Turkey’s Erdogan Becomes Modern Sultan: Yet Referendum Victory Illustrated Weakness, Not Strength

05/01/2017 10:19 am ET Updated May 01, 2017

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan secured near dictatorial powers in the recent constitutional referendum. Yet after predicting that he’d win 60 percent or more of the vote, the would-be sultan barely broke 51 percent after rigging the ballot, destroying a free press, and criminalizing criticism.

The opposition is divided and broken, but Erdogan increasingly is feared rather than loved. His reign may be shorter than expected.

The Republic of Turkey was created amid the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire by Mustafa Kemal, a military officer later anointed with the name Ataturk, or father of the Turks. The state eventually evolved into an authoritarian democracy, with heavy-handed military interference which limited political and religious liberty.

In the early 2000s the country was ruled by an unstable nationalist coalition. Erdogan led the relaunch of the principal Islamic party, winning the 2002 election.

As prime minister Erdogan liberalized the economy, spurring growth which especially benefited the rural poor. He sought peace with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and expanded Kurdish participation in Turkish society.

He revamped Turkish laws to meet requirements for European Union membership. In 2008 he barely avoided a legal attempt to outlaw the AKP, but rebounded to systematically dismantle the authoritarian “deep state,” returning the military to its barracks.

Although his power base was conservative, traditional, and religious Turks, he won the backing of liberals, secularists, and women. Journalists enjoyed greater freedom and Europeans believed he could bring Turkey into their continent’s orbit. People prospered. Erdogan appeared to be creating the moderate Islamic democracy that Turkey always had been said to represent, even when it was in reality a secular autocracy.

Alas, many observers, this writer included, overestimated Erdogan’s commitment to a Western model. What looked too good to be true turned out to be so.

Journalist Claire Berlinski contends that the AKP was illiberal from the start, though in ways the West chose to ignore. However, Erdogan was moving the country in a freer direction, which even Turkish liberals saw as positive.

Analysts debate why Erdogan changed, but the best guess may be that his ambition fully flowered after he’d cemented his electoral dominance and defanged the military. He apparently meant it when he said “Democracy is like a streetcar. You ride it until you arrive at your destination and then you step off.” Once he felt unchallengeable, he abandoned democracy.

Around 2010 or so Erdogan began using his authority in a more illiberal fashion, punishing academics, businessmen, and journalists, in particular, who challenged him. He went to extraordinary lengths to not just break the military’s ability to intervene in politics but destroy individual military officers, accusing them of participating in fantastically crazed conspiracies (some of which he repudiated years later).

Erdogan prosecuted even his most harmless critics, including children, for insulting him on social media. He morphed from an ambitious politician seeking to silence those who could hinder his rise into an egocentric narcissist outraged that anyone would tar his dignity. If Kemalism was receding, Ottomanism was advancing.

His political brutality grew along with challenges to his rule. In 2013 Erdogan’s government was hit with serious corruption allegations from police and prosecutors apparently linked to Hizmat, the movement headed by Muslim teacher and cleric Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan purged the legal system of his former allies.

Two years later the AKP lost its parliamentary majority. Erdogan responded by abandoning his conciliatory policy toward the PKK and hyping security issues. He forced another election five months later, which restored his party’s majority. Along the way he purged the AKP of officials insufficiently subservient to him, including Abdullah Gul, his predecessor as president, and his activist successor, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Thus, democracy was in dismal shape, though not quite dead, last July when some members of the military attempted to stage a coup. Most of his critics joined his supporters in rallying against the putsch. Erdogan treated the failed coup as his Reichstag Fire, allowing him to aggrandize his own power.

Before the coup even had been suppressed Erdogan charged that Gulen, who had lived in rural Pennsylvania for years, was the mastermind. A committee of the United Kingdom’s parliament as well as German and European intelligence officials reported that they found no evidence backing Erdogan’s claim. Rep. Devin Nunes, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was similarly dismissive.

After the coup’s collapse Erdogan won emergency powers from parliament. He closed publications and jailed journalists—more now languish in prison than in any other country, including China and Russia. He charged opposition leaders and lawmakers who had opposed the coup with backing terrorism. He restricted freedom of assembly and punished critics. He purged government universities, closed private schools, and shuttered civic organizations.

The extent of the ongoing purge is extraordinary—so far some 50,000 have been imprisoned, 113,000 detained at least temporarily, and another 150,000 or more ousted from public sector jobs and banned from civil life more generally. Equally devastating private firings go uncounted. For many people Turkey now is an open-air prison.

The Turkish authorities did not bother attempting to demonstrate those punished had anything to do with the coup. Nor did Erdogan only target Gulenists. Anyone critical of him or linked to someone critical of him was at risk.

Turkish prosecutors announced that they were investigating several Americans for their alleged roles as closet Gulenists and coup plotters, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, former CIA director John Brennan, former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin, and columnist Ralph Peters, and almost a dozen others. Erdogan’s paranoia brings to mind Joseph Stalin.

Even before the referendum Freedom House rated Turkey as only “partly free” and moving in the wrong direction. The State Department’s human rights assessment cited “inconsistent access to due process,” “government interference with freedom of expression,” “inadequate protection of civilians,” and a potpourri of other issues.

Nevertheless, murdering democracy was not enough for Erdogan. After taking over the presidency, a position of little formal power, he proposed changing Turkey from a parliamentary system into a hyper-presidential government, akin to that dominated by Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

After the coup attempt he placed a package of 18 constitutional amendments on the ballot to expand presidential power. The vote would merely ratify reality and few imagined that he could lose.

The entire campaign occurred during a state of emergency with the government doing everything it could to hype a climate of fear. The Stockholm Center for Freedom cited “widespread and systematic election fraud, violent incidents and scandalous steps taken by the biased Supreme Board of Election.”

Yet the measure barely passed. The embarrassed Turkish government then expanded its crackdown. For instance, it charged Abdurrahman Atalay, a political activist who filed an election appeal, with “inciting hatred.” In the following days thousands more were arrested and purged. Law, courts, constitution, indeed most everything in Turkey, now is subordinate to Erdogan’s wishes.

Still, the referendum, by highlighting Erdogan’s willingness to subvert the vote of all Turks, may end up undermining his legitimacy. Even the Istanbul district, Uskudar, in which he owns a home and where he voted, came out against him.

Turkey’s saga of liberty lost is not only a tragedy for the Turkish people. It undermines the country’s relationship with the West.

Turkey obviously is free to change direction—in fact, public opinion long has been hostile to the U.S. But then Ankara’s membership in NATO should be reconsidered.

Erdogan’s government apparently helped arm, sell oil from, and open Turkish territory for use by ISIS. More recently he has targeted the Syrian Kurds, U.S. allies against ISIS. Erdogan’s government has limited military cooperation with Washington while promoting lurid conspiracy tales against the U.S. government and snuggling close to Putin’s Russia.

President Erdogan has abandoned its long-standing affinity for the West. The problem today is not a conflict between America’s moral and strategic interest. The Erdogan government flunks both tests.

CONVERSATIONS