So Turkish citizens at home and abroad have decided they want a presidential system of government rather than a parliamentary one. This makes them more like France than Britain. So far so meh.
The change has been pushed by the incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who spent eleven years as prime minister. The change has been sold on the basis that Turkey is facing various threats – terrorism, separatists Kurds, refugees, a civil war next door – and without these changes things will only get worse. The campaign for change was run not merely on the basis that an executive president will be able to better manage these issues, but that Erdoğan was uniquely placed to deal with them personally. The result was not so much a reflection of Turkey’s desire to be ruled by a president as much as a desire to be ruled by Erdoğan himself.
I say this because the result surprised me. Erdoğan has always polled around the 51-52% mark and because of this many people believed the same split would occur in this referendum. But referenda are not elections. Elections are between two or more candidates and one must make a choice, often while holding one’s nose. A referendum usually has nothing to do with the individuals involved, and a fine example of this was Brexit: nobody wanted Nigel Farage as a Prime Minister and UKIP did not poll particularly well in General Elections. But people still voted to leave anyway, because the issue of EU membership was detached from ordinary party politics and the individuals who represent them. Initially I thought this might be the same in Turkey, only to be proven quite wrong when the results came out. It is looking obvious that the constitutional changes being voted on were inextricably linked to Erdoğan himself.
There’s nothing new here, and the number of parallels that can be drawn between Erdoğan and others is long. The most obvious is with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. He managed to sidestep presidential term limits in 2008 by moving to prime minister, taking his powers with him and installing a puppet in the form of Dmitry Medvedev as president, before the two swapped positions again in 2012. Since at least 2007, Putin has drummed up fears of Russia facing terrible threats, mainly in the form of alleged Western plots to encircle and then dismember Russia (possibly massacring all its people in the process), that he is uniquely placed to deal with. Putin has positioned himself such that Russia is Putin and vice versa, and without him the entire nation will be at the mercy of nefarious foreigners who (for some reason that is never quite explained) hate Russia and Russians. This sort of rhetoric plays well in Russia, and Putin is genuinely popular as a result (although how much, in the absence of a free press and a decent opposition, is open to question). Russians have always been ready to buy into the idea that foreigners want them destroyed and throughout their history they have been happy to be ruled by an authoritarian strongman and adopt a siege mentality, eating raw potatoes and shivering in the dark in defiance of their enemies who, if we’re honest, barely know they exist.
Erdoğan seems to be adopting a similar approach. He has ramped up the rhetoric against the West, promoting himself as the natural leader of the Islamic world and determined to make Turkey a force to be reckoned with. While Putin fancies himself as the next Catherine the Great, Erdoğan wants to be seen as the next Ataturk (or possibly an Ottoman Sultan). In other words, he’s a man in search of a legacy, and I’ve written about this before:
So what of Putin’s legacy? If Russia hangs onto Crimea, which it probably will, it might warrant a note in a history book somewhere (offered as much prominence as Khrushchev’s transfer of the peninsula in 1954, which few knew about until recently). But it’s hardly the stuff to warrant a mention alongside Katherine the Great or Ivan the Terrible. As I said at the beginning of this post, the modern-day politician (of which Putin is one, no matter how much he wishes he belonged to another era) just doesn’t think big enough to create a proper legacy. In the grand scheme of things, the annexation of Crimea is mere fiddling, and expensively at that.
Like his predecessors, Putin found even with seemingly unlimited political power, plenty of popular support, and no opposition that Russia was fiendishly difficult to change. It has not become the great power that he wanted, feared and respected by all. Addressing the issues of corruption, collapsing demographics, alcoholism, an economy dependent on oil and gas exports, and a largely conscripted military have all proven to be beyond Putin’s capabilities and probably anyone else’s as well. With the exception of the Crimean land grab, very little has changed in Russia since 2008 that is not directly attributable to the waxing and waning of the global economy and the oil price. There is a lot of inertia in a nation and they are often resistant to change (ask the French): Putin has proven that it takes a lot more than an authoritarian strongman with plenty of angry rhetoric to take a country in a new direction in the twenty-first century.
I suspect Erdoğan will find much the same thing. Indeed, I’d say his job is only just beginning. He’s put himself forward as the man who will solve the twin issues of Kurdish separatism and jihadist terrorism single-handedly and the nation has given their approval for him to do so. Well, good luck with that. All eyes on you, old chap. And unlike Putin he doesn’t have anywhere near the popular support that his Russian counterpart enjoys: his referendum scraped through 51% to 49% and the three largest cities voted No. If he isn’t delivering results soon he might find himself somewhat under siege himself. Sure, he can crack more heads and throw more people in jail and increase the hyperbole against the West and the half of the country that don’t support him, but that will only make his job more difficult. And he also faces the challenge of keeping Turkey’s economy growing while all this is going on. I suspect foreign investors are already nervous of putting money into a place where an all-powerful president is now railing against the EU and banging the Islamist drum ever-louder. Like Putin, much of his popularity will depend on how much he can keep ordinary Turks convinced their lives are getting better under his rule, and that for most people means jobs and money. It is true that much of Turkey is shit-poor and this will not be a difficult feat to pull off, but Turkey has no real history of hunkering down for a lengthy siege against imaginary outside enemies bent on their destruction and taking the lifestyle hit that this entails. By contrast, one would be forgiven for thinking Russians have to adopt this pose in order to feel fully alive.
