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Erdogan’s referendum and the dangerous erosion of democracy in Turkey

The rise of right wing populism has begun to be a serious problem in Europe and in the US but a more serious situation is taking place in Turkey. AKP and its populist leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have been rapidly destroying Turkish democracy. The most recent step was the April 16th referendum.

It was not surprising that AKP came to power in 2002 shortly after the devastating 2001 economic crisis but it is surprising that it has clung to power since then. AKP’s electoral base is concentrated in the lower echelons of the society, especially the working classes of the informal sector, but it is a heterogeneous cross-class political coalition as it also includes artisans, shopkeepers and newly emerged conservative businessmen. Erdoğan is a typical populist in many senses. His rule has been paternalist and something of a personality cult. Except for his intensive religious and conservative tones, he has a vague ideology characterised by an anti-elitist and anti-establishment discourse that praises the lower classes. Unfortunately many Europeans were mistaken to take this as a sign of ‘progressiveness’, but in fact these were signals of his ‘regressive’ populism. Moreover, Erdoğan has been implementing the most radically neoliberal economic policies in Turkey so far, but he complements those policies with widespread redistributive methods to create popular support.

The suppression of the opposition by the AKP government has been going on since 2007 but the crackdown on the opposition, academics, journalists and human rights activists got much worse after the failed military coup attempt on July 15th last year. Under the declared state of emergency, about 110,000 people have been dismissed from their jobs. More than 50,000 people are in prison, including record levels of journalists as well as MPs and mayors from the opposition Kurdish party HDP. Many news outlets and civil society organisations have been closed down.

With the referendum held on April 16th not only the parliamentarian system will be replaced with a presidential one, but also Erdoğan will have sweeping new powers, including the power to appoint and fire ministers, name 12 of the 15 members of the country’s highest judicial body, dissolve the parliament and renew elections, and possibly stay in power for another 12 years. Without the checks and balances from an independent legislature, judiciary, vibrant civic society or a free media, now Turkey has literally become an electoral dictatorship. Although almost half of the Turkish population supports him, it is a tragedy for the rest who desperately watch the country sink further into autocracy, religious conservatism and instability. From now on Erdoğan will be more encouraged to intimidate the courts, the press and rival parties and will further use the state security apparatus against his opponents.

The officially declared result of the referendum is 51.41% in favour. Yet, the OSCE issued a report criticising not only the unfair campaign and media environment before the referendum but also the government’s conduct of voter registration and election observers. Also, the representatives from the EU mission claimed serious irregularities at the polls and declared that the referendum did not meet the Council of Europe standards. The observers also criticised the decision of the Turkish electoral commission to count ballots which did not carry an official stamp, which was an important safeguard against fraud.

As a nation always taken for granted and poorly treated by Europeans, Turkey has drastically drifted away from the EU in this past decade. As Erdoğan gets more and more despotic, surely he will further defy Europe. One of his first statements after claiming his victory was about reintroducing the death penalty, something which would effectively eliminate any chance of joining the EU. If the referendum results are taken to the European Court of Human Rights and declared unlawful, Erdoğan may even decide to remove Turkey from the European Council. In the past, despite its imperfect democracy, Turkey was seen as a buffer between Europe and the unstable Middle East. In fact, residing in a palace of more than 1000 rooms and considering himself as heir to the Ottoman sultans, Erdoğan is now an erratic, corrupt and despotic strongman at the edge of Europe.

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