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Upcoming Referendum Could End What Little Democracy Is Left in Turkey
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In the final days before Turks vote in a referendum on 16 April on whether or not to give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dictatorial powers and effectively end parliamentary government, the mood in Turkey is prone to conspiracy theories and suspicion of foreign plots.

A sign of this is the reception given to a tweet that might have seemed to the sender to be exceptionally benign and non-controversial. It was sent in Turkish and English by the British ambassador to Ankara, Richard Moore, and read: “Tulips in Istanbul heralding spring. Hooray!” Accompanying it was a picture of a bank of tulips blooming outside the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul.

But for television sports anchor Ertem Sener the message had a much more menacing significance according to the Turkish Daily News. He tweeted to his 849,000 followers that the words were intended to show support for the failed military coup against Mr Erdogan in July 2016 and as an encouragement to “No” voters in the referendum. “This is how they are giving a message to Turkey,” said Mr Sener. “They are saying: ‘If we had prevailed [in the coup attempt] these tulips would have bloomed earlier. British dog. These tulips have been washed in [martyrs’] blood.”

Mr Moore replied dismissively to this rant, by tweeting in Turkish: “Oh dear! Who is this fool?”

But Mr Sener is not alone when it comes to hysterical denunciations. On the same day as the sports anchor was unmasking the secret agenda of the British embassy, Mr Erdogan was expressing his thoughts about Europe at a referendum rally in the west of Turkey. He said that, in the eyes of billions of people, “Europe today is no longer the centre of democracy, human rights and freedoms, but is one of oppression, violence and Nazism.”

It takes a good deal of cheek to accuse European states of lack of respect for democracy, human rights and freedoms when 134,000 people in Turkey have been sacked, including 7,300 academics and 4,300 judge and prosecutors in the nine months since the failed coup in which there is little evidence that any of them knew anything about or were otherwise involved. Some 231 journalists are in jail and 149 media outlets have been shut down, while 95,500 people have been detained and 47,600 arrested under emergency laws.

The multi-party democracy that has existed in Turkey since 1946 is being gutted by a mix of imprisonment, intimidation and interference in party affairs. Turkey has had military coups in the past, but the current restructuring and purge look far more radical. Even if the political parties were not being crippled by the assault, they would have difficulty in getting their message across. Their media outlets have been taken over or closed down and one television personality who said that he was voting “No” was immediately fired from his job.

Time allocated to the different parties on television tells the same story with Mr Erdogan and his ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) receiving 4,113 minutes of airtime up to 30 March and the CHP (Republican Peoples’ Party), which received 25 per cent of the vote in the last election, getting just 216 minutes. This is still better than the mainly Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), that won over 10 per cent of the vote and got just one minute of airtime. Twelve of its 59 MPs are in jail and expect long sentences.

Mr Erdogan says he would put “No” voters in a symbolic political museum, though many of them must fear a more traditional form of incarceration. But just in case there should be too many potential residents of this museum, the police and local officials have been refusing the opposition permission for rallies and ripping down flags, banners and posters advocating a “No” vote.

Despite the enormous advantages enjoyed by the “Yes” campaign, opinion polls were last week showing that voters were evenly divided or even that the “Nos” were a little ahead. But opponents of Mr Erdogan and the “executive presidency” he intends to establish are not optimistic about their chances of winning, arguing that whatever voters may do in the polling booth the outcome is likely to be a convincing majority for establishing the new authoritarian system.

This may be too cynical, but, if it is not, then Turkey will soon resemble neighbouring states in the Middle East such as Syria and Egypt where parliament and the judiciary are no more than closely monitored supporters’ clubs for the regimes. It is a depressing end to the modern Turkish secular state that Kemal Ataturk partly succeeded in establishing and which led Turkey to more closely resemble southern European states like Spain and Italy than regimes in the wider Middle East. Ten years ago, Istanbul and other Turkish cities had one of the most interesting medias in the world – not to speak of a vibrant intellectual life in general – which is now being extinguished. Any expression of critical opinion can now be interpreted as witting or unwitting support for terrorism or the attempted coup.

