When (according to official figures) 51 per cent of Turkish voters voted in April’s referendum to extend the executive and legislative powers of the president, effectively signalling the end of the parliamentary regime as established in 1923, Turkish and international news hailed the result as ‘historic’. An article in Foreign Policy magazine entitled ‘RIP Turkey 1923-2017’ even went as far as to suggest that Turkey as we have known it is now ‘dead’.
In fact, there was nothing particularly historic about the referendum. Since 2014, when the president was elected for the first time by popular vote rather than by parliament, Turkey has been governed by a de facto presidential system. The referendum was the last step required to legalise the status quo. A ‘yes’ was required and the government ensured that it was achieved.
The referendum campaign was, in the words of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) report, conducted on an ‘unlevel playing field’. Its report underlined several reasons for this critical assessment.
One was the explicit rhetoric of public officials that tarnished the ‘no’ campaign and identified ‘no’ voters as ‘terrorists’ and ‘traitors’. Lack of media coverage of the ‘no’ campaign was another. The state of emergency, which has been renewed every three months since the 15 July coup attempt last year, was also underlined as a backdrop of violation of freedom of assembly and expression.
However, the situation was much worse than the obstruction of a free and liberal referendum process. What the OSCE report did not, or could not, state was the reign of fear in the country.
President Erdogan’s regime has converted state measures designed to tackle the coup-plotters into a purge and witch-hunt against each and every vocal dissident in Turkey. Facebook posts, Twitter timelines, coffee-house chats, magazine articles, blogs and columns have been increasingly criminalised and become the so-called ‘proof’ of the accused’s ‘support of terrorism’.
In the run up to the referendum voices critical of the regime were systematically silenced. Several MPs of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, including the co-leaders, have been imprisoned. One of them, Selahattin Demirtas, had been a presidential candidate in the 2014 elections and his party based its June 2015 general election campaign on the anti-Erdogan slogan ‘We will not allow you to be president’. Another strong opposition voice, the daily Cumhuriyet, has seen its editorial board members and columnists imprisoned.
Despite all of this, the people of Turkey refused to give Erdogan and his party the clear mandate they had been expecting. Almost all metropolitan cities, including Istanbul, Ankara, Diyarbakir and Izmir, voted ‘no’. This is the first time in the modern history of Turkey that voting in the metropolitan cities has gone against the overall result of an election or referendum.
When it became clear that the ‘no’ was doing much better than the regime had expected, the Supreme Election Board (SEB) initially stopped sending the counting results to the opposition parties, and then made an unprecedented decision: it accepted votes that lacked an official stamp.
These two actions guaranteed a victory for ‘yes’ and the regime supporters quickly took to the streets to claim it. The OSCE report described the practices of the SEB as ‘undermining an important safeguard and contradicting the law’.
When ‘no’ voters realised that the referendum was being hijacked, they also took to the streets and called on the main opposition centre-left Republican People’s Party (RPP) leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, not to accept this illegal act. Kilicdaroglu’s speech, however, was nothing more than a call for calm – he urged people not to take to the streets at all but wait for the party to use legal channels to challenge the status quo.
The referendum reinforces the argument that the main opposition in Turkey has served only to legitimise and reproduce the authoritarian regime. Not only does it provide useful window-dressing for the regime to claim that Turkey is a democracy, it also blocks the popular resistance of the opposition forces by keeping it within the boundaries set by the regime.
Any attempt to challenge the referendum result through established channels is doomed to failure, given that these channels have long since been seized by the regime itself. The RPP has failed to acknowledge – or adequately challenge – the increasing concentration of power that has been occurring in Turkey for the past five years because in practice it benefits from the status quo through the local municipalities and clientelist economy that revolves around it.
It is hardly surprising that while most local municipalities of the pro-Kurdish party have been taken over by the state, none of those controlled by the RPP have been touched. In reality, the RPP is no less an obstacle to democratic and popular resistance in Turkey than the ruling party.
In addition to the RPP domestically, another actor has been complicit internationally in the rise of the Erdogan regime: the west.
For the USA, Turkey is a Nato ally and an important strategic actor in the fight against ISIS in Syria. The close strategic relations between Washington and the Erdogan regime started as early as 2002, when the moderate Islamism of Erdogan was presented as a role model for the post-9/11 Middle East. Erdogan himself was a co-chair of the Greater Middle Eastern Project of the Bush administration.
US bases in Turkey were used during the invasion of Iraq, and now they are operational again for Syria. The regime’s logistical support for the Free Syrian Army (transferring weapons, hosting fighters, treating the wounded) has been crucial for Washington’s plans to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, who has been supported by Russia.
For European states and the EU, the situation is politically more complex. Turkey is a candidate country for EU membership, whose minimum accession criteria include free and fair elections, as well as respect for fundamental rights, among them freedom of the press, expression and assembly, and rights of minorities.
These criteria have been increasingly disregarded by the Erdogan government. And with Turkey hosting almost three million Syrian refugees and acting as Europe’s border guard, the EU has been unusually mild in its criticisms of authoritarianism and violation of freedoms. This is despite the war of words that broke out between Erdogan and some European governments during the referendum campaign.
A striking example of European complicity is the EU-Turkey refugee deal, which was agreed during the military operations by the Turkish state against the Kurdish population in southeastern Turkey. The operations wiped several towns off the map and, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 2,000 civilians were killed and 355,000 people displaced. The EU granted international legitimacy to the Erdogan regime when it needed it most.
In addition, Turkey is potentially an energy hub, enabling resources to be transferred via Turkey to Europe as an alternative to dependence on Russian gas. This is not an unusual practice for the EU, which had similar understandings with Ben Ali of Tunisia, Gaddafi of Libya, and Mubarak of Egypt.
The Erdogan regime now faces two choices. One is to acknowledge that it faces strong popular opposition in the cities that cannot be handled easily through pseudo-opposition parties and requires a new conciliatory approach.
Given the experiences of the recent past, this is unlikely. The most probable option is to increase oppression in a context of economic crisis, high unemployment and increasing food prices. Most of the population in Turkey is in debt and the lira has been devalued in relation to the dollar and euro.
The hope for the left is that it can build on the recent experience of popular opposition arising from the Gezi Park protests in 2013. Everything started over ‘a few trees’ in Gezi Park, Istanbul, which is the only public space in the heart of Istanbul left untouched by aggressive neoliberal urbanisation. The government planned to destroy the park and build a shopping mall in a replica of a historic Ottoman military barracks. The protests, started by environmentalists, spread throughout Turkey in three days and for two weeks different groups, including trade unions, feminists, LGBT+ groups, students, unemployed graduates, socialists, communists, anti-capitalist Islamists, Kurds and other minorities, occupied public spaces all over the country. According to official statistics, five million people attended the protests.
Although the recent developments in Turkey give a different impression at first glance, the Gezi Park resistance was a turning point for Turkey’s democratic struggles. For the first time, different groups that had previously had no contact or sympathy for each other, came together and resisted collectively in a non-macho, pluralist and peaceful way.
It was their first encounter with each other, and the unique nature of the protests meant that the institutions of the state did not know how to deal with them. The government could not decide its course of action, and the opposition parties, particularly the RPP, could not connect with the resistance.
It is time for the opposition forces to think beyond the status quo and reconstitute the horizontal and radical politics they managed to create during the Gezi protests in 2013. We did it before, we can do it again. Turkey is still alive.
Nazim A is a pseudonym