From Kemalism to Sultanship
On April 16, the Turkish society went to the polls to vote on a referendum called by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on whether they wanted to grant more power to the executive through 18 Constitutional reforms or wanted to keep the political system they had since 1924.
The result favored the Yes by a very narrow margin: 51.4% to 48.6% with an 85% participation of registered voters. This result green-lights the consolidation of an autocratic regime which will enable Erdogan to govern Turkey until the year 2034.
The reforms include suppressing the seat of Prime Minister (transforming the Parliamentary system to a Presidential one), giving the President all the power to name ministers, and exercise a strong influence on the judiciary power by being able to name 50% of the members of the High Council of Judges and Ombudsmen, which includes managing the hiring and dismissal of officials working in the judiciary system. The reforms also eliminate military courts and limit the amount of time a person can be President to two five-year terms—but there’s a caveat: Erdogan’s current presidency wouldn’t count, allowing him to have a blank slate and be re-elected two more times. If this happened, he would manage to have remained in power for a total of 27 years.
An end to 93 years of Kemalism
The Turkish President has demanded foreign countries, and especially the European Union, to respect the referendum results. Meanwhile, the two main opposition parties have denounced fraud and vote manipulation. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have denounced the open and illegal interference of officialism in the process through the abuse of public resources to favor Erdogan’s government and tip the scale towards the Yes.
Also, the opposition affirms that Erdogan’s triumph further intensifies the autocratic nature of Turkey’s state, because the Executive would assume almost absolute powers. Kurds, for their part, affirm that Erdogan’s transition from President to a figure more akin to Otoman sultans means that the Kurdish people would further lose their rights and a civil war would unleash.
On the other hand, the supporters of the Yes to the referendum argued that giving more power to Erdogan would help stabilize the country, allow the economy to grow and provide security—which is an issue that has meant the dwindling of tourism.
These changes to the Turkish Constitution and political system, which will come into force in 2019, are the most profound ones since 1924, when the father of the Turkish Nation, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, established the Parliamentary system, which has ruled since then with the exception of the periods of military coups. The one that took place in 1980 gave an enormous amount of power to the Turkish Army, which became not only a fundamental political actor but also a relevant economic agent.
The last coup attempt took place last year when a sector of the Army tried to oust Erdogan. Erdogan managed to crush it and since then he’s taken that as an opportunity to make a huge purge in the army, the police, universities and all powers of the Turkish state, expanding his power and control.
The Yes on the referendum won in the bastions of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP): the regions of Anatolia and the Black Sea. Meanwhile, in the areas that border the Aegean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and the South-Eastern areas with Kurdish majorities, the No won, like in the big cities Istanbul, Esmirna and Ankara. This shows a divided country.
Erdogan’s victory is a message to Europe, after the events that confronted him with some of the governments of the Old Continent that forbade Turkish officials to campaign in cities like Berlin, Zurich, and Rotterdam. “Sunday is the day on which our people is going to teach a lesson to those European countries that wanted to intimidate us”, Erdogan said.
Turkey has been waiting for 54 years to be accepted as a full member of the EU, but this seems a complex and almost impossible task given not only Europe’s wave of Islamophobia but also the fact that Erdogan is pushing to legalize the death penalty in Turkey, which the EU rejects.
The triumph of the AKP in the referendum is also a sign for the US government, which counts on Turkey as one of its most important allies in the Middle east and fears the possibility that Erdogan might become closer to the Russian Federation, especially after Erdogan accused the US of protecting the man who’s responsible for the coup against him: Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish theologist and multimillionaire formerly allied to Erdogan, who’s now living in the US.
Gulen’s supporters, according to the Turkish government, are the cause of many of Turkey’s problems, and therefore their leader must be extradited from the US and judged in Turkey, and none of his followers can work in public office. 100 thousand people have been dismissed, including professors, militaries, police-men and -women, members of the Soccer Federation, officials of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Federal Judges, and Prosecutors. All of them were accused of following this clergyman who promoted inter-religious dialogue and is backed by Israel and the Vatican.
