March 28, 2017
ISTANBUL (AP) — In a slick online video, 22-year-old Turkish student Ali Gul sits in front a drum kit and framed artwork while making tart remarks about Turkey’s political leadership. He wraps up by musing that he’ll probably get arrested if the video goes viral.
The video clocked tens of thousands of hits. This month, Gul was detained. Times have been hard for Turkey, buffeted by bombings, violence between government forces and Kurdish rebels, refugee flows from the war in neighboring Syria and a failed coup attempt that unleashed a huge government crackdown under an ongoing state of emergency. Now the nation is on the cusp of what could be drastic change in its political system that would, backers say, impose badly needed stability or, according to Gul and other critics, nudge it toward autocracy.
Next month, Turks will decide whether to make the post of president more powerful in a constitutional referendum that is a big gamble for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the tough-talking president who is arguably Turkey’s most transformational figure since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Ottoman-era army officer and national founder who died in 1938.
Whichever way the April 16 vote goes, Turkish society will remain deeply divided. In power since 2003, Erdogan represents a swathe of pious Muslims whose political and economic ascendancy came at the expense of a hard-line secular class that once dominated the NATO member country with the military’s support.
A former prime minister, Erdogan was elected president in 2014 for a five-year term and took a far more active role in politics than his predecessors. Even if the referendum proposals fail and his aura of invincibility is punctured, he could still run for another term as president.
“He is truly a man of servitude. And he knows how to affect a person down to the capillary vessels. He gets down to one’s heart, touches it,” said Ahmet Kaya, a machinery workshop owner in Istanbul who views the president not as an authoritarian ruler, but as a scrappy defender against Turkey’s perceived enemies.
Those enemies, at least for the purposes of a political campaign, include some European nations that blocked efforts by Turkish ministers to woo diaspora votes before the referendum. Erdogan, who once courted the European Union on behalf of Turkey’s fading candidacy to be an EU member, has galvanized supporters by comparing current Dutch and German authorities to the Nazis.
The taunts aimed at Europe, Turkey’s No. 1 trading partner, tap into historical grievances in Turkey, where the story of how colonial powers carved up the disintegrating Ottoman Empire still fuels a powerful nationalism. To some, they smack of desperation in a referendum campaign whose outcome is unclear.
Hopes for consensus politics in Turkey would diminish if referendum proposals to abolish the post of prime minister and concentrate power in an executive presidency are approved, said Ahmet Kasim Han, an associate professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul.
“The gates of populism, which will be fed also by the current zeitgeist around the world, could be wide open in Turkey,” Han said, referring to the populist platforms of U.S. President Donald Trump and anti-immigrant politicians in Europe.
A “yes’ vote in the referendum would grant the president the power to appoint government ministers and senior officials, appoint half of the members in the country’s highest judicial body, declare states of emergency and issue decrees.
“The president would be given the power to dissolve parliament on any grounds whatsoever, which is fundamentally alien to democratic presidential systems,” said the Venice Commission, an advisory body to the Council of Europe.
Erdogan has dismissed assertions that the referendum proposals set the stage for one-man rule, saying they will instead end the kind of political chaos that rocked past coalition governments. In 2001, the Turkish currency plummeted during an economic crisis in which public disgust with national leaders opened a path for Erdogan’s rise to power.
“I want to rule my country with almost the same understanding as a company manager. Why? To be able to lead with speed, to speedily take decisions,” Erdogan told the A Haber news channel. Gul, the student, could face jail time if convicted of insulting the president and the Turkish state in his online video criticizing the referendum. Drawing a questionable parallel with democratic Turkey, he said dead dictators Moammar Gadhafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq, as well as current Syrian President Bashar Assad, imposed stability and took rapid decisions in their countries.
“But these weren’t all that beneficial,” Gul said. “Speed in government leadership isn’t a good thing.”
Associated Press journalists Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Bulut Emiroglu and Mehmet Guzel in Istanbul contributed to this report.