Fifteen years after he began a series of staggering electoral triumphs arguably unprecedented among the leaders of modern democracies, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has won a constitutional referendum that makes him the country’s most powerful ruler since it dethroned its sultans and became a republic. The narrowness of the victory, 51.5-49.5 per cent, and charges of malpractice, will do nothing to alter the outcome.
In 2019, should Erdogan win another term in office, he will have powers allowing him to all but ignore parliament, bypass checks on political interference in the appointment of judges, and wield a vice-like grip over the bureaucracy. The president’s supporters claim this system is necessary to end political instability, and thus revive the flagging economic dynamo on whose back Erdogan’s three successive election triumphs since 2002 have been founded. His critics fear the president will use his power to raise an Islamist “pious generation” — a promise, or threat, depending on one’s perspective, that he has often made.
The irony here is that Erdogan’s rise came about because Turks, tired of a worn secularism that served only to legitimise corrupt and authoritarian military rule, saw in Erdogan the prospect of genuine democracy. Ever since last year’s coup — carried out by military plotters who saw in his rule the prospect of despotism — that chimera has evaporated. Figures from the country’s interior minister show over 47,155 people are in prison, many of them eminent academics and journalists, with no role in the coup. In addition, more than 1,25,000 people have been sacked from civil service positions, while thousands of teachers have had their licenses revoked. When a court ruling recently released 21 journalists and others, the chief prosecutor objected; by evening, all were back in jail. The three judges who heard the case were then themselves suspended from their positions.
How events play out from here is anyone’s guess — but there are warning signs that Erdogan’s grand dreams could disintegrate. The Kurdish insurgency that he had hoped to end through political dialogue has revived. His ill-conceived Syria policy has given jihadists a foothold in Turkey, while relations with key allies Europe and the United States have hit an all-time low. Inside Turkey, the population is divided as never before. The Sultans, Erdogan likely knows, were undone not by conspiracy, the favoured fantasy of the pop history on Turkish television — but by hubris. It could prove this one’s undoing, too.