How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
As Turkey watchers obsessively monitored the results of the Turkish constitutional referendum on Sunday, it appeared for a few short hours that something momentous was taking place. Across Turkey, the Yes votes that would transform Turkey from a parliamentary system into a presidential one and create a highly empowered presidency with few meaningful checks and balances seemed to be underperforming expectations. As Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir—Turkey’s three largest cities and the first two reliable AKP bastions during its nearly 15-year reign—all voted No, there was a brief moment where it looked as if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was going to be handed his first real defeat. Although the Yes vote pulled ahead and the constitutional amendments passed, many in the opposition camp and its supporters are taking solace in the narrow margin of victory and the fact that Turkey’s capital along with its biggest city (and Erdogan’s hometown) both rejected the government’s agenda. Their hope is that this portends a new willingness to compromise on Erdogan’s part.
This hope is misplaced. Narrow victories are nothing new for Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), who saw their seats in the Grand National Assembly decrease in three successive parliamentary elections, and who fell nine full percentage points from the June 2011 elections to the June 2015 round. Following the 2015 election, Erdogan did not change his tune but instead doubled down, campaigning for the AKP despite being constitutionally barred from doing so, hounding his political opponents, and stepping up his campaign against the terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in order to make the argument that only a stronger show of support for the AKP would return stability to Turkey. The aftermath of this latest victory will be similar. Erdogan is not going to be cowed by the latest evidence of Turkey’s polarization; rather, he will do everything he can to deepen that polarization.
The lead-up to the referendum was a microcosm of everything that has led to the replacement of Turkish democracy with competitive authoritarianism. The election itself was not free or fair, as the government did all it could to suppress votes in the heavily Kurdish southeast, jailed opposition politicians, ensured that the media gave nearly exclusive coverage to Yes supporters, and detained and assaulted No campaigners. This all took place against the backdrop of the aftermath of the failed July 15 coup attempt and the hundreds of thousands of imprisonments and purges of government employees that followed. Erdogan and the AKP have consistently argued that a vote to amend the constitution and create an executive presidency is critical in order to win the fight against the Gülenist coup plotters and the PKK, and that a No vote is akin to voting for terrorists. Despite Erdogan’s efforts to do everything he could to put his thumb on the scale and predetermine the results, as well as all of the enormous burdens that the government placed on the No camp, Erdogan only narrowly won. Now that he has his win, he is not going to suddenly shift course and decide that his strategy so far has been wrong or damaging to the country, leading to a narrow rather than a broad victory. He will conclude that the problem has been that he has not gone far enough.
Turkey is about to become more divided than ever.
Turkey is about to become more divided than ever. Only the barest majority voted to upend Turkey’s system of government, subsume the powers of the legislature and the judiciary to one person, and effectively keep Erdogan in office for at least another decade. Many in the No camp questioned the legitimacy of the vote as soon as the government declared victory, and the opposition is already contesting the referendum results. This would be damaging enough to the political and social fabric of a country whose institutions were in perfect health, but in Turkey—where the government has smashed the judiciary’s independence and eviscerated the bureaucracy—it has the potential to produce a complete and final rupture between those who support the government’s legitimacy and those who don’t. Nobody who supports the opposition will believe a court that declares no election irregularities or suspicious vote-counting, and nobody who voted No will have any patience for Erdogan’s inevitable declaration of a great victory over the forces of terrorism, foreign domination, and anarchy. A responsible leader would do everything to lower the flames, but Erdogan’s track record suggests a different response will be forthcoming.
Aside from a brief interlude when the AKP’s sustainability was unclear, Erdogan has spent his entire political career fostering divisions he can use to his advantage. Losing Istanbul and Ankara will only convince him that he must be even more vigilant in his search for monsters to destroy, and that the vote was only so close because the Gülenist and Kurdish terrorists, their media sympathizers, and their foreign supporters have not been sufficiently routed from Turkey. The crackdown on journalists, academics, and insufficiently loyal government employees is about to get worse rather than better. Erdogan will portray anyone who does not support the new presidential system that has been voted in by the Turkish people as an enemy of Turkey who serves traitorous masters. The closeness of the referendum returns will mandate a renewed initiative to wipe out enemies, real and imagined, rather than a reconsideration of the real reasons that the vote was so close. Rather than seeking to bridge the divide, Erdogan is going to try to push his opponents off the cliff.
In a country with functioning democratic institutions, polarization along these lines prevents one side from doing whatever it wants. Institutions foster compromise and fracture the government’s unilateral power. Turkey is not such a country. Erdogan is not magnanimous in victory or in defeat, and the referendum has presented him with both. It may be darkest before the dawn, but for Turkey, the recent darkness is only bringing it closer to midnight.