The referendum on 16 April was the last station -until the next one- in the path to oriental authoritarianism which Tayyip Erdogan, the domineering protagonist of the Turkish political sphere since 2002, has drawn for Turkey.
Despite the huge mobilization of Erdogan’s electoral mechanism, the very small margin of the referendum result perhaps proves what most Western analysts are afraid to admit: Erdogan’s star is starting to fade, together with the hope for a mid-term stabilization in the country.
So, how did we end up here?
Gezi protests, the end of illusions
Until the dawn of 28th May 2013, under the usual and catastrophic tendency of the West to evaluate the leaders of the MENA region only on their economic record, most Western leaders and analysts saw in Erdogan a brave reformer for modern Turkey, someone who seemed to bravely and decisively try to achieve a real sociopolitical convergence between the European Union and Turkey.
Until the dawn of 28th May 2013, none outside of Turkey and only a few outside of Istanbul had heard of a place called Gezi, a small park at the heart of the European side of Istanbul. The park of Gezi was about to be transformed into a shopping mall, following the fate of many other green spaces in the city, as an essential measure under the galloping neoliberalist turn of the Turkish economy, which was much loved by the biggest European companies and banks.
On 28th May 2013, everything changed forever. The brutal initial reaction of the Turkish police against a small bunch of protesters who were trying to save the green park proved to be the turning point for the unleash of the accumulated rage of many parts of the Turkish society against Erdogan’s system of power, which had already been running Turkey for 11 years back then, since the first ever election victory of the AKP in November 2002.
Millions of Turks (spontaneously) took to the streets to protest, without any political guidance, without a leader, without a specific agenda. They only wanted to start breathing again, and they wanted to show that Erdogan is not the progressive leader of the neoliberal Western dreams but rather someone who was methodically and deliberately abolishing the secular character of the Turkish state in favor of a new authoritarian Islamic system of governance.
The protests were shed with blood, nothing really changed but at least the trees at the Gezi park still blossom [at this time of year]. The Turkish civil society mourned their dead took care of the injured and were lost in the familiar silence of all who sometime fought for freedom without seeing their efforts bearing fruits, at least on the short term. Perhaps, the only ones who stayed optimistic for the change were the ones who had studied the May 1968 protest, a popular peaceful revolt that did not deliver the hoped results in the short term.
The sarcastic laughter of the trees
In a 2013 interview at Bloomberg, King Abdullah II of Jordan mentioned that Erdogan once said democracy for him was a bus ride: once he would get to his stop, he would hop off.
Although the historically popular Gezi protests did not overthrow Erdogan, it is possible that they marked the moment when he concluded that in order to stay in power, he should concentrate every power in his own hands. The next time that millions of Turks would take to the streets, it would not be equally easy for him to face them, perhaps because this time they would not just be a huge group of unorganized impulsive protesters.
The barricades of Gezi did not bring down Erdogan but they did bring down – perhaps permanently – the walls separating different social, ethnical and religious groups of the Turkish society. Banners replete with anger were being held together by Turks and Kurds, seculars and nationalists, atheists and religious, gay boys and veiled girls, Sunnis and Alevis. They did not agree on everything but they practically accepted that, for now, it was urgent to maintain the minimum of democratic normality -even the a la turca one.
In the first general elections after Gezi protests, in June 2015, the preliminary results of the slow social process which started in the charmingly chaotic mosaic of the Turkish society, were now more than obvious. Under Ahmet Davutoglu’s nominal leadership, for the first time AKP experienced a decrease in their votes to 40,87% while a year earlier Erdogan had attracted triumphantly 51,79% of the votes in the first ever popular election for the Turkish presidency. Meanwhile, HDP, under the charismatic leadership of Selahattin Demirtas accomplished what had been considered impossible until then: it became the first ever Kurdish-oriented party to pass the very high 10% threshold to enter the parliament, and in fact quite comfortably so, as not only Kurds but hundreds of thousands of progressive Turks made up is 13,12% voting result. Before the Gezi protests, something like this would have simply been impossible.
The important decrease in votes, AKP’s inability to form a new government (as it did not control parliament anymore) and HDP’s impressive success lead Penguen, a great satirical magazine, to issue a historic cover: a tree at Gezi Park, laughing sarcastically. The blow to the rising autocrat looked to be lethal.
Two years of chaos
It will probably require years of research and dozens of books and papers to be published in order to analyze and explain what started happening in Turkey after the June elections of 2015, on the way to the November snap elections.
In a few weeks’ time, the ceasefire between the Turkish State and the paramilitary/terrorist organization “Kurdistan Workers’ Party” (PKK) collapsed and Southeastern Turkey slipped again into chaos. At least 2,000 people have already lost their lives, neighborhoods have been abolished and according to a UN report around 500,000 have been displaced -in a sui generis civil war who failed to attract Western media’s interest despite the brutal character of the fights.
