Win or Lose on Referendum, Turkey’s Erdoğan Spells Trouble

Politics in Turkey, under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have already edged away from the parliamentary system toward an executive presidency. An April 16 referendum on an amendment to the constitution would confirm the strong presidency, “allowing Erdoğan to exercise unbridled power possibly for more than a decade,” explains Mohammed Ayoob, professor emeritus of international relations at Michigan State University and a senior fellow with the Center for Global Policy. “Failure could introduce unprecedented viciousness in the conduct of the country’s politics with Erdoğan lashing out at his opponents, both Turks and Kurds. Externally, either way the referendum will affect Turkey’s relations with the EU and with the United States.” Turkey’s president has helped Europe contain the refugee crisis due to the war in Syria, but has also attracted criticism for a harsh crackdown after an attempted coup, disregard for human rights and closer relations with Russia. The US and Turkey differ over repressive treatment for the Kurds, who have been a major force in the war against the Islamic State and yet seek an independent state on Turkey’s border. Still, Turkish voters may focus less on issues and political restructuring and more on Erdoğan, who has already revealed authoritarian tendencies. – YaleGlobal

Win or Lose on Referendum, Turkey’s Erdoğan Spells Trouble

Poll on changing Turkey’s political system toward strong president has consequences for the EU, NATO and Syria
Mohammed Ayoob
Thursday, April 6, 2017

Rebirth or retrogression? Recep Tayyip Erdogan campaigns for referendum calling for a rebirth of Turkey, and supporters in Germany demonstrate for him

BENGALURU: Turks head to the polls April 16 to decide in a referendum whether to change their political system into a presidential one or retain the parliamentary system with the president as nominal head of state and the prime minister as chief executive.

If successful, the referendum will change the rules of the domestic political game, allowing Erdoğan to exercise unbridled power possibly for more than a decade. Failure could introduce unprecedented viciousness in the conduct of the country’s politics with Erdoğan lashing out at his opponents, both Turks and Kurds.

Externally, either way the referendum will affect Turkey’s relations with the EU and with the United States. Europeans, highly critical toward Erdoğan’s actions in the referendum’s run-up, will bear the brunt of any anger.  Erdoğan does not forget slights easily.

If successful, Erdoğan is likely to become even more assertive in his demands on the US, especially in relation to the Syrian Kurdish issue and the question of a cleric’s extradition to stand trial in Turkey. This may create further complications for the US in its pursuit of war against the Islamic State.

While in theory the referendum is supposed to decide the country’s political restructuring, in fact it is a referendum on  Erdoğan’ s desire to become the sole repository of power in Turkey. Since assuming the presidency in 2014, he has subverted the existing system, becoming all but in name the executive president with the prime minister nothing more than his mouthpiece. Contrary to the present constitution, which mandates that the president be non-political and unaffiliated with any party, Erdoğan acts as the head of the AKP in a highly partisan manner.

The proposed amendment, if passed, will allow Erdoğan to continue in the role of the executive president until 2029 assuming he wins the next two elections, not improbable given his popularity.  Observers suggest this is a major threat to the fledgling democracy for two reasons: First, unlike the American system, there are few checks on the president’s power as envisaged in the constitutional amendment.  Second, since his third election victory in 2011, and especially since the failed coup of last July, Erdoğan’s autocratic personality traits have been very much on display.

Analysts often equate him with the republic’s founder Kemal Atatürk, who also displayed an authoritarian political style, with some dubbing Erdoğan’s approach as “Islamist Kemalism” for combining authoritarianism with a moderate form of Islamism. It’s a major irony of Turkish history that the person most responsible for dismantling Turkey’s Kemalist authoritarian state structure has become the vehicle for its impending restoration in another guise.

Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, AKP, garnered the required number of votes in the Turkish Parliament with the help of the ultra-nationalist MHP to bring the constitutional draft to a popular referendum. However, the amendment faces resistance from the main opposition party, CHP, and the predominantly Kurdish HDP. There are also signs of increasing dissatisfaction with Erdoğan’s dictatorial behavior.

