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Michael Jansen: Exploited democracy
April 14, 2017
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Sunday’s Turkish referendum amounts to an existential challenge to the modern Turkish state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk nearly a century ago. Ataturk fashioned Turkey as a secular state with a parliamentary system of governance and appointed the military as guardian of this state. The military intervened four times to perform, in the high command’s view, the tasks assigned by Ataturk around whom there has long been a personality cult. Indeed he is seen as the personification of the Turkish state and bronze busts of his stern visage glower in central squares in every Turkish city, town and village.

The army, partnered by the right-wing Nationalist Movement party, intervened in 1960 to overthrow the increasingly authoritarian, decade-old government under Adnan Menderes.

In 1971, the army acted again, ousting Prime Minister Suleiman Demerel, in a bid to halt widespread unrest due to economic turmoil. Following the 1971 coup, Turkey suffered a period of economic hardship and political turmoil which set left against right. In 1980, the army staged its third classic coup, elevating army commander Kenan Evren to the position of president and a naval commander Bulent Ulusu to the prime ministry. The period of military rule stabilised Turkey while Turgut Ozal, who succeeded Ulusu, revived the economy. The fourth key military intervention, known as a “white coup,” took place in 1997-98 when the military forced the resignation of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, head of the fundamentalist Welfare Party which had taken power in 1996 in a coalition government. Erbakan was barred from politics and his party dissolved.

Following this coup, the Welfare Party was reformed and rebranded as the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has repeatedly won parliamentary elections and ruled Turkey since 2002. Its founders were Abdullah Gul and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Although a party with a religious agenda in contravention of the secular constitution, the AKP has maintained its grip on power by securing majorities in parliament. This feat was achieved due to the support of the largely ignored and marginalised conservative, devout half of the population. This loyalty was tested when the AKP government was accused of corruption in 2013, after Ergodan ordered the army to renew its war against dissident Kurds in 2015 and when he overcame last July’s coup attempt. His supporters will be tested a fourth time by the referendum.

Erdogan — who became prime minister in 2003 and president in 2014 — is the force behind the referendum. Through this vote he seeks to change the very nature of Turkey. During the AKP’s time in charge, it has encouraged the rise of religious schools; permitted the headscarf — banned by the secularists — to be worn freely; and promoted tighter controls on internet use and alcohol consumption. The AKP also relegated the military to barracks, depriving the generals of their role as “guardians” of the state, and after last July’s botched military coup, not only fired and jailed key officers but also stripped the country’s civil service and judiciary of opponents. He has closed down media critical of his policies, jailed journalists and made it an offense to find fault with the government or the president.

Erdogan’s promotion of religious politics and crackdown on all dissent have ended Turkey’s bid for membership in the European Union. This suits him: to join Turkey must be a secular democracy. Indeed, under his watch, Turkish democracy has been exploited by the AKP to install one-man rule by Erdogan.

A man beloved by his constituency, Erdogan has rallied hundreds of thousands of supporters across the country in support of his plan. He has also appealed to backers of the Nationalist Movement Party to vote in favour of constitutional reform. Erdogan has reinforced his popularity by adopting ultra-nationalist rhetoric, criticising the US and Europe which have been Turkey’s steadfast allies in spite of risky policies he has adopted.   

Erdogan’s most risky domestic policy has been his revival of the 30-year war on the country’s Kurds who have been fighting for recognition as a distinct ethnic group and federalism. When he took power, he had pledged to end the conflict by appealing to the Kurds on the basis of their being Sunni Muslims like the vast majority of Turks. This did not succeed but Erdogan did call a halt to army action and engage in negotiations with the Kurds from 2013 until mid-2015.

 His most risky regional policy has been his promotion of the war in Syria by facilitating the transit of foreign fighters and weapons across Turkey into Syria and offering Ankara’s full backing to expatriate Syrian dissidents, many of whom are tied to the Brotherhood. Ankara also permitted Daesh and al-Qaeda’s Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Nusra) to take root in poor quarters of Turkey’s cities. Deadly Daesh bombings have been the unexpected consequences of his pro-Daesh, pro-al-Qaeda policy. It has raised voices in Nato about Turkey’s reliability as a member of the Western alliance, particularly since a number of perpetrators of Daesh attacks in Europe have travelled through Turkey to join Daesh, al-Qaeda and affiliated groups. The Kyrgyz man who carried out the recent bomb attack that killed 14 on the St. Petersburg metro had, reportedly, visited Turkey. Although it was not known whether he had gone from there to Syria, there are many centres of Daesh infection in Turkey itself.

In spite of the Muslim Brotherhood’s disastrous experiment with governance in Egypt, Erdogan wants Turkey to become a Brotherhood-style state where religion plays the primary role in politics, economics and social life. To achieve this end he intends to grant wide executive powers to the president, himself — under the current constitution a post meant to be largely ceremonial — and rein in parliament so it cannot block his transformative conservative and religious agenda which is meant to finish off the legacy of Ataturk.
 
___________________________________________
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict
 

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