Of course, many leaders in the world have assumed supreme power only to find that they are at the mercy of events. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, Turkey will remain a deeply divided country along political, ethnic and sectarian lines. Mr Erdogan has for the moment crushed the Kurdish insurgency in the south east of the country, leaving many of the cities in ruins. But the Kurdish rebellion is not going to end and will look for support in the two Kurdish quasi-states across the border in Syria and Iraq. Overall, Mr Erdogan’s strategy of demonising and seeking to eliminate all his opponents as traitors and terrorists makes Turkey a much more fearful place than it has been in the past. Differences with foreign countries like Germany and the Netherlands have been exaggerated and exploited so Mr Erdogan and his party can present themselves as the heroic defenders of an embattled Turkish people.


It seems to be working, though Turkish elections have brought surprises in the past. Control of the media means that failures can be presented as successes. Overall, Operation Euphrates Shield, whereby the Turkish army entered Syria last year, has not been very successful and has now been ended. It is difficult for Turkey to exert strong influence when it is vying with powerful states like Russia and the US. But these failings and limitations will not count for much if Mr Erdogan and the AKP know that Turkish media coverage will be overwhelmingly positive.

Turkey might stabilise under the under authoritarian rule by Mr Erdogan if it was situated in another part of the world than the Middle East. But its southern border runs along the northern lip of the great cauldron of violence and conflict in Iraq and Syria whose poisonous influence has already seeped into Turkey. It is a measure of this instability that when there are bombings and killings, it is often a moot point whether they have been carried out by Isis, Kurdish separatists or some other dissident group. Mr Erdogan may win the referendum, but how far this will enhance his power is another matter.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Erdogan, Turkey 
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  1. Turkey will hopefully stabilize, and then, as circumstances allow, introduce gradual liberalization. Sounds like a plan to me.

    And what’s the alternative? You criticize, you predict doom and gloom, but I don’t see you offering an alternative plan.

    • Replies: @Uebersetzer
    , @Avery
  2. Virgile says:

    If Erdogan gets his way, Turkey will enter in a period of deep instability. Erdogan has been unable to stabilize the country when he was PM, worse when he was president with all the power he needed, why would he stabilizes the country after cheating and stealing a referendum?
    He has caused such deep divisions that the country will enter a period of violence, repression and economical decline. Erdogan has a power over his people as he uses Islam, he knows how to manipulate them. As he has closed all the door to a healthy opposition, the “unhealthy” opposition is at work now. This time Erdogan may win the referendum but he may be on his way out.

  3. Alden says:

    Son of Claud, brother of Alexander, 2 generations of communist propaganda liars. I don’t believe a word of anything a Cockburn writes.

    • Agree: Amanda
  4. @Mao Cheng Ji

    Cockburn somewhat exaggerates how wonderful Turkey’s political and cultural life was ten years ago, there was quite a lot of political repression if you cared to look for it back then, but otherwise this is pretty spot on.
    Why should Turkey stabilise? When in 2015 Erdogan failed to get an overall majority, he deliberately destabilised the situation and got his overall majority back after renewed conflict and a few dodgy bombings – he and the AKP have used instability as a tool, so why should he stop now? In addition, by making Turkey more like its Middle East neighbours, which are drowning in conflict, “gradual liberalisation” does not look like being part of the “plan”. And even if the AKP wanted stability, which is doubtful, the situation in the region might make it impossible. Uneasy lies the head that wears the pasha’s crown…
    It is revealing that the first approval Erdogan and Co. have expressed towards the Yanks in quite a while was following their missile attacks on Syrian government forces. It also indicates the shallowness of the apparent pro-Russia turn by Erdogan.

    • Replies: @Mao Cheng Ji
  5. Avery says:
    @Mao Cheng Ji

    {Turkey will hopefully stabilize, and then, as circumstances allow, introduce gradual liberalization. Sounds like a plan to me.}

    Turkey will de-stabilize and eventually break apart.
    Kurds are projected to become majority around 2040.
    Kurdistan is virtual certainty.
    There are Sunni Kurds about 25-30 million who hate nomad invader Turks; Shia Alevis (10-15 million) who are hated by Sunni Turks; there are Islamist Turks and Kemalist/Secular Turks who hate each other.
    Lots of healthy hatred to spread around.