The combination of these factors has made Erdoğan and his government nervous to the point of hysteria, and Europe has become a convenient whipping boy for several reasons. The EU and major European countries, such as Germany, have been harshly critical of the unabashed display of Erdoğan’s autocratic tendencies. Also, Erdoğan’s high-handed actions have indefinitely postponed prospects of Turkish EU membership, thus reducing Europe’s significance in Turkish foreign-policy priorities. For historical reasons, Erdoğan finds Europe a convenient target against which he can direct Turkish nationalism to boost his popularity.

Turkey’s relations with the United States, demonstrating signs of considerable strain during the last two years of the Obama presidency, have shown some improvement since Donald Trump’s election to the White House. Unlike Obama, Trump is not much concerned with the violation of human rights in Turkey.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Turkey in March was one signal of improving relations although differences between Ankara and Washington persist. Tillerson did not meet any opposition leader, an attempt to avoid embroilment in domestic issues ahead of the referendum. His statements in Ankara focused primarily on the war against the ISIS, and he contended that there was “no space” between the United States and Turkey in their determination to fight the common enemy.

Turkey’s differences with Washington, unlike those with the EU, have more to do with concrete policy differences over US support for Kurdish groups fighting ISIS in Syria. Also, Turkey demands extradition of Fethullah Gulen, considered by the Turkish government to have masterminded the abortive July coup from the United States, for trial in Turkey. Trump’s discredited first national security adviser Michael Flynn is alleged to have discussed extradition by extra-legal means.  

The extradition issue is, however, more symbolic than real. Erdoğan needs former ally Gulen as the emblematic vicious instigator of the coup plot that left 265 Turkish civilians dead to bolster his own legitimacy and justify the crackdown on public servants, academics and journalists supposedly linked with the Gulen movement in the wake of the coup. Gulen, protected by American law, suits  Erdoğan’s purpose better than an aged, ailing cleric standing trial for difficult-to-prove crimes in Turkey.

The Kurds in Syria are a more serious matter. The main Kurdish force in Syria – the YPG, military wing of the leading Syrian Kurdish party, PYD – is a major US ally in its war against the ISIS. However, Turkey considers the YPG an arm of the PKK, engaged in major insurgencies and terrorist acts in the country for the past 30 years or more. Turkey perceives the American-supported YPG presence on its borders a major security threat as it boosts Kurdish nationalist sentiments within Turkey. As the war against the ISIS proceeds, Turkish forces may clash with the YPG militia – they have come close a few times recently – to prevent the latter from extending control over territories held by ISIS near the Turkish border.

So far the United States has balanced relations by supplying arms to the YPG and supporting ground forces with air support while simultaneously assuring Turkey that it won’t sacrifice Turkish interests for the sake of its alliance with the YPG or allow the latter to control territory west of the Euphrates near Turkey’s borders. This intricate balancing act may unravel if ISIS begins to crumble and there is a race for the control of territory primarily populated by Kurds.

Regardless, Turkey is in for turbulent times. If the referendum passes, this is expected to magnify Erodğan’s authoritarian bent and signal to the already restive Kurds that current policies of repression will intensify. Many HDP Kurdish members of parliament are already in jail for opposing Erdoğan. A re-intensified Kurdish insurgency and escalation of terrorist attacks could follow. If the referendum fails, Erdoğan may attack his opponents, both Turks and Kurds, even more viciously, thus leading to increased authoritarianism and possibly domestic unrest in the Turkish heartland itself.

Either outcome could further deteriorate Turkey’s relations with European countries. Win or lose, Erdoğan is likely to lash out at his European critics. Prospects of Turkey’s EU membership will recede even further.

Turkey’s relations with the US continue to hinge, above all, on how Washington manages contrary demands of the PYD/YPG and Ankara in relation to the status of Syrian Kurds. Although in normal times Washington is likely to choose NATO member Turkey over the Syrian Kurds, these are not normal times. Exigencies of the war against ISIS may lead the United States, deliberately or inadvertently, to cross some of the red lines set by Turkey in relation to the Kurdish issue, thus causing extensive damage to relations with Ankara. An abrasive Erdoğan reconfirmed in his power could only add to the risk of escalation.

In the final analysis, the Kurdish question trumps all other considerations both domestically and internationally as far as Turkey is concerned. 

Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University, and a senior fellow with the Center for Global Policy.

Copyright © 2017 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center

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