Shrinking Europe: Turkey votes to be more like the Middle East

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metzlerBy John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — There’s troubling news from across the Bosphorus, the narrow slip of water separating Europe from Asia-minor.

In a decisive but dividing referendum, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan narrowly gained the political blessing he sought by winning 51 percent of the nationwide vote. Erdogan’s divisive victory (51/49 percent), allows the increasingly authoritarian Turkish ruler to gain sweeping powers to change the constitution, giving him near unrivaled power until 2029.

Turkey's Erdogan drew on Islamist support from Turkish voters living in rural areas and in Europe.

The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has called on the electoral commission to annul the outcome citing “manipulating the referendum results.” Still the newly-minted Sultan Erdogan failed to gain the minimum 55 percent vote he wished for to bless the constitutional changes.

Turkey remains a key piece on the geopolitical board linking Europe to the Mid East and the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. But its strategic situation has been sadly compromised by its border with Syria whose civil war continues to spill over into Turkish territory both in terms of violent terrorism and humanitarian hosting of nearly three million refugees.

Contrary to many assumptions, Turkey’s economy in recent years was strong and growth- oriented. Turkish tourism was booming and deservedly so. The Syrian crisis changed the equation dramatically. Tourism has taken a dive downwards.

The once staunchly secular Turkish Republic of Kemal Ataturk was founded in 1923. The new 18 article constitutional changes focus on granting of executive powers to an elected President and the abolition of the Prime Minister. Equally Cabinet Ministers can be chosen from outside the Parliament.

The ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) has changed the rules of the game. Erdogan became Prime Minister in 2002 and was elected President in 2014.

Administrative streamlining may be necessary but isn’t it curiously too convenient that Erdogan is the right man at the right time to assume the unofficial role of Sultan? His is a classic personality centered rather than policy oriented polity. Erdogan is loved or loathed, a strong paternalist leader with a delirious following combining high octane nationalistic politics with Islamic fervor.

Having seen Erdogan’s increasingly combative and shrill speeches, at the UN for example, one witnesses the physical gestures and gesticulations of a dictator.

Turkey has been a good friend to UN peacekeeping missions as well as the multinational military operation in Afghanistan. Furthermore, Turkey has been a reliable partner of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization ( NATO) and a true friend of the USA.

This may be changing. Positive American impressions of Turkey are primarily rooted in the pre-Erdogan era.

Last July an oddly-bungled military coup tried to topple Erdogan’s rule. Erdogan’s quick and focused countercoup allowed a massive crackdown on dissent; 130,000 people were purged from civil service jobs. More than 45,000 soldiers, police, teachers and journalists were arrested.

So who backed Erdogan in this controversial vote? While the ruling AK pressed for a Yes vote, the “No” vote prevailed in Istanbul and Ankara the capital. In coastal Izmir, a secular stronghold No gained 69 percent. Yet in the vast Islamic religious Anatolian interior and the Black Sea, Erdogan’s support was rock solid. A commentator dubbed it “Anatolia versus the Metropolis.”

Tragically Turks apparently voted to elect a dictator.

Crucial to the campaign was Erdogan’s lobbying the 5 million plus Turkish vote overseas, mostly in Europe and especially in Germany and the Netherlands. Tensions were high as Erdogan’s minions shamelessly campaigned in Europe; in the Netherlands the Yes reached 71 percent, France 64 percent and in Germany 63 percent. The Turkish vote in the USA on the other hand, was resoundingly against Erdogan with 83 percent voting NO!

During the heated campaign President Erdogan’s gloating rhetorical rants against European democracies as “crusaders” and “Nazis and fascists” reminded Euro-skeptics of their initial reservations about Turkey’s fitness to join the European Union. Erdogan’s unalloyed authoritarianism is often masked through using Islam as a legitimizing force to rule.

Hurryiet Daily News columnist Semih Idiz opined, “Turkey’s parliamentary system of 94 years has been replaced with a presidential one that is not restricted by any checks and balances. This can’t be reversed… This hardly augers a good start for a Turkey visibly divided along active social, religious and ethnic fault lines.”

Sultan Erdogan has been emboldened but remains nervous over his slim mandate. So did Turks choose to elect a dictatorship? Turkey’s populism has been unleashed but its outcomes are decidedly unpredictable. Turkey’s once staunchly secular state has morphed into an increasingly authoritarian Islamic system which has apparently chosen to look more like the Middle East than Europe.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]