My take on the recent referendum in Turkey

Monday, September 13, 2010 

Well, the ballots have been counted and the "Yes" side carried the day in Turkey's national referendum yesterday. The final vote was 58% in favor of 'Yes' and 42% against, a major victory for Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP government.

The referendum, as I discussed in my post yesterday, permits Turkey's AKP government to expand the country's constitutional court from 11 to 17 members in a move reminiscent of FDR's court-packing scheme from 1937. 

The AKP was able to win such a big victory by first securing the support of people who are already inclined to vote for the AKP, and then attracting the support of non-AKP supporters by including several anti-military planks in the referendum (people could only vote on the entire package of amendments, rather than vote on each amendment individually). Thus, in addition to giving the AKP enormous powers in shaping the judiciary in Turkey for generations to come, the package voted on yesterday also allows for the leaders of the 1980 coup to be put on trial (something which was not allowed according to the coup-era constitution that Turkey is still working under). Military officers can now also be tried in civilian, rather than military, courts (see imperfect but serviceable English translation of the amendments here). 

Most people in Turkey hate the idea of their country being run by unelected generals, and that's why they overwhelmingly approved Turkey's constitution in 1982---the constitution gave the generals a continued say in Turkish politics, but approving it nevertheless paved the way for a return to civilian rule. Likewise, I think the anti-military message of the "Yes" side in this vote appealed to a lot of non-AKP supporters. Just sixteen months ago in municipal elections, the AKP won just 39% of the vote, so the 58% that voted in favor of the referendum package must have included a large number of people who don't consider themselves AKP voters.

Outside of Turkey there are two main narratives coming out of this vote. On the one hand, there are the neo-cons who see "Islamofascists" hiding under every bed. They see the AKP as an "Islamic" party and are naturally suspicious of everything that the AKP does.

On the other hand there are the more sophisticated observers who are more sympathetic to the AKP, mainly because the AKP is taking on Turkey's military leaders through the Ergenekon trial and other means. These people recite the usual talking points: Turkey's "secular elite" constitute an "undemocratic" Kemalist dictatorship that the AKP and others are heroically trying to overturn, blah, blah, blah....

Look, for example, at Juan Cole's discussion of the referendum results in Informed Comment. Reading this piece, you'd get the impression that the only "elite" in Turkey is the "militant" secular elite--as if the monied supporters of the AKP do not represent a financial and political elite of their own! To talk so uncritically about the "secular elite" of Turkey--much of which consists of school teachers, civil servants, and others who are scraping to get by financially--represents an attitude about Turkey rooted in 1983.

Apparently,  people seem to think that democratic life will somehow be better in Turkey under the auspices of an authoritarian political party than under the military-bureaucratic coalition that has been running the Republic of Turkey for most of its existence. 

The AKP is only fighting fire with fire in its prosecution of the Ergenekon trial, but if the party is successful in crushing the influence of the military my fear is that this influence will be filled by the AKP itself, not civil society more generally. Anyone who thinks the AKP is solely interested in advancing the cause of democracy in Turkey should pay more attention to the party's attacks on the media.

Yes, it's bad that the military in Turkey has, for years, pushed certain types of political movements ("Islamic" parties, "Kurdish" parties, "Marxist" parties prior to the 1980s) out of the political process. And, if many of the country's current military leaders had their way, they'd close the AKP right away.

But how does that make the AKP "democratic?" How does providing the AKP with the power to add 6 members to the constitutional court "expand the range of liberties" (to use Cole's term) in Turkey?

We've seen this before. The Ergenekon trial began as an investigation into state crimes against citizens, and has since been transformed into a weapon used against the AKP's political enemies not only in the military, but also in the media and in civil society. But the AKP has constantly characterized the trial as a fight against "coup-plotters" in the military and elsewhere, charges which have been repeated thousands of times by people writing on Turkey who nevertheless don't seem to know much about Turkish politics.

"Yes" poster evoking execution of former Turkish PM Adnan Menderes. The poster reads "Yes for democracy and against military coups"

Now we're getting "democracy" and "liberty" coming out of a referendum that, once again, puts power in the hands of the AKP. Once again, the AKP has raised the specter of military intervention (the date of the referendum, Sept. 12, is the anniversary of the brutal military takeover of 1980) to convince enough people that this power should be in the hands of the AKP, rather than the permanent government. And, once again, guess who is swallowing this narrative uncritically?

Yes, the military is being weakened, but look who is getting stronger and stronger.....
More links, info and analysis can be found at the Borderlands Lounge

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