On April 16, the people of Turkey went to the polls for a referendum. The matter under consideration was a broad set of amendments to the country’s constitution. Most notable among other things, the amendments would abolish the office of the Prime Minister and effectively replace Turkey’s parliamentarian government with a presidential system.
Most every presidential system of government needs a strong executive to function effectively, and the proposed amendments did not claim otherwise. In the process of doing away with the government’s Prime Minister, the amendments would endow the president, a largely ceremonial post with little hard power in the previous system, with the powers of chief executive and head of state. And the actual powers that come with these title bumps are far from trivial – new authority to appoint government ministers, select judges, enact laws by decree, declare states of emergency, and dismiss parliament.
Parliament, which would serve at the pleasure of the president, would also be stripped of its authority to scrutinize ministers as part of their appointment proceedings or conduct thorough investigations of the government. It would retain the ability to impeach the president, however, since the president could dismiss parliament at any time it remains to be seen if that capability has any tangible force behind it.
Though a unique issue in a unique country, like Brexit and the Trump victory, the referendum in Turkey won by a tight margin at the polls: 51.4 to 48.59.
Turkey is not part of Europe in the same way that, say, France is part of Europe. The overwhelming majority of the country’s land lies on the Eastern side of the Bosphorus Strait and the Aegean Sea, traditional bodies of demarcation between continental Europe and West Asia, or the Middle-East. Culturally, Turkey has much more in common with the Middle-East than Europe. CIA ethnographers estimate that roughly 70 percent of its population is of Turkish descent, 20 percent Kurdish, with a patchwork of peoples comprising the remaining ten percent of the population. In matters of faith, the population is almost entirely Muslim, with religious minorities – primarily Jews and Christians – making up less than one percent.
However, the histories of Turkey and Europe are deeply intertwined and, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable. The city of Troy, as depicted in the Iliad, was located along the Aegean Sea in the Anatolia region of modern Turkey. For many of its years the Roman Empire included vast tracts of land in Turkey and, following the separation of the one empire into Eastern and Western empires, Constantinople (now Istanbul, by far the largest city in Turkey), was the capital of the Roman Empire, built in Rome’s image, for a time and later the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Constantinople endured for centuries after the fall of Rome as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire’s descendent – the Byzantine Empire.
For those hundreds of years, the city was one of the largest and wealthiest in all of Europe and was the home of the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, a religious order second only to the Catholic Church in age and power in the medieval Christian world. (The institution came to be following a schism with the Catholic Church in the XX century. Many disagreements motivated the schism, chief among the usage of iconography to depict holy figures.) The city’s defenses, combining sturdy walls and natural geographic advantage of being located near water, made Constantinople very difficult to conquer. It wasn’t until the 13th century, 1204 to be precise, nearly 900 years after the city’s dedication to Roman Emperor Constantine that it was taken by force by a foreign power.
The foreign power was the holy warriors of the Fourth Crusade. Allegedly allies of the Eastern Orthodox Christians, the crusaders were on their way to Jerusalem to seize it from Muslim control when they stopped in Constantinople and got caught up in local politics. Looking for additional soldiers and supplies, the Crusaders made an agreement with a Byzantine prince to restore his father to the throne, backing the claim with their military support. Initially, the ploy was successful, but it backfired when, less than a year later, a popular uprising deposed the restored emperor. The prince the Crusaders made an alliance with was murdered and their support from the Byzantine Empire was cut off. In response, the Crusaders captured and sacked Constantinople, effectively destroying the once-proud Byzantine Empire, dividing the spoils amongst themselves, and in the process ruining one of the world’s greatest cities. The Crusades sure were great weren’t they?
Constantinople was eventually recovered and the Byzantine Empire was restored, about 60 years later, in a minimalist form. The attack of the Crusaders dramatically weakened the city and the empire never recovered its former glory.
In 1453, the city was conquered again. This time it was an Ottoman, Sultan Mehmed II, who brought a new religion and sweeping cultural change. The Ottoman Empire ruled the city (and the entirety of what is modern-day Turkey) until shortly after World War I, when the empire collapsed following its defeat as part of the Central Powers alliance, which included Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During this time, the city (and the land of modern Turkey) was transformed into the Muslim city that it remains today. The magnificent Hagia Sofia cathedral, originally a place of Eastern Orthodox worship, became a mosque. While Constantinople, renamed Istanbul (which is a rough rendering of Constantinople in Arabic), recovered some of its former dynamism, the whiplash suffered as a result of multiple conquests ensured that the city was a shadow of its former self.
