Turkey seems to be sleep walking into one of the most important political decisions in the history of the republic, almost as if the country has had a national lobotomy. President Tayyip Erdoğan and his henchmen are pressing hard to change the constitution in such a way that the president will have almost unfettered powers, but the debate is strangely muted.
It would be one thing if Erdoğan had guided Turkey from success to success and the country was now claiming its rightful place at the high table of stable, democratic, economically sound countries of the world. But it is not. It remains far down below the salt. His list of failures is extensive:
1. Economy – once the envy of the emerging world. Now struggling with rising inflation, rising unemployment, decreasing exports, and very limited foreign investment. The only good news is that the collapse of the price of oil has narrowed Turkey’s current account deficit.
2. Foreign policy – how to turn ‘zero problems’ into ‘zero friends’ in 10 easy steps. It is now a real challenge to name even two countries that consider themselves close friends of Turkey --- and Kyrgyzstan doesn’t count. Turkey’s so-called Red Lines in Syria seem to be quickly fading to light pink as the realities of major power involvement become clear – realities that pretty much ignore Turkey.
3. Domestic peace – never in recent history has Turkish society been more dangerously polarized. The so-called Peace Process with the Kurds has turned into open warfare. The split between fanatic, thuggish Erdoğan supporters and the rest of society has become increasingly violent.
If this is what he can accomplish with limited powers just think what he can do with unlimited power. Surely the people can recognize the danger signs on the road to autocratic power. Wrong. Erdoğan’s almost complete suppression of the media -- jailing obstreperous journalists or intimidating hapless owners -- means that any opposing views are drowned at birth or classified as the lunatic rantings of disloyal segments of society under the perfidious influence of unnamed foreign powers. A deep freeze has descended on Turkey’s once vibrant, if not always accurate, media. Worst of all, it has become boring to read and watch the same nonsense day in and day out. Maybe that’s Erdoğan’s goal – bore everyone to sleep and then pass critical legislation without a murmur.
Obviously this has worked with Turkey’s feeble opposition. While Erdoğan dominates the daily news with fervent statements about the supposed benefits of a new constitution the opposition sits on its hands. An outside observer is not quite sure if he’s watching a key national debate or a re-run of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
So far I have not heard or seen one single person defending the current parliamentary system. All they can do is protest that Erdoğan is becoming dictatorial. Not a startling or original claim! Merely focusing on the man’s hunger for more power will never generate enough votes to defeat the coming constitutional referendum. This strategy of focusing on the negative has failed time and time again to dent his voter base, yet no one seems to have accepted this rather basic reality.
It would be nice to see the opposition start making the positive case for the current parliamentary system – namely that the long suffering people are better represented with a parliament than with the narrow views and prejudices of one person. If the opposition really believes in the value of a broad-based parliamentary system why don’t they duplicate some of Erdoğan’s tactics and stage as many rallies as he does? They could, if they have the energy, explain loudly why the people are better off with a parliament. They may still lose, but surely losing with a fight is far better than waiting passively in the middle of road for the truck to run over you. It’s also a waste of time hoping that former founders of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) who split with Erdoğan will ride to the rescue. People like Bulent Arinç or former president Abdullah Gül may disagree with Erdoğan, but they have no stomach for a public fight or for creating a new party based on disgruntled former AKP members.
On the other hand, Erdoğan should be careful what he wishes for. He may well get his new sultanate, and he may well turn the country into something found in the pages of George Orwell's 1984 or Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. This will work for him, but I’m not sure about the rest of the Turkish population.
But what happens when one day someone with strongly opposing views takes over? That new president, and there will be new presidents some day, could easily use the same powers to undo everything that Erdoğan has done. One need look no further than the late unlamented Soviet Union to see how fast policies can change with new leaders. Ottoman history itself is filled with fluctuating domestic and foreign policies of different leaders. If he’s not careful Erdoğan will go down in history as the man who created and then destroyed the AKP movement.