From Kemalism to Erdogan’s Sultanate
Thanks to victory in the referendum, Erdogan could be president until 2034 (provided he won two consecutive Presidential elections), with all of the powers he just obtained. Over the last five years, the AKP has worked towards this reform to consolidate their political powers along with the economic and military alliances it has managed to forge in their 15 years of omnimode presence in Turkish political life.
Today, 93 years of the period known as “Modern Turkey” come to an end. It has fone from Kemalism—the core set of principles on which the 1924 Republic was based on—to Neo-Ottomanism, although some analysts doubt that imperial ideas are resurfacing. My impression is that this doctrine is not only more alive than ever—despite all the regional tensions Turkey is surrounded by—but also that it has strengthened thanks to this referendum.
But there’s a difference between this doctrine and Erdogan’s plan, and it’s visible in the field of foreign policy. Neo-Ottomanism follows the rule of “avoiding problems with neighbors”, and this is observable in Turkey’s approach to the Russian Federation as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran, under the premise that these potencies are fundamental to achieve stability in the Middle East.
I said, months before the coup that took place in July 2016, that “the geo-strategic reality of the Middle East and its effects on the issue of refugees and military participation of Western powers in the area is a source of tension for Neo-Ottomanism since it seeks ‘Strategic Depth and Zero Problems with neighbors’, which is unattainable in a region where alliances are forged on the base of dissimilar interests, goals and realities”. These are unattainable goals but nevertheless Erdogan’s plan is to make pragmatic politics and move all of his pieces in one direction, in order to turn his country into a regional heavyweight.
Neo-Ottomanism believes in Pan-Turanism, which is the the idea of unity between all peoples of Turkic origin—a notion that Atatürk disdained. This idea can conflict with the principle of good relations with neighbors, since for Turkey it entails an expansionist strategy which wouldn’t be welcome. This directly threatens the Kurds, Syria, and Iraq, and is at the base of their alliance with extremist regimes like the Saudi and the Zionist ones.
Turkey is down the path towards a police state, with sectarian ideology. It has shut down dissident newspapers, it represses the Kurdish people, and it promotes a political system where there’s only place for the AKP. The suspension of all forms of opposition, especially after the false-flag attack to Ankara in October 2015, the 2016 coup and the repression to people accused of supporting Gulen leave no doubts that Erdogan’s government violates basic human rights.
Another violation of the good-neighbor principle is Turkey’s participation in the aggression against Syria. Its plan is to control the Kurdish area of this country and try to create an exclusion area by deploying troops without Syria’s authorization. In many ways, it has supported salafist groups that operate in Syria and Iraq—a country where Turkey also has interfered.
Turkey is a NATO country since 1952, and it has played the role of a spearhead, not only against Russia, but also against all societies that are under the control of this Military Alliance. Turkey has the second largest military in NATO, topped only by the US, and that’s no coincidence—it’s a part of a greater plan for the Middle East that’s mostly concerned with Iran and Russia.
Under Erdogan, Turkey has also played the role of a net for the EU, preventing the hundreds of thousands of refugees that arrive in its territory to enter Europe. In exchange for this, Europe has payed Turkey thousands of millions of dollars and Turkey is playing the refugee card to try to enter the EU.
Last but not least, Turkey has abandoned the Palestinian people in favor of striking deals with Israel and forming a triad of terror together with Saudi Arabia.
Now Erdogan is radicalizing the Neo-Ottomanism that was promoted by former Chancellor and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and is leaving behind the utopia of peaceful relations with neighbors in order to recover the old area of influence of the Turkic peoples, under the principle of Strategic Depth.
Erdogan has a mission for the region: to bring back the old splendor of the Ottoman Empire under the guidance of a Sultan vested with absolute power. His victory on the April 16 referendum is another step towards this goal. We’re witnessing the conformation of a XXI-century sultanate.
RIP Turkey, 1921 – 2017
On Jan. 20, 1921, the Turkish Grand National Assembly passed the Teşkilât-ı Esasîye Kanunu, or the Law on Fundamental Organization. It would be almost three years until Mustafa Kemal — known more commonly as Ataturk, or “Father Turk” — proclaimed the Republic of Turkey, but the legislation was a critical marker of the new order taking shape in Anatolia.