    Turkey is an unnatural, criminal state based on crime and Genocide.
    Turks are a foreign Islamist organism who have infested Asia Minor.
    And are now spreading the infestation into Europe.
    Something will happen.

  6. @Uebersetzer

    Why should Turkey stabilise?

    Why do countries or regions declare martial law in crisis situations? Why is France still operating under State of Emergency since the terrorist attacks of November 2015?

    Because (if it’s not obvious to you) this is what it takes to stabilize a society during a crisis. Less parliamentarianism, no destabilizing propaganda, suspension of some of the so-called ‘rights’, more direct authoritarian rule/control.

    This is how things get stabilized. Of course it’s not the guarantee of success, but all other things being equal, a strong authoritarian rule has a far better chance to succeed when dealing with a severe crisis (which is what Turkey is experiencing now), than so-called ‘democracy’.

    • Replies: @Uebersetzer
  7. Anon • Disclaimer says:

    And what is so great about ‘democracy’ when it led to current Sweden, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and etc?

    In our globalized world, ‘democracy’ usually means elites of each nation have been bought and sold by the GLOB. It should just called Monetocracy, monetized systems.

    Erdogan is scum, but then, it was democracy that brought him to power.

    I’d like to see real national democracies, but how many true democracies are there? Most democracies are about local elites bribed and blackmailed by the likes of Soros.

  8. Amanda says:

    For those interested, Sibel Edmonds has lots of good insights into the situation in Turkey (apparently, though Iranian, she lived in Turkey and speaks Turkish). Though she’s been around for a while (became a whistle-blower in 2002 when she was terminated from the FBI). I just started delving into her information and find it quite fascinating. Cant’ say right now that she’s always correct in her analysis, but her take on things is certainly worth considering.

    Newsbud- Sibel Edmonds Dissects the Turkey Coup Attempt: A CIA-Gulen Concocted Dry Run

    Turkey’s NATO Exit & the New Turkey-Russia Alliance: A Turning Point in the Global Power Structure

    Also, she’s predicting another coup attempt prior to the referendum.

    • Replies: @Uebersetzer
  9. Amanda says:

    Oops, forgot the one on the Turkey Referendum:
    Turkey Referendum: CIA-NATO Operation to Tip the Balance of Power

  10. @Mao Cheng Ji

    You sound like a German in 1933, praising Hitler for restoring “order”. In her last article before being killed by what were in effect proto-Nazis, which Rosa Luxemburg entitled sarcastically “Order reigns in Berlin”, she made the correct observation that “your order is built on sand”. So is Turkey’s, and Hitlerian methods won’t have more than a short-term effect. Hitler “cured” Weimar instability by increasing European instability and eventually starting WW2. How did that work out for him, or for Germany? “No destabilising propaganda” – is that why Turkey is the number one jailer of journalists today?
    And what does Erdogan regard as “destabilising”? Secularism? A large Kurdish minority? A large Alevi minority holding religious beliefs not a million miles from those of Alawites in Syria who are the number one enemy for bigoted Sunnis? A war in Syria that he himself did much to encourage?
    The anti- side in the referendum yesterday released a video of pro-Erdogan police chanting “Intikam” – “Revenge”. If your idea of restoring stability is Nazi Germany 1933, history is very much against you.

    • Replies: @Mao Cheng Ji
  11. @Amanda

    A US imperium that openly strives for regime change in other countries is as capable of targeting Erdogan as it did and does Assad, Putin, Chavez, Allende etc. and it is sometimes even more dangerous to its supposed friends than to its enemies. I would not be surprised if Erdogan thinks restoring relations with Israel might keep the “International Jewish Conspiracy” off his back (AKP journalists often live in the same fevered conspiracy theory world that many Unz commentators do). But I am not convinced by the pro-Russia turn of Erdogan, and how does this look anyway after the US missile attacks?

