In a suspenseful referendum win, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan managed, with an 85 percent turnout, to edge out a 51.4 percent “yes” vote in the referendum, securing a seeming mandate to become the first executive president in the history of the Turkish Republic and make sweeping changes to the Constitution. Many have already warned of the increased dictatorial tendencies of the president. The new Constitution will legalize these tendencies, terminating the position of the prime minister. This will allow Erdogan to bypass the parliament and give him completely free rein to rule. What little checks and balances Turkey had have vanished. We are on the verge of a new one-man rule dictatorship in the Middle East.
As recently as 2011, the “Turkish model” was being lauded as the template during the Arab Spring, with its EU accession aspirations, liberal economic reforms, rapprochement with the Kurds, and support from a wide base of Turkey’s secular liberals. But, since then, we have seen Turkey spiral into serfdom through the age of the Gezi protests in May 2013, the corruption probes implicating Erdogan, his family, and his closest ministers in December 2013, and the “gift from God” coup of July 2016.
Thousands of journalists, academics, lawyers, police, members of the intelligence and military communities, doctors and medical staff, and teachers, amongst numerous other professionals, languish in prison. The “controlled coup,” as many have referred to it, led to the purge of some 140,000 bureaucrats (and many more in the private sector) and the detention of more than 40,000. Intelligence from the EU’s Intercom, head of Germany’s BND intelligence service, leaks from NATO commanders, the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee reports, and statements from the head of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee discredited Erdogan’s version of events surrounding the coup.
Turkey ranks as the world’s highest jailer of journalists, and hundreds of media outlets have been closed—including Turkey’s largest newspaper, Zaman. It has also been ranked as the worst country for media freedom by Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists. Thousands of businesses have been closed or are under the threat of closure, including two of Turkey’s largest holdings: Koza Ipek Group and Boydak Holdings. Akin Ipek, the former’s Chairman, like many thousands of Turks, has sought asylum outside the country.
Notably, in 2016, Turkey also surpassed Pakistan in the number of suicide bombings per year, coming in at number eight in the world. With bombings at Istanbul’s busy international airport, cosmopolitan Taksim, Old Istanbul, Ankara, and throughout the Southeast, Turkey has become a safe haven for terrorists. Not only is Turkey a stronghold corridor for those travelling to join ISIS—it is also a top source of recruits (along with Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Russia, and Jordan). Turkey’s support for terrorists became blatantly apparent with the discovery, in 2014, that the MIT (the state intelligence agency) was illegally transporting weapons to hardline Islamists in Syria. Can Dündar, the editor of the newspaper that leaked the story, was charged with treason. Dündar was sentenced to close to 6 years in jail and, fearing an unfair trial, he remains in exile in Germany.
These events leading up to the referendum cast serious doubt on the viability of electoral processes in Turkey. The “yes” campaign was heavily subsidized by the state. Both state media and pro-government private media gave a disproportionate amount of coverage to the “yes” campaign. “No” campaigners on the street were harassed, beaten, had their billboards and signs removed, and were labelled “traitors” in the media by politicians and commentators favorable to the AKP (Erdogan’s party).
It should also be noted that Turkey’s largest three cities—Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir—all voted no, a major blow to Erdogan’s credibility not seen in any election in 15 years. The vast majority of the yes vote came from the less educated-rural classes in the Anatolian heartlands. Ex-pats voted no in most countries—notably in the United States, the UK, Australia, and Israel.
Voting irregularities were also made apparent as Turkey’s Higher Electoral Council (YSK) changed rules while vote counting was still taking place, allowing upwards of 1.5 million unstamped votes and envelopes into the official tally and cutting off live streaming of the vote to opposition parties, among numerous other discrepancies. As I wrote these words nearly a full day after the voting had closed, the YSK website was still down. Many videos were leaked to social media, showing groups of individuals stamping numerous yes votes while being castigated by their peers.
That’s the bleak domestic situation inside the country. But there are terrible ramifications, too, with respect to Turkey’s global role. As a member of NATO and a candidate for EU membership, Turkey has always been seen by the West as an ally, however unreliable in recent years.
But with current spats and Erdogan’s
- reactionary “Nazi” rhetoric toward the EU in the lead-up to the referendum, after Turkish ministers were denied the ability to rally support in Europe’s major cities;
- threats of opening the “floodgates” for Syrian refugees to enter Europe in response to Brussels’s growing criticism of Erdogan’s crackdown on opponents;
- posturing with the United States about its approach to ISIS in light of Turkey’s demonstrated support for ISIS, purchase of petrol from the group, and their use of ISIS as a proxy to attack Kurds. Then Prime Minister Davutoğlu labelled ISIS simply “disgruntled youth”;
- and its ongoing negotiations with Russia and the purchase of S400 missile defense systems.
These actions are leading Turkey down a path to further global isolation and reprimand from NATO allies.
Initially, only Russia and a handful of Arab states contacted Erdogan following his referendum win, as did various jihadist groups. Late in the day, President Trump also called Erdogan to congratulate him on the result—yet, since that phone call, the White House has denied any endorsement of the results. The EU is waiting for reports from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Their preliminary findings concluded that “the referendum did not live up to Council of Europe standards.” Worryingly, Erdogan’s response to the OSCE was to propose that they should “know your limits,” suggesting the voting was consistent with “the most democratic election…ever seen in any Western country.” The main opposition party rejected the result and called for it to be annulled.
With his win apparently secured, Erdogan’s first order of business, as he suggested during his victory speech, seems to be bringing back the death penalty. This would automatically void Turkey’s EU accession process and further isolate Turkey in the international arena. Unfortunately, many Turks may, however, continue supporting Erdogan’s authoritarian and strong man approach, if it comes with a promise of solving the country’s internal issues, which include a slowdown in the economy, a serious drop in tourism, a flood of Syrian refugees, public-sector layoffs, and a seven-year peak unemployment rate.
So what can NATO—along with the United States—do, if it is indeed of a mind to do something? The United States needs a stable ally in the region to collaboratively challenge Assad and the human rights tragedy unfolding daily in Syria, to take on ISIS head-on by halting all means of finance, assistance, and recruitment into ISIS territories. The White House and NATO need to send a strong message, in no uncertain terms, to Erdogan that they need Turkey to remain a democratic and reliable ally for the region, to become, once again, the model secular Muslim country that it once was. The alternative is NATO questioning Turkey’s legitimacy in the alliance, and the United States looking for alternatives.