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies Ragip Soylu  |  Columnist, Daily Sabah Gonul Tol, Ph.D.  | Founding Director, Center for Turkish Studies, The Middle East Institute Moderated by: Nicholas Danforth  |  Senior Policy Analyst, BPC

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