    • Agree: Amanda
    • Replies: @Amanda
  12. @Uebersetzer

    Godwin’s law.

    Anyway, yes, Weimar republic was falling apart, and so a more authoritarian rule was introduced. True, it didn’t work out well in the specific case of the 1930s Germany, but it does confirm the natural dynamic I described in 6. Like I said, no guarantees, but that’s the typical, normal way to deal with a crisis.

    And what does Erdogan regard as “destabilising”?

    I’m not a mind-reader, but I’d assume: first and foremost it’s the military coup attempt last year, and whatever/whoever is behind it.

    • Replies: @Uebersetzer
    , @Uebersetzer
  13. Here:

    [a state of emergency has been decreed] On 13 November 2015, immediately following a series of terrorist attacks in Paris, due to expire after four extensions in April or May 2017.[3][4][14][15] As of 23 July 2016, almost 3,600 houses had been raided under the state of emergency, leading to more than 400 arrests, the seizure of more than 500 weapons including 40 war weapons,[16] and four or five of these raids led to a terrorism-linked judicial investigation.[17][18] Some Muslim rights groups criticized the raids as unfairly targeting French Muslims, especially those of North African descent, claiming that they are conducted with little concern for civil rights, and pointing out that only one terrorism-related investigation led to prosecution by August 2016.[2] On 16 November 2016, President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced that the state of emergency would be extended until the 2017 presidential elections, stating that the measure would be necessary to protect rallies and other events during the electoral campaign.

    And that’s all because of 9 people with small arms, back in 2015. Does it make Hollande Hitler? And now compare that with a full-blown military coup attempt in Turkey, with tanks and military aircraft.

  14. Amanda says:

    Yes, I’m not necessarily convinced by the supposed Pro-Russia turn of Erdogan. This info is all very new to me, and even in one of those videos w/Sibel Edmonds, one of the guests noted that in a recent meeting Erdogan referred to Putin as a “friend” but Putin did not say the same of Erdogan (perhaps Putin is not convinced either??).

    It’s all very confusing, but I just found this:

    Turkey is being attacked by Anglo-American finance as punishment for Ankara’s perceived noncompliance with NATO’s geostrategic goals. Despite Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), under President and once Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, running a successfully growing emerging markets economy for nearly a decade and a half while enduring multiple scares, Turkey’s economy is now uniformly described as in dire straits by the collective London-New York banking juggernaut and its media tentacles. Despite the West’s reasoning for why the nation’s currency – the lira – is plummeting, Turkey is enduring this imposed situation due to seasoned, disciplined internal defensive economic measures, plus its insistent relations with China, Russia and Iran.

    The above makes me wonder about what’s going on in Venezuela right now w/hyperinflation–I hear plenty of people on the internet blaming the Venezuelan govt, but I’m kind of wondering whether it’s actually the product of financial warfare (I’m pretty sure they can wage war on currencies and bring them down).

  15. Virgile says:

    Erdogan despises Iran ( they are shia heretics) and the Russians ( they are either atheists or christians) as well as Europe ( christians) . Turkey’s past is arrogant, bloody and oppressive. It has not changed much. Ataturk wanted to break from the dark past where religion and power were in one person. He worked to turn Turkey away from Islam and more toward secular Europe. He despised the Moslem Arabs. Until now the average Turk despises the Arabs.
    Ataturk succeeded for a while but now comes the man who want to go back to the ottoman period and become the all-in-one leader. Ataturk is turning in his grave.
    He thinks that it is a model of modern Islam ‘democracy’ and many around him believe that too.
    In a world of information, this path appears to be a dead end. The country may end up paying a heavy price in diverting from a successful path and been pulled into a hazardous path under the authority of a megalomaniac. Erdogan is going straight to his hard fall.

    • Replies: @Uebersetzer
    , @Uebersetzer
  16. He thinks that it is a model of modern Islam ‘democracy’ and many around him believe that too.

