On 16 April, the referendum that took place in Turkey about eliminating the parliamentary system and moving into a presidential system in which there would be a major power shift into the president, came out as a ‘Yes’ after a very close race of 51% to 49%. Turkey’s current president Erdogan had been vastly campaigning this constitutional change that will intensify his power and lessen the ability of any opposition to his rule; and those who know of him, also know that his style of democracy is only about his authority.
When talked about many authoritarian regimes, almost all times, they are democratically elected. Both Hitler and Mussolini were given power by the popular vote. President Erdogan, who is only the president of the 52% who voted him in, is very vocal about dividing the society into “us”, his supporters, and “them”, any opposition to his regime. He has been showing signs of authoritarianism and lust for power for so long. This reflects in his lawsuits against or imprisonment of those who voice their opposition and criticize him from students to journalists, with 81 in jail –a third of the journalist imprisoned worldwide. Maybe it is not yet as far as Mussolini with his execution of opposition figures, but there is certainly a concerning parallel with fascism in Erdogan’s reaction to any criticism.
Just as Mussolini presented himself as the only man capable of taking Italy out of political instability, Turkey’s Erdogan has also been using chaos to put him in a position where he is the only solution to prevent Turkey from falling off the cliff. He creates and manages chaos to reauthorize his power, as seen in the aftermath of the recent coup-attempt where he went on a spree of ‘cleansing’ the government, military, academia and more, from any opposition, whether it is the Gulenists or not.
He had been using similar rhetoric during the referendum campaign, evoking fear of instability and terrorism in order to convince people to move to a single-man lead, and gain more power. A lot of the supporters of “Yes” had been justifying their position by saying that they didn’t want more instability and that he is the only man to get Turkey out of this mess.
Similar to the authoritarian ideology in destroying opponents and training followers to love to fight with the enemy and embrace the fight of the nation, not just of one-person or party, but of the nation, Erdogan has similar ways of concentrating on the feeling of the masses and controlling that feeling. The way he handled the coup-attempt by encouraging citizens to go out on the streets and fight for their democracy, was one of the most intense moments of his empowerment of the people who have for so long felt unnoticed and powerless.
Regardless of the potential dangers to the people and almost intending for a civil war, he opened his monopoly on violence to his followers and allowed them to kill and injure many soldiers who were, for him, traitors. His rhetoric around “traitors” and “terrorists” expands to the whole body of people who are not supporting him. Justifying his actions by this, he was able to get away with attacking the country’s own people whom he is supposed to be representing, as seen in Gezi Parki Protests just a couple years ago, or the ongoing fight with the Kurdish terrorist groups while abusing Kurdish civilians, cutting their access to medical care or at times even killing many. These examples are concerningly similar to fascist states of history.
To be sure, I’m not calling Erdogan a Nazi or reincarnation of Hitler or Mussolini, I’m merely showing parallels between him and the authoritarian regimes of the past. I leave the name-calling to the president himself; apparently, he is very good at that, as seen very recently in his war of words with the Netherlands and Germany after witnessing an opposition to his illegal rally plans for the referendum. President Erdogan himself had showed Hitler’s Germany as an example to a successful executive presidential system he was aiming for with this referendum, and that is not the right path to fall back on after moving past all that. Although later statements tried to cover up this parallel, many of his actions continue to suggest otherwise.
The only way we can know now is to wait and see where this referendum takes us. Being in the middle of so many crisis, from the war in Syria to the internal war on terror, Turkey is in a hotspot. Its location, membership and Muslim-majority presence in NATO, political instability and proximity to such pressing issues also make Turkish politics a pressing matter for many, including the European Union, the United States, Russia and the Middle East. Thus, it makes this referendum not just a national issue but an international one.
The path of Turkey towards a fascist state is concerning for many and will have direct impacts on the rest of the world. However, many of these examples have shown that President Erdogan was already leading an authoritarian regime, and maybe with this referendum result, he just constitutionalized it. Which would also mean that from now on, there will be no one else to blame but himself…well…and those who democratically elected him; it was their choice at the end, wasn’t it?