The multi-month lack of government, the traditional reluctance of Kurdish politicians to convincingly condemn the actions of PKK, the rise of a Turkish nationalist sentiment due to the important human losses of the Turkish security forces, as well as the two bomb attacks in Suruc and Ankara, contributed to a very strong feeling of uncertainty and insecurity, which was politically built upon by Tayyip Erdogan at the November elections. AKP won an impressive 49,5% of the vote and gained once again the absolute majority of the seats.
AKP formed a new government under Ahmet Davutoglu but it didn’t even get near to deliver the promise of stabilizing the country. Terror attacks multiplied -mainly because of the disastrous Turkish foreign policy in Syria-, the witch hunt against journalists, business groups, and supporters of the controversial Islamic preacher Fettulah Gulen continued, and the Turkish economy started to experience the shock of the long instability. The tourism sector started collapsing, Turkish lira began to plummet and unemployment started rising again after a long period.
The failed coup attempt of 15th July 2016 was the last straw for a country in free fall. As with Gezi protests, Tayyip Erdogan once again survived politically, more convinced than ever that it was time to take the full control of the country. Unsurprisingly, the state of emergency that was declared after the coup attempt remains still in force. Actually, it was extended for 90 days the day after the referendum results.
After all these developments, the fight against every element disputing Erdogan’s authority became a national priority. From Demirtas’ imprisonment, along with many HDP deputies, to the removal of tens of thousands of judges, army officials, police officers, and regular public servants, the message of the central administration was clear: either with us or against us.
Yes or No to Erdogan
After a long election campaign, which practically started in a very tense way the day after the failed coup, Tayyip Erdogan managed to get from Sunday’s referendum an election result, which at least seemingly (even if not actually) is a mandate by the Turkish people legitimizing an authoritarian system of governance, with him as the absolutely powerful leader.
The 18 constitutional amendments which were confirmed are not going to introduce a Western-like presidential system in Turkey, as Erdogan wrongly argues. On the contrary, the new Constitution is going to open the path to what Nikos Alivizatos, honorary Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Athens, described as “the introduction of Ceasarism” in Turkey, and it is highly possible that the new constitution may lead to an outright dictatorship. Not only is the President going to be the leader of the executive power; he will also become institutionally unaccountable, enjoying full impunity along with his inner circle, since the new constitution includes an extremely complicated procedure for a president to be tried for an alleged crime.
The referendum was held under so clearly unfair conditions in favor of YES that even the subsequent strong evidence for ballot riggings was redundant in understanding that the 51,4% in favor of the constitutional change in no way allows Erdogan to celebrate. If during the June 2015 elections the spirit of Gezi did not lead to the formulation of a united anti-Erdogan coalition, the common fight for NO by different parties enhanced the feeling of a historical “ceasefire” between traditional political enemies, for they now share the same target: Erdogan.
Towards the final round
Contrary to what a great part of Western public opinion has understood, the recent referendum does not have immediate consequences: the new Constitution will be established after the next presidential elections, which are currently scheduled for November the 3rd, 2019.
Tayip Erdogan will have to win again 50% of the votes, something that may become impossible until then. Everything shows today that the Turkish society is ready and perhaps more mature than the leaders of the opposition parties to support a united presidential candidacy against the wannabe Sultan. The time to harvest the crops of Gezi is coming closer, even if the outcome will have a much less progressive character than what the unofficial leaders were looking for during the protests.
Given that sometimes it looks like History is getting its revenge from those trying to brutally write it, the main opponent of Erdogan during the final round could be a charismatic woman. Despite her strong nationalist background, Meral Aksener, a leading figure of the far-right MHP, has so far shown a remarkable dedication to the secular legacy of Kemal Ataturk’s state. Her passionate campaign against NO nullified the potential gains of the unholy AKP-MHP alliance and contributed a lot to the delegitimizing of the referendum result. It has to be noted that AKP and MHP together got 61,4% of the votes in the November 2015 election but their common campaign in favor of YES only resulted in a 51,4% in Sunday’s ballot, mainly because of the separatist Aksener.
Today, despite their referendum defeat, the opposition powers in Turkey have every reason to remain optimistic about the future. The extreme polarization of the Turkish public opinion was not enough to hide the upper limits of Erdogan influence, the EU for the first time seems to realize that its investment in an authoritatively driven stability does not bring the expected results, and the strong turbulence of the Turkish economy is further destroying AKP’s image.
A friend who walked through Gezi yesterday told me that for an instance she saw the trees of the park smiling again. She was wearing a t-shirt, recently bought from a second hand flea-market in East Berlin. Its slogan was more than eloquent: every wall eventually falls.