The new country called Turkey, quite unlike the Ottoman Empire, was structured along modern lines. It was to be administered by executive and legislative branches, as well as a Council of Ministers composed of elected representatives of the parliament. What had once been the authority of the sultan, who ruled alone with political and ecclesiastic legitimacy, was placed in the hands of legislators who represented the sovereignty of the people.
More than any other reform, the Law on Fundamental Organization represented a path from dynastic rule to the modern era. And it was this change that was at stake in Turkey’s referendum over the weekend. Much of the attention on Sunday’s vote was focused on the fact that it was a referendum on the power of the Turkish presidency and the polarizing politician who occupies that office, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Yet it was actually much more.
Whether they understood it or not, when Turks voted “Yes”, they were registering their opposition to the Teşkilât-ı Esasîye Kanunu and the version of modernity that Ataturk imagined and represented. Though the opposition is still disputing the final vote tallies, the Turkish public seems to have given Erdogan and the AKP license to reorganize the Turkish state and in the process raze the values on which it was built. Even if they are demoralized in their defeat, Erdogan’s project will arouse significant resistance among the various “No” camps. The predictable result will be the continuation of the purge that has been going on since even before last July’s failed coup including more arrests and the additional delegitimization of Erdogan’s parliamentary opposition. All of this will further destabilize Turkish politics.
Turkey’s Islamists have long venerated the Ottoman period. In doing so, they implicitly expressed thinly veiled contempt for the Turkish Republic. For Necmettin Erbakan, who led the movement from the late 1960s to the emergence of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in August 2001, the republic represented cultural abnegation and repressive secularism in service of what he believed was Ataturk’s misbegotten ideas that the country could be made Western and the West would accept it. Rather, he saw Turkey’s natural place not at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels but as a leader of the Muslim world, whose partners should be Pakistan, Malaysia, Egypt, Iran, and Indonesia.
When Erbakan’s protégés — among them Erdogan and former President Abdullah Gul — broke with him and created the AKP, they jettisoned the anti-Western rhetoric of the old guard, committed themselves to advancing Turkey’s European Union candidacy, and consciously crafted an image of themselves as the Muslim analogues to Europe’s Christian Democrats. Even so, they retained traditional Islamist ideas about the role of Turkey in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world.
Thinkers within the AKP — notably former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu — harbored reservations about the compatibility of Western political and social institutions with their predominantly Muslim society. But the AKP leadership never acted upon this idea, choosing instead to undermine aspects of Ataturk’s legacy within the framework of the republic. That is no longer the case.
The AKP and supporters of the “yes” vote argue that the criticism of the constitutional amendments was unfair. They point out that the changes do not undermine a popularly elected parliament and president as well as an independent (at least formally) judiciary. This is all true, but it is also an exceedingly narrow description of the political system that Erdogan envisions. Rather, the powers that would be afforded to the executive presidency are vast, including the ability to appoint judges without input from parliament, issue decrees with the force of law, and dissolve parliament. The president would also have the sole prerogative over all senior appointments in the bureaucracy and exercise exclusive control of the armed forces. The amendments obviate the need for the post of prime minister, which would be abolished. The Grand National Assembly does retain some oversight and legislative powers, but if the president and the majority are from the same political party, the power of the presidency will be unconstrained. With massive imbalances and virtually no checks on the head of state, who will now also be the head of government, the constitutional amendments render the Law on Fundamental Organization and all subsequent efforts to emulate the organizational principles of a modern state moot. It turns out that Erdogan, who would wield power not vested in Turkish leaders since the sultans, is actually a neo-Ottoman.
Erdogan’s ambition helped propel Turkey to this point. But unlike the caricature of a man who seeks power for the sake of power, the Turkish leader actually has a vision for the transformation of Turkey in which the country is more prosperous, more powerful, and more Muslim, meaning conservative and religious values would shape the behavior and expectations of Turks as they make their way in life. The problem is that Erdogan is convinced that he is the only one with the political skills, moral suasion, and stature to carry it out. Consequently, he needs to command the state and the political arena in ways that Turkish presidents, who are supposed to be above the fray and by tradition are expected to carry out their limited but important powers in statesmanlike fashion, never have.