Following the armistice that ended World War I, the victorious European allies – primarily France and the United Kingdom – divided up the spoils of those they defeated. During this period, much of the Middle-East and Africa was up for grabs, and the two countries took most of it. Turkey was partitioned in several independent states. However, the people almost immediately resisted. Led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Turkish War of Independence successfully kicked the Allies out of the country and resulted in the formation of the independent Republic of Turkey in 1923. Ataturk became the country’s first president; Ankara, a large city in central Anatolia, became the new country’s capital.
Ataturk ruled the country as president for the 15 years following its inception until his death in 1938. He left an enormous legacy. As president, he introduced radical social reforms to fashion Turkey in the mold of a modern, secular, parliamentary republic. Turkish women gained the right to vote a decade or more before women in such countries as France, Italy, and Belgium. Headscarves and other traditional Islamic customs were banned from the public square, in a dramatic departure from the Islam-based, constitutional monarchy of the Ottoman Empire (a model of government which lives on today in many Middle-Eastern countries).
Turkey remained neutral throughout most of World War II, jumping onto the Allies’ bandwagon in 1945 when it was obvious they would be the winner. After the war, it became a charter member of the United Nations and quickly became a vital Western ally in the Cold War. The Truman Doctrine, issued in 1947, put the full force of U.S. power behind a security guarantee for Greece and Turkey, resulting in decades of significant economic and military support, including the Marshall Plan. In 1952, after being part of the U.N. forces in the Korean War, Turkey joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and in the late 1940s, 50s, and early 60s, it became members of various Western economic and political communities such as the Council of Europe, the European Economic Community (now absorbed into the European Union), and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Military coups d’etat in 1960, 1971, 1980 disrupted Turkey’s politics enormously, but had surprisingly little effect on its international commitments. The same is true for a long-running Kurdish separatist movement, which seeks an independent Kurdish state. The Cold War was such a high priority, and Turkey was too vital an ally. Western powers were not willing to risk estrangement by interfering in Turkey’s internal politics. The country remains a key member of NATO and has been negotiating to join the EU since 2005, though these negotiations are largely viewed as going nowhere for the near future.
Soon after the election of 2003, in which the Turkish people put the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in charge, a man named Recep Tayyip Erdogan became Prime Minister. Erdogan had previously been banned from political activity, but the ban was rescinded once his political allies came to power.
He transitioned nicely to the presidency after his tenure as Prime Minister ended, which of course has nothing to do with why the presidency is suddenly a much more powerful office than it ever has been before in the modern Turkish state. In the summer of 2016, Erdogan loyalists thwarted a weak coup d’etat attempt. The event was used as justification for the declaration of a state of emergency, mass arrests of “rebels,” and wholesale purges of civil servants, judges, military professionals, and both rank-and-file and higher-up educators from the ranks of government employees. All the while, Erdogan blamed one-time ally Fethullah Gulen, a cleric living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, for the uprising, using the fact that Gulen was living in the U.S. as an excuse to blame the U.S., and the West, for the coup. Many people in the Middle-East, and all over the world really, get easily riled if the enemy is the West.
To get to the point, the reason people are concerned about this referendum is that Turkey was one of the few majority-Muslim states to build a reasonably effective democracy. Now, that democracy appears to be sliding toward elected dictatorship. Turkey was one of the West’s success stories, now it’s just another belligerent Arab dictatorship that must be placated and its power, like most other Arab and Middle-Eastern countries, only continues to grow. More broadly, the people’s assent to be governed by fiat, rather than the messiness of democratic-republican dialogue, is waning all over the world. After the Cold War, it seemed that democracy was an unstoppable force, “The End of the History” as Francis Fukuyama proclaimed. At present, just 25 years later, the democratic world is coming apart at the seams, its weaknesses exposed by the disastrous Iraq War, catastrophic financial crisis, and inability to convince massive populations of its worth. The dynamism of democratic-capitalism has disappeared, replaced by the institutionalization of greed, with its “aw shucks that’s just how the world is” shoulder-shrug of its leaders. It is the enemies of liberalism that have all the energy now. As perhaps they should. Because they, unlike so many piss-poor Western leaders, stand for something that capture hearts and minds, instead of heads, and inspires ordinary folk, instead of the already well-off.
Unfortunately, these leaders are just as likely to lead the post-war world order to its destruction as its renewal. Those who imagine that they can change what they like, without regard to the stability of the larger whole, are often surprised when all falls down.
Hindsight is 20/20, but, with each passing day, the general assumption that energized the 90s – that the world would always be this good or better, that democracy was the summit of political organization, that capitalism was unstoppable, that globalization was an unabashed force for good – seem more and more arrogant and idiotic. We have ignored so much and now the bill has come due. What’s astonishing is how shocked everyone is that it’s happening.