Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t just win his constitutional referendum — he permanently closed a chapter of his country’s modern history.
- By Steven A. CookSteven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His new book, "False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East," will be published by Oxford University Press in June.
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.
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