Commentators suggest the referendum triumph will destroy Turkish democracy, but when was the country ever truly democratic?
The result of the recent referendum in Turkey is hardly surprising, except in one particular way. The president has effectively shut down most of the opposition media outlets, which certainly helped him. He won in the rural and more religious areas of Turkey, and did less well in the big cities and the Kurdish regions, which is what one would expect.
He made a strong appeal to Turkish nationalism, always a powerful force; and yet his win was rather narrow, which he must find something of a disappointment. However, he is not in the mood to make concessions to those who did not vote for the constitutional changes, and has already signalled his determination to reintroduce the death penalty.
The referendum was about turning Turkey from a parliamentary republic to a presidential one; this means that Turkey will no longer be like Italy, with a system where power is dispersed in the various constitutional bodies (leading often to very weak governments) but will be more like the United States or France. But not really: the American constitution is famous for its “checks and balances”, while the new Turkish way of doing things will probably see power concentrated to a remarkable degree in the hands of one man, presumably Mr Erdogan.
Lots of commentators see this as the death knell of Turkish democracy. They are only half-right. Turkish democracy was never a strong plant. Until 1950, Turkey was run first by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the republic, and then by his successor Ismet Inonu, who both ruled as virtual dictators. Inonu left office after a general election defeat in 1950, and was succeeded by Celal Bayar as president. In 1960, the army staged a coup, Bayar was arrested along with his Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes, and the latter was condemned to death and hanged. This sort of history is not that of a proud democracy.
To say that Mr Erdogan is killing off Turkish democracy must be seen in the light of the fact that Turkey has never really been a truly democratic polity. Thus it remains surprising that only just over half the voters opted for authoritarian government.
Given Turkish history, one would have expected a more handsome win. One must pay tribute to those who did not vote for the changes, the just under fifty per cent who view Mr Erdogan with consternation, and who want to see Turkey become more European. They were brave to vote No, and they will be made to suffer for it in future, one fears.
What can we expect of the new authoritarian Turkey? In the first place, more of the same. More journalists will be imprisoned for writing the wrong things, and some will be killed for thinking the wrong things. There are currently at least 81 journalist in jail in Turkey, on a variety of anti-state charges, which makes Turkey the leading country on earth for imprisoning journalists. And let us not forget Hrant Dink, murdered while facing trial for “denigrating Turkishness”, that is, for daring to mention the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
Again, we cannot hope for an improvement in Turkey’s attitude to its Christian minority. Mr Erdogan’s support comes from the traditionally pious and nationalist Anatolian heartland, and this is a constituency that does not love Christianity, to put it mildly. As this magazine has often reported outbreaks against Christians are not unheard of in Turkey, and distressingly, they tend to have covert support from the authorities.
Mr Erdogan has a track record of stirring up xenophobic hatreds, and Christians and foreigners are seen as interchangeable in many Turkish minds. Christians in Turkey, particularly converts, are in for a hard time in the new authoritarian Turkey.
All of this is rather embarrassing for the West, given that Turkey is a strategically important part of NATO, and given that the West has always courted Turkish friendship in its search for an ally against Russia. In fact very little has changed since the 19th century.
The policy seems to be always the same: hold your nose and keep Turkey as an ally. WE Gladstone was the honourable exception being the man who came out of retirement to denounce Turkish atrocities in Bulgaria, and became Prime Minister in the process.
Our current Prime Minister wants to uphold religious freedom abroad. She would do well to follow Gladstone’s example and call out the Turkish government for its current misdemeanours.