Turkey in The Face of Choice

Turkey entered an era of change when the conservative Justice and Development Party came to power at the beginning of the 21st century having concentrated all the levers of government in their hands over a period of 15 years. The transformations that have taken place affected all spheres of the country’s social, economic and political development. Although “30% agree, 30% disagree, and 30% so to say tend towards a smoking hookah formula is almost certain, Turkey’s society has never been so rigidly divided over its republican history. Ankara is facing the abyss of the upcoming April 16 referendum over the proposed amendments to the constitution.

As one member of the country’s ruling party said, if less than 50% vote for the changes, there will be a civil war. The analysis of the situation suggests that 55% in favor of the changes would lead to the lowest probability of collisions, while the division of votes 49/51 (in favor or against) to the highest. Moreover, with the victory of opponents of reforms, the ruling elite may be tempted to establish the de facto existing presidential regime without any democratic procedures. As recent polls show, the supporters/opponents ratio fluctuates around 45−55 percent. The popularity of the ruling regime surges after rallies held by domestic politics “heavyweights,” at the time of military successes and through constructing political enemies (for example, Holland or Germany).

The main plot of the proposed 18 amendments is a concentration of the power in the hands of the president. This will diminish the say of the military, and the share of party candidates in the leading institutions will dwindle. Earlier, it was the political parties that determined the entire palette of power in republican Turkey, although each depended on its leader and transformed themselves when the leader changed. The main controversy was within the “secular/non-secular” paradigm. Supporters of a more conservative society joined parties that contained the words justice, prosperity, etc., thus getting hold of more kinds of groups of voters, but also thereby giving out connections with the military and the Constitutional Court, which immediately proceeded to eliminate them before they could move on into the active phase of the Eurocentric course.

The majority of the Turkish population is obviously tired of the radically secular regime and the humiliating and unsuccessful knocking on Europe’s doors. The European dream, which was the key ideology of the country’s foreign policy, has faded. Turkey grew stronger due to its ongoing reforms as part of its attempt to integrate with Europe. It also boosted its economy and switched to an offensive in foreign policy. Implementing a large-scale national project in an oriental country requires a strong leader. The phenomenon of Recep Erdogan is not accidental. His rise in Turkish politics came as a natural result of the rigid westernization of a conservative oriental country.

Now Ankara will seek a new development idea in one or another form of expansionism and nationalism. The most popular ideological concepts in this context are the “neo-pan-Turkism” and “neo-Ottomanism.” One might argue, with certain conventionality, that neo-Ottomanism is Turkey’s unofficial foreign policy doctrine so as to be able to  expand its influence to adjacent territories through “soft power” and economic ties. The main “cells” of the neo-Ottomanism network are neo-pan-Turkism, pan-Islamism, Turkish Eurasianism, and interaction with the Arab and Balkan countries, Asia and Africa. In turn, neo-pan-Turkism implies a similar “soft” integration, “inclusion and involvement” of countries with a Turkic element in society based on their ethnic, linguistic and religious affinity. For comparison, TURKSOY, TIKA and the Turkic Council play the same role in post-Soviet states.

Two opposing trends are organically combined in the Turkish political consciousness today: the fear of collapse due to a conspiracy of external forces (the “Sevres syndrome”) or internal forces (the “Kurd syndrome”); and the desire to expand influence within the Turkic and Ottoman boundaries. Ankara’s fears and ambitions are skillfully employed by western partners who actively interact with both Kurdish influence groups and nationalist forces inside Turkey.

Faced with internal and external challenges, the Republic of Turky has arrived at a concept of “defense through leadership,” something we are witnessing in the Syrian-Iraqi campaign in its most active phase. One of Turkey’s key postulates in world politics is “the world is bigger than five” (members of the UN Security Council). Leaving aside the feasibility of such grandiose ambitions, it should be noted that the very fact of this political goal-setting positively influences voter mood, which is inherent in imperial identity.

The regional message of the Turkish leadership is aggressive enough. Ankara constantly sends signals that the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, as well as the current borders of the region’s countries, was imposed from the outside, and therefore is not in tune with the natural aspirations of societies and peoples. While initially, this idea was widespread during the Turkish-Greek clashes over the Aegean islands, today it has expanded to Turkey’s southeastern borders. So far, only the mismatched weight classes of the interested players guarantee them from further extrapolation of such postulates towards Central Asia and the Caucasus. Strengthening the presidential system to replace the parliamentary system will give carte blanche to the country's leader in determining and accelerating the implementation of these priorities.

Turkey’s domestic political ideology dwells on fighting external influence, reliance on nationalism and conservative values. Therefore, security is the cornerstone of decision-making and the pivot of the entire campaign for the upcoming referendum, as was the case for the previous parliamentary elections in 2015.

The collective consciousness of oriental societies generally implies a tough crackdown on dissent, slow unfolding of social processes with instantaneous rallying in case of danger. Today practically the whole society is united by the idea of ​​fighting FETO (the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation).

The “strange military coup” of July 2016 played into the hands of the government, giving them an excuse to discredit the military as a political force, a pretext for large-scale purges from “destabilizing elements,” and a chance to rally the population in the face of a threat that is both internal and external – terrorism (Kurds and FETO).

The policy constructs, based on the friend-enemy dichotomy, has a relatively short period of validity. Already, there is a decrease in the support for the country's leadership because any kind of dissent the government finds inconvenient becomes subject to purges.

People are ready to support Erdogan's course, but they are not going to vote for him based on his personal qualities – they would rather support institutional transformations that could influence Turkey’s future. In many respects the upcoming referendum is not about the constitution or about Erdogan. It is about the future of the system, which will set in after the current president goes. Such thinking testifies to the partial success of parliamentarism, which it took almost a hundred years to take root on Turkish soil. And paradoxically, right now, when these minor shifts towards democracy started showing, the Turkish people are asked if they want to change the entire model in favor of a more “manual” form of government.

Vladimir A. Avatkov is Associate Professor of the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Director of the Center for Oriental Studies, International Relations and Public Diplomacy, PhD in Political Science

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.