    Erdogan’s no democrat:

    Erdogan once said that democracy for him is a bus ride. “Once I get to my stop, I’m getting off.”

    • Replies: @Uebersetzer
  17. anon • Disclaimer says:

    It is in no way surprising that Turkey should slip away from democracy and return to authoritarian roots. It was never a western country to begin with. The various reforms introduced by Ataturk were only superficial and didn’t sink deep roots. Nor could they have. Democracy, genuine democracy and Islam are mutually incompatible. Any Muslim leader who tried to turn his country into a real democracy, (free press, independent judiciary, equal rights for women and minorities, freedom of worship for other faiths, [try opening a Christian church in Saudi Arabia] multiple political parties, open and honest elections etc.) would soon be removed for going against the grain of his country’s culture. When Muslims do have elections they simply vote for a Muslim party, like in Egypt and Algeria. An interesting article was written by Freedom House “The Democracy gap. Freedom in the world 2002”, about this phenomenon.

  18. @Mao Cheng Ji

    Do try to keep up. The putsch attempt (of which Erdogan had foreknowledge and allowed to proceed so that it could fail and he could reap political capital?) happened in July 2016. Erdogan and the AKP turned on the PKK, ending a tentative “solution process”, a full year prior to that. I venture to suggest the AKP losing its overall majority in parliament the month before that was “destabilising” for Erdogan, and a good deal of the political violence in Turkey was instrumentalised by him (and even instigated?) to get a parliamentary majority back. Because Turkey is Turkey, you don’t get just one Reichstag fire, but several.

  19. @Johann Ricke

    Erdogan probably thinks “democracy” and his holding personal power in Turkey are the same thing, but I would like a source for the quote. Variations of it have been told of quite a few political leaders in various countries. Pilsudski for example is supposed to have said he rode the tramcar of socialism until Polish independence, but got off at that stop, and no longer wished to be addressed as Comrade Pilsudski.

    • Replies: @Johann Ricke
  20. @Virgile

    This may be true, but power and money rather than religion are in my opinion Erdogan’s core motivations. Hostility to Iran on religious or geostrategic grounds might be expected, yet an Iranian associate on Erdogan is in jail in the USA for allegedly engaging in a lucrative breach of sanctions against Iran, and the word around the campfire is that Erdogan and co. were among the beneficiaries from breaching sanctions. The head of Halkbank in the USA, another Erdogan crony, has been jailed there too on the same or similar grounds. Maybe this kind of thing is part of the Empire trying to put the screws on Erdogan, who is certainly deemed unreliable, but the Erdogan government has a track record of maintaining economic relations with countries to which the Turkish government was supposedly hostile. Trade with Israel increased for example when diplomatic ties had been disrupted.

  21. @Mao Cheng Ji

    Statements that something is “Godwin’s law” are in my opinion a hobgoblin of small minds and spring from a desire to avoid looking at the actual evidence. On another thread a certain Wally earlier dismissed with one line the idea that there might be a fascist system in Turkey, since allegedly I don’t know what fascism is. I put forward a rather detailed point by point reply that turned into a history of modern Turkey. Wally never refuted it, to my knowledge, and probably lacked the erudition or the specific knowledge of Turkey that would make an effective rebuttal possible. I do not see any rebuttal in what you put forward, either. Just the assumption that Erdogan is the best of all possible Turkish worlds, and also the assumption that nothing happened prior to the strange failed coup there last July.

