Turkey deeply divided after vote, at time of regional conflicts

Secular Turks fear Erdogan will use his new powers to further the Islamisation of society and restrict freedoms.

Enduring schism. “No” supporters march in Istanbul to submit a petition calling for the annulment of the Turkish referendum, on April 18. (AFP)

2017/04/23 Issue: 103 Page: 1

The Arab Weekly
Stephen Quillen

Tunis - Turkey’s vote for a strong executive presidency has left the country divided and at odds with Europe at a time when it is em­broiled in the Syrian conflict and seeking to balance good ties with both Russia and the United States.

The April 16 referendum win gives the president powers to con­trol the budget, appoint ministers, dismiss parliament, declare a state of emergency and rule by decree.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he needs the powers to revive the sluggish economy and overcome terrorism threats from the Islamic State (ISIS), Kurdish separatists and US-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gulen.

Victory for Erdogan was achieved by a narrow margin; 51,4% voted “yes” and 48,6% “no”.

Voting patterns reflected the deep divisions within Turkish so­ciety between the more cosmopoli­tan, educated, wealthy and secu­lar big cities and Aegean coastal regions, which voted against the changes, and the more pious, con­servative Anatolian hinterland, which has formed the bedrock of Erdogan support for nearly two decades.

Secular Turks fear Erdogan will use his new powers to further the Islamisation of society, restrict freedoms and crack down further still on dissent.

The opposition said vote count­ing rules were changed and ballot boxes stuffed with “yes” votes. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said the “lack of equal opportunities, one-sided media coverage and lim­itations on fundamental freedoms created an unlevel playing field” for the referendum.

The president said the OSCE should “know its place”.

Erdogan would have taken heart though from a call to congratulate him from US President Donald Trump.

Whatever the personal chem­istry between the populist presi­dents, the countries with the two biggest armies in NATO are divided by US support for Kurdish fighters in Syria, the US refusal to hand over Gulen and Erdogan’s rapproche­ment with Russia.

With Europe Erdogan is likely to have a tougher task after accusing its leaders of behaving like Nazis.

However, tensions with Europe are likely to boost Erdogan’s popu­larity at home and strengthen his position. The president said in his victory speech he could call anoth­er referendum on whether Turkey should abandon efforts to join the European Union. He also said he could order a vote bringing back the death penalty. The European Union said that would mean the end of Turkey’s entry bid.

Erdogan has some leverage with the European Union and could car­ry out his threat to abandon a deal to stop the 3 million Syrians in Tur­key from heading to Europe.

Turkish troops have been blocked in Syria and prevented from taking part in the US-backed push to take the ISIS capital Raqqa.

At home, opposition leaders have taken heart from the narrow referendum result.

“This large an opposition is hard for Erdogan to ignore,” wrote Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of De­mocracies.

“The biggest risk for Erdogan is that voters will hold him personal­ly responsible: By making himself the country’s sole decision-maker, he has left them no one to blame but himself.”

Stephen Quillen is an Arab Weekly correspondent in Tunis.

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