Erdogan ascends to the Sultan’s throne

Thanos Davelis, Senior Research Associate, HALC

The historic referendum in Turkey is over. Following a bruising campaign that saw the Yes — “Evet” — camp prevail with the narrowest of leads, President Erdogan is now ready to climb the final steps leading to the “sultan’s throne.” His ascent to absolute power, however, has left Turkey deeply polarized and isolated. The election results are under heavy criticism from European election monitors, Turkish opposition parties, and protesters in the three largest Turkish cities that rejected Erdogan’s constitutional amendments. Tensions with Europe are at unprecedented heights as a result of Erdogan’s tirades directed at European leaders during the campaign. Unfortunately, far from delivering peace, stability, and strong leadership, Erdogan’s victory will only exacerbate problems in Turkey and abroad.

The election result has exposed the deep divisions within Turkey. Erdogan — who labeled anyone supporting the “No” camp a supporter of terrorism — won the constitutional reform vote by taking a mere 51.41 percent of the ballots with a margin of 1.3 million votes. A look at the electoral map suggests the great divide in Turkish society. The Western oriented urban centers and the Kurdish populated southeast largely voted “No”, while rural, conservative Turkey, often referred to as “the heartland,” supported Erdogan’s push for more power.

The result is marred in controversy, however, as thousands of people in Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara took to the streets in protest against the result following allegations of voter fraud. There are demands that the vote be annulled. The CHP, the main opposition party, is claiming that 2.5 million votes cast are “problematic” due to irregularities such as a lack of official stamps, or unsealed envelopes. Bulent Tezcan, deputy leader of the CHP warned on Monday that “only one decision” could calm the nation — “for the referendum to be canceled by the Supreme Election Board.” European criticism was much sharper, criticizing Ankara’s conduct in the run-up to the election as well. In their preliminary report, the joint mission by the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said:

“The 16 April constitutional referendum took place on an unlevel playing field and the two sides of the campaign did not have equal opportunities. Voters were not provided with impartial information about key aspects of the reform, and civil society organizations were not able to participate. Under the state of emergency put in place after the July 2016 failed coup attempt, fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed.”
Protesters marched in Istanbul on Tuesday in support of a petition seeking annulment of a referendum that approved an expansion of powers for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. CreditBulent Kilic/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Rather than addressing these serious allegations and reaching out to the opposition to attempt to heal Turkey’s divisions, Erdogan is continuing down the same path that has brought Turkey to the brink. His response to the Council of Europe and the OSCE’s preliminary report exemplifies his detachment from democratic values. Speaking to a crowd of supporters, Erdogan decried what he called Europe’s “crusader mentality,” and rejected criticism over the referendum, saying “We will not see it, we will not hear it, we will not accept it.” His outright dismissal of criticism is coupled with an extension of Turkey’s state of emergency and reports that dozens of members of Turkey’s political opposition were arrested in raids on Wednesday in a crackdown on protesters questioning the legitimacy of the referendum.

Erdogan once said democracy is like a train, you can leave it once you reach your stop. Erdogan is no longer on that train. With the referendum, Erdogan has managed to manipulate the democratic process to the point where, eventually, he will no longer need it. Steven A. Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations points out the following about Erdogan and authoritarians like him:

“Besides the fact that authoritarians like to situate their nondemocratic practices in legal systems so they can claim ‘rule of law,’ Erdogan needs the legal cover to pursue his broader transformative agenda. And the only way it seems that he can accomplish that is by making himself something akin to a sultan.”

Like the sultans of the early Ottoman Empire — who killed all their immediate rivals upon assuming the throne to ensure their rule — Erdogan is eliminating every vestige of political opposition en route to achieving his vision of an all powerful presidency. So much for Erdogan’s promise that a yes vote will usher in a period of stability and prosperity.

What we are seeing instead is the end of Turkey’s democratic aspirations and a rapid acceleration away from the West.