    • Replies: @Johann Ricke
  22. @Virgile

    “He despised the Moslem Arabs. Until now the average Turk despises the Arabs.
    Ataturk succeeded for a while but now comes the man who want to go back to the ottoman period and become the all-in-one leader. Ataturk is turning in his grave.
    He thinks that it is a model of modern Islam ‘democracy’ and many around him believe that too.
    In a world of information, this path appears to be a dead end. The country may end up paying a heavy price in diverting from a successful path and been pulled into a hazardous path under the authority of a megalomaniac. Erdogan is going straight to his hard fall.”
    Anti-Arab xenophobia certainly exists in Turkey – the Ottoman Empire was supposedly betrayed by Arabs who were in league with people like T.E. Lawrence, and who in may cases sold their own countries to Britain and France. Actually any non-Turk can be targeted by this – foreign plots and treacherous minorities are meat and drink in Turkey’s political discourse, and Erdogan sharpened it but did not create it. When I first learned Turkish, a daily newspaper was serialising a cartoon about Mustafa Kemal’s followers in Constantinople just after WW1 ended, and depicted them engaging in intrigues against British occupation troops who were utterly vile. This cartoon went out prior to the AKP coming to power and was in harmony with a certain Turkish world view. I read this and reflected on how good it was for Turkey’s income from tourism that few tourists can actually read Turkish newspapers or follow what appears on TV. Erdogan only differs from that in that he is neo-Ottoman, whereas Kemalists realised that the Ottoman Empire was thoroughly played out and could not compete against European powers. And Turkey today still cannot make large parts of its own military hardware and depends on sales from the USA, Germany or even Israel.
    I think Erdogan is heading for a fall, although the fascism implicit in Turkey’s political system makes many of them suckers for a Glorious Leader.

  23. @Uebersetzer

    Erdogan probably thinks “democracy” and his holding personal power in Turkey are the same thing, but I would like a source for the quote.

    Jordan’s King Abdullah, quoted in the Atlantic:

    Abdullah is wary of Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, whose Justice and Development Party is, he believes, merely promoting a softer-edged version of Islamism. (“Erdogan once said that democracy for him is a bus ride,” Abdullah reports. “ ‘Once I get to my stop, I’m getting off.’ ”) He sees Erdogan as a more restrained and more savvy version of Mohamed Morsi, who set back Muslim Brotherhood’s cause in Egypt by making a premature play for absolute power. “Instead of the Turkish model, taking six or seven years—being an Erdogan—Morsi wanted to do it overnight,” the king said.

    • Replies: @Uebersetzer
  24. @Johann Ricke

    Thanks for the source. I am wondering whether Erdogan would be quite so candid with Abdullah, though.
    Morsi’s fate definitely scared Erdogan, but he simply doubled down on Gezi protesters in 2013 rather than giving some ground.

  25. To add to the foregoing, I wonder if these ruler types, when they get together, have a few drinks and then actually admit to each other in moments of cynical candour what they are really up to.

  26. Thanks for the source. I am wondering whether Erdogan would be quite so candid with Abdullah, though.

    While not an Islamist, Abdullah is basically an absolute monarch, holding powers to which Erdogan aspires. Erdogan probably figured Abdullah would be simpatico.

  27. @Uebersetzer

    Statements that something is “Godwin’s law” are in my opinion a hobgoblin of small minds and spring from a desire to avoid looking at the actual evidence. On another thread a certain Wally earlier dismissed with one line the idea that there might be a fascist system in Turkey, since allegedly I don’t know what fascism is.

    While a recurrence of Hitler is fairly unlikely, in the sense of a dictator who has an unhealthy obsession with exterminating entire ethnies whether or not they can be made to submit to his rule, the desire of contenders for political office to acquire absolute power is not. That goes double for political contenders in countries with marginal traditions of political freedom or where religious traditions override political freedom, as has been true with Muslim polities since Islam’s inception.

    • Replies: @Uebersetzer
  28. @Johann Ricke

    “… exterminating entire ethnies whether or not they can be made to submit to his rule…”

    I certainly wouldn’t rule it out – there are about 10 million Alevis in Turkey, perhaps more, but even before Erdogan there were massacres of them. (Maras, December 1978 and the Sivas massacre, July 1993 are two prominent examples.) Turkey has taken gigantic steps towards Al Qaedisation under Erdogan. There are Turkish Alevis by ethnicity but there are Kurdish Alevis and Arab Alevis, the latter actually the same as the Alawites of Syria, left in Turkey as a result of border changes the French agreed with Ataturk. So ethnic and religious hatred might be mixed together here.
    Another possible target for genocide is the Kurdish minority.

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