For all of Erdogan’s political successes, forging the “executive presidency” that he seeks has been an exercise in frustration until now. In October 2011, he announced that Turkey would have a new constitution within a year. By 2013, the interparty parliamentary committee charged with writing the new document was deadlocked, so Erdogan set his sights on a constitution written by the AKP. In order to get it passed, however, he needed to reinforce his parliamentary majority. When, in two general elections in 2015, he did not get the 367 seats (out of 550) needed to write and ratify a constitution without the public’s input, the Turkish president was forced to settle for constitutional amendments and Sunday’s referendum.
In order to bolster support for the executive presidency, Erdogan has raised the specter of the political and economic instability of the 1990s and early 2000s, when a series of coalition governments proved too incompetent and corrupt to manage Turkey’s challenges. Many Turks quite rightly regard that era as one of lost opportunities and would prefer not to repeat it. The wave of terror attacks by Kurdish insurgents that killed scores between the summer of 2015 and late 2016 added urgency to Erdogan’s message about the wisdom of a purely presidential system.
Turkey’s domineering president has also sought to clear the field of real and perceived opponents, driving and deepening Turkey’s authoritarianism. The bureaucracy has been purged, a process that began even before last July’s failed coup; the Gulen movement has been dismantled; journalists have been silenced through jail time and other threats to their livelihood; and campaigners for a “no” vote hounded. To build support for a “yes” vote, Erdogan played on nationalist sentiment and manufactured crises with the Dutch and German governments over pro-AKP rallies planned in their countries.
It should come as no surprise that Erdogan pulled out all the stops in pursuit of the constitutional amendments. After all, they alter the organization of the Turkish state in fundamental ways and in the process do away with the checks and balances in the system. Those constraints on executive power were never strong to begin with, and Erdogan has already upended them in practice. Now, he seeks to legitimize this change in constitutional principles. Why?
Besides the fact that authoritarians like to situate their nondemocratic practices in legal systems so they can claim “rule of law,” Erdogan needs the legal cover to pursue his broader transformative agenda. And the only way it seems that he can accomplish that is by making himself something akin to a sultan.
Erdogan is an authoritarian, like those found throughout the world. But he is also inspired by Ottoman history, and there are aspects of his rule that echo that era. As the Turkish president has come to rely on a smaller and smaller group of advisors, including members of his family, his “White Palace” — the presidential palace in Ankara he built on land once owned by Ataturk — has come to resemble, not merely in grandeur, the palaces of the Ottoman sultans. Yet his effort to secure the executive presidency goes much deeper than that. Erdogan wants to tear down the republic because both he and the people he represents have suffered at the hands of those who have led and defended it. It would be impractical and impossible to re-create the governing structures of the Ottoman state, but in the Turkish-Islamist imagination, the age of the Ottomans was not only the apotheosis of Turkish culture and power, but a tolerant and progressive era. For Erdogan’s core constituency, in particular, the AKP era has been a golden era, a modern day analogue to this manufactured past. These predominantly pious and middle class Turks enjoy personal and political freedoms that they were once denied. They have also enjoyed upward economic and social mobility. By granting Erdogan the executive presidency he has so coveted, they are looking forward to even greater achievements. Of course, there are the millions of Turks who voted No and fear the consolidation of authoritarianism and who regard the state and the Kemalist ideas it represents as sacrosanct.
The Turkish Republic has an undeniably complicated history. It is an enormous achievement. In the space of almost a century, a largely agrarian society that had been devastated by war was transformed into a prosperous power that wielded influence in its own region and well beyond. At the same time, modern Turkey’s history has also been nondemocratic, repressive, and sometimes violent. It thus makes perfect political sense for Erdogan to seek the transformation of Turkey by empowering the presidency and thereby closing off the possibility once and for all that people like him will be victims of the republic.
At the end of the day, Erdogan is simply replacing one form of authoritarianism with another. The Law on Fundamental Organization and the republic that followed were expressions of modernity. The Turkish Republic has always been flawed, but it always contained the aspiration that — against the backdrop of the principles to which successive constitutions claimed fidelity — it could become a democracy. Erdogan’s new Turkey closes off that prospect.