Turkey’s fate

The leader of Turkey at a press conference
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media as preliminary results show "Yes" votes ahead of "No" votes on the constitutional referendum (source: dpa)

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been ruling Turkey for 12 years, first as prime minister and since 2014 as president, called a constitutional referendum that was held last Sunday. If early returns are confirmed, Turkish voters have voted narrowly to strengthen the president’s powers.

Mr. Erdogan’s objective is to establish a presidential system in Turkey, which he describes as similar to those in the United States and France. The checks and balances built into the proposed Turkish system are weaker than those in the French model, however, and considerably weaker than in the U.S.

Kemalism’s end

How did Turkey arrive at this situation? Present-day Turkey was founded by Mustafa Kemal Pasha (1881-1938), Ataturk, an army officer and a revolutionary, in 1923. He established the Republic of Turkey as a secular state based on European legal and administrative systems. The armed forces were given a strong position as guarantor of the constitution. The role of Islam was drastically reduced, its symbols banned from public places. The system of a strong, centralized state, one nation and one language, became known as Kemalism.

When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Mr. Erdogan came to power, the then-prime minister promoted accession to the European Union and free markets, while introducing economic reform that led to a period of successful development. He initiated a political opening toward the Kurds in Turkey and toward Islam, much to the dismay of the Kemalists. When, during accession negotiations, the EU demanded that Turkey reduce the political role of its army, Mr. Erdogan used the occasion to eliminate the military’s influence in politics. This opened the way for an Islamic movement led by Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen to begin infiltrating the thus-far secular army.

Some years ago, when Mr. Erdogan realized that EU member states had been playing games and Turkey’s access to the European community was not in the cards, he changed course politically. The new doctrine was to make Turkey a strong regional power. The then-prime minister felt that implementation of this doctrine required the country’s leader to have a strong position.

The attempted coup in July 2016 gave President Erdogan an ideal pretext to neutralize most of the opposition and seize control of the media.

Looking ahead

The referendum is over. The voters have accepted, even if by a small margin, amendments to the constitution. The president has gained a powerful position, as he will appoint the government, which will be responsible directly to him. The function of prime minister is abolished. The president will appoint 12 out of the 15 members of the Constitutional Court.

Much will depend on how Mr. Erdogan exercises his new power. Will he rule to “make Turkey strong again," strengthening its economy and exercising prudently its role as a regional power? This is what he has promised and his followers are expecting.

It is also very important how the West, especially Europe, responds to this development in Turkey. The election’s narrow margin must not be used as a pretext to question the outcome, even if it does not make the internal situation easy for Mr. Erdogan. Turkey is an extremely important neighbor. Europe will have to accept the Turkish voters’ verdict.

The EU and the European governments have ample reasons to maintain good working relations with Ankara. They are in the interest of both sides. This gives President Erdogan an additional incentive not to abuse his authority.

It would be very bad politics for Europe to try to punish Turkey for what transpired last weekend. After all, Europe started this chain of events. It was the EU’s insistence on ending the Turkish army’s role as protector of the Kemalist system that finally made its overthrow possible. The unfair treatment that Turkey has received from the EU during the last 15 years has strongly contributed to Mr. Erdogan’s policy shift.

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