My guess is not much will change in Turkey. Sure, opposition politicians will find their heads cracked and journalists will be chucked in jail and the state institutions will become thoroughly corrupted. But it’s not like this wasn’t happening before. What sort of freedom of expression did Communists or Islamists enjoy under the old regime? Not that I like either group, but there’s not been a fundamental shift here, merely the targets of the police batons have changed. The more Erdoğan tries to build his “legacy”, the more he will get bogged down in intractable problems that lie deep within Turkish society and he will begin to make a serious of blunders which, thanks to his lofty new position, will have his name all over them. Erdoğan doesn’t even have the luxury of being a new face that can expect a honeymoon period of a few years. As I said before:
There are limits to what people can do in office, and that is often driven by time. A two-term president in the US is usually in charge of a very tired administration in the final couple of years, regardless of how good they’ve been beforehand. Even New Labour’s supporters were glad to see the back of Tony Blair after 10 years as Prime Minister; Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street a tired shadow of the vibrant woman who had entered almost 12 years previously; and despite the economic boom and rise in living standards Australia enjoyed under 11 years of John Howard, the population felt they were in need of a change when they kicked him out. The optimum period in office for a leader in a modern democracy is approximately 7-8 years, after which their administration is plagued by various scandals, stumbling policies, tired rhetoric, and a population that has gotten tired of seeing the same damned face on the TV every night and could use a change. Even the Soviet leaders eventually departed, unable to fulfill any more promises or bring about change in the way they could when they first took over. With the exception of Stalin, few missed them.
Personally, I think he’s got a mountain to climb, one of his own making. If his current politics are anything to go by, he’ll do extremely well not to destroy the economy and usher in a lengthy period of stagnation and decline making him a figure in the vein of Hosni Mubarak. His idea that Turkey can adopt a belligerent attitude to the EU, US, as well as its regional neighbours such as Iran and Russia are delusional: a combination of any of those could make life extremely difficult for him, and if they really wanted to they could crush him pretty quickly. A mischievous foreign power could start arming the Kurds, for example, something nobody has been willing to do – yet. God knows what thoughts run through Trump’s head on any given day, but Turkey’s membership of Nato – even assuming the alliance survives – is becoming ever-more questionable, and if the country lurches towards Islamism some senator might find a bill to cease supplying Turkey with weapons to be a vote winner. Who will Erdoğan buy his equipment from then? Russia? China?
There is a chance Erdoğan turns Turkey into the next Venezuela or Iran, but frankly, who cares? Since the end of the Cold War Turkey’s strategic importance has dwindled, and other than the refugee issue (which can easily be solved if politicians so desire) the future of the West is not in any way dependent on Turkey. Sure, it’s a bit shit for the 49% who didn’t want this but it’s up to them to get themselves out of this mess. One of the big mistakes I think people are making, including a lot of Turks themselves, is believing Erdoğan’s support is made up exclusively of backward, conservative, uneducated peasants in the centre of the country. We heard the same remarks levelled at Leave voters after Brexit and Trump voters after the US presidential election. I suppose it is comforting to say that all of those who are educated, intelligent, and have been exposed to international systems all voted No in the Turkish referendum, but I have a hard time believing that 49% of the oh-so-clever part of the population lost to the 51% who are farmers who can’t read or write. The truth is that, like Trump and Leave voters, there will be plenty of Turks who are smart, educated, and well-travelled who – for various reasons – support Erdoğan. The Turks who voted No might want to find out who those people are and understand those reasons before throwing their toys out of the pram.
For me, the real danger lies in what I’ve written about before:
I hope I’m wrong about this, but Erdoğan may well have made the mistake moderate left wingers made time and time again: they purged the opposition of right-wingers but failed to notice the hardcore Communists sneaking up on their left flank, and by the time they realised the danger they were being stood against a brick wall facing a machine gun. In his hurry to neuter his political opponents and boost his support, Erdoğan may have done away with the very people he now needs to tackle extremism within Turkey and allowed extremists elements to infiltrate those institutions on which the survival of the Republic depends.
By far the biggest problem facing Turkey in the wake of this referendum is not Erdoğan but the one who succeeds him. It might be that, if people are fed up with him and want things to go back to how they were, all of these changes will be undone by the next guy who will reinstate the parliamentary system. That is the best thing that can happen. The worst thing that can happen is extremists think Erdoğan has not gone far enough in turning Turkey into an Islamist basket-case and get rid of him, and a headcase takes over with all these shiny new powers to play with. Then you’ll start seeing even Yes voters tossed in jail (or worse) by the thousand and they’ll learn a harsh lesson about the limits of presidential power. They’d not be the first ones.