The imperial forbears he is so fond of invoking waged glorious wars to build one of the greatest empires the world has ever known. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s campaign to have himself elected a modern sultan has been characterised by low farce. Leading up to next month’s referendum, Erdogan has cast himself as the country’s defender against western perfidy, railing against “fascist Europe”, calling Germans “Nazis”, and urging Turkish immigrants to “make not three, but five children”.
In perhaps the most colourful act of ultra-nationalist defiance, 40 Dutch cows were deported after Holland denied entry to Turkish ministers seeking to hold rallies there. The whipping-up of nationalism comes as polls show Turkish voters are divided down the middle on a constitutional referendum that would not only give the country an executive presidency, but concentrate power in the hands of a single individual and blur the lines between the ruling party and the state.
In essence, the new constitution marks the flowering of Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman project, uniting an obedient society behind an authoritarian leader, ruling through new institutions that represent his chauvinist values. For Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey as prime minister and president for 14 years, a “yes” vote will mean a chance to remain at the helm until 2029 under a provision that calls for simultaneous presidential and general elections in 2019, the year his current term ends. The new president will be eligible to serve two five-year terms — giving Erdogan time to shape the new Turkey.
The real question is whether Turkey’s Islamist-leaning voters, on whom Erdogan’s power rests, share his vision — or see his overweening ambition as a threat to their own hard-won democratic freedoms. There is no easy answer. Turkey’s religious right wing has come to wield ever-growing influence. Key opposition leaders, moreover, are in prison; large swathes of the independent media have been browbeaten, and journalists have been incarcerated. Ever since the 1990s, the strengthening of Turkish democracy has been seen as an inexorable outcome of its slow integration into the institutions of Europe — but now that optimism might well be blown away, ironically by the right-wing tides sweeping the continent.