JOHN TULLOH. Turkey – Erdogan’s day of judgment.

   Turkey’s voters face a momentous choice: whether they want their president to have the dictatorial power of a potential tyrant or one whose authority remains curbed by parliamentary government. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants them to say evet (yes) to making him Prime Minister also as well as extending his powers. They will vote in a constitutional referendum on April 16. Polls suggest it will be such a tight contest that the president has appealed to even the Kurdish community for what might prove to be the difference between winning and losing.

Erdogan is one of the most pivotal leaders of our time, the gatekeeper of the West. His country straddles the crossroads of Europe and Asia and the most unstable geopolitical fault lines in the world. It sits on the edge of the cauldron of violence in Syria and Iraq. Just across their borders are quasi-Kurdish states. It has the restless Caucusus and Russia to the north-east. Another neighbour is Iran, an ally of his nemesis in Damascus. He has to deal with terrorism by the outlawed Kurdish PKK party and Islamic State, the latter having taken exception to Turkey’s uninvited involvement to crush them in Iraq. He also has given shelter to 2.5 million refugees, mainly from Syria, earning the eternal thanks of European leaders who’ve rewarded him with generous housekeeping money.

As it is, Erdogan is almost a dictator now. His unwavering stern visage and belligerent decisions permeate Turkish life along with rising paranoia. The state of emergency he declared after last July’s failed coup still prevails. He seized the occasion to emasculate the military and sack judges, security personnel, teachers, public sector workers and even actors – in many cases for no other reason than they might have supported the coup. He has thrown political opponents and journalists into jail, ordered businesses not necessarily fawning to his cause to be boycotted, shut down newspapers and cowed the once thriving media. What media outlets still survive are now known as the ministry of information.

These hardly seem the actions of a leader who expects his people to legitimise his authority to throw his weight around even further. ‘Half the country adores Erdogan, half the country loathes him’, said Soner Cagaptay, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Erdogan says he wants to streamline the running of the country and bring stability. He likens it to the U.S. political system.

But those in favour of the hayir (no) vote warn it would allow Erdogan to become an out and out dictator. They are represented by the two main left wing and centre-left parties and human rights groups. The European Commission has condemned the proposed concentration of powers as ‘excessive’. It also said it might harm Turkey’s bid to join the EU, not that there was any chance of that anyway.

Erdogan had a head start on his opponents whom he dismisses as disgruntled supporters of the failed coup. His tentacles reach into the mosques of Europe, where 4.5 million Turks live. He has the media under his thumb. The state-run tv service has become his mouthpiece. A recent survey showed that his ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) received 4113 minutes of air time whereas the main opposition party CHP (Republican People’s Party) got just 216 minutes. One tv personality who said he would vote No was sacked. Such is the paranoia that, according to the New York Times, an anti-smoking pamphlet was withdrawn because it had the word No.

Time described Erdogan as a ‘throwback: an elected autocrat, maintaining a certain stability within and without, overseeing a procedural democracy with a pliant press and a dominant political party that serves only his wishes’. He would probably agree. He admires the era of the Ottoman sultans for whom democracy was nothing more than an unwelcome Greek word.

‘Erdogan’s widening purge and crackdown are just the logical conclusion of a story that has been unfolding for the better part of a decade’, says Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations. ‘Turkey’s democracy has not been lost – there was no democracy to lose’.

It is clear from the latest polls that, if Erdogan does win, only half the country will embrace his agenda. According to Atlantic, the other half will work to undermine it politically – and in the case of the PKK and other leftist groups violently.

If he loses? ‘Failure could introduce unprecedented viciousness in the conduct of the country’s politics with Erdogan lashing out at his opponents, both Turks and Kurds’, according to Mohammed Ayoob, professor emeritus of international relations at Michigan State University.

In short, the referendum result will be trouble as usual.

FOOTNOTE. President Erdogan does not seem bothered at all by Turkey’s current constitution. It stipulates that the president should be neutral and not the leader of a political party. The new constitution would entitle him to serve two six-year electoral terms which would allow him to match the rule of Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and cement his place in history. In order to survive that long in today’s turbulent Turkey, his critics are probably right. He would have to become a dictator.

John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.

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