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The End of Democracy in Turkey?

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In the final days before Turks vote in a referendum on 16 April on whether or not to give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dictatorial powers and effectively end parliamentary government, the mood in Turkey is prone to conspiracy theories and suspicion of foreign plots.

A sign of this is the reception given to a tweet that might have seemed to the sender to be exceptionally benign and non-controversial. It was sent in Turkish and English by the British ambassador to Ankara, Richard Moore, and read: “Tulips in Istanbul heralding spring. Hooray!” Accompanying it was a picture of a bank of tulips blooming outside the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul.

But for television sports anchor Ertem Sener the message had a much more menacing significance according to the Turkish Daily News. He tweeted to his 849,000 followers that the words were intended to show support for the failed military coup against Mr Erdogan in July 2016 and as an encouragement to “No” voters in the referendum. “This is how they are giving a message to Turkey,” said Mr Sener. “They are saying: ‘If we had prevailed [in the coup attempt] these tulips would have bloomed earlier. British dog. These tulips have been washed in [martyrs’] blood.”

Mr Moore replied dismissively to this rant, by tweeting in Turkish: “Oh dear! Who is this fool?”

But Mr Sener is not alone when it comes to hysterical denunciations. On the same day as the sports anchor was unmasking the secret agenda of the British embassy, Mr Erdogan was expressing his thoughts about Europe at a referendum rally in the west of Turkey. He said that, in the eyes of billions of people, “Europe today is no longer the centre of democracy, human rights and freedoms, but is one of oppression, violence and Nazism.”

It takes a good deal of cheek to accuse European states of lack of respect for democracy, human rights and freedoms when 134,000 people in Turkey have been sacked, including 7,300 academics and 4,300 judge and prosecutors in the nine months since the failed coup in which there is little evidence that any of them knew anything about or were otherwise involved. Some 231 journalists are in jail and 149 media outlets have been shut down, while 95,500 people have been detained and 47,600 arrested under emergency laws.

The multi-party democracy that has existed in Turkey since 1946 is being gutted by a mix of imprisonment, intimidation and interference in party affairs. Turkey has had military coups in the past, but the current restructuring and purge look far more radical. Even if the political parties were not being crippled by the assault, they would have difficulty in getting their message across. Their media outlets have been taken over or closed down and one television personality who said that he was voting “No” was immediately fired from his job.

Time allocated to the different parties on television tells the same story with Mr Erdogan and his ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) receiving 4,113 minutes of airtime up to 30 March and the CHP (Republican Peoples’ Party), which received 25 per cent of the vote in the last election, getting just 216 minutes. This is still better than the mainly Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), that won over 10 per cent of the vote and got just one minute of airtime. Twelve of its 59 MPs are in jail and expect long sentences.

Mr Erdogan says he would put “No” voters in a symbolic political museum, though many of them must fear a more traditional form of incarceration. But just in case there should be too many potential residents of this museum, the police and local officials have been refusing the opposition permission for rallies and ripping down flags, banners and posters advocating a “No” vote.

Despite the enormous advantages enjoyed by the “Yes” campaign, opinion polls were last week showing that voters were evenly divided or even that the “Nos” were a little ahead. But opponents of Mr Erdogan and the “executive presidency” he intends to establish are not optimistic about their chances of winning, arguing that whatever voters may do in the polling booth the outcome is likely to be a convincing majority for establishing the new authoritarian system.

This may be too cynical, but, if it is not, then Turkey will soon resemble neighbouring states in the Middle East such as Syria and Egypt where parliament and the judiciary are no more than closely monitored supporters’ clubs for the regimes. It is a depressing end to the modern Turkish secular state that Kemal Ataturk partly succeeded in establishing and which led Turkey to more closely resemble southern European states like Spain and Italy than regimes in the wider Middle East. Ten years ago, Istanbul and other Turkish cities had one of the most interesting medias in the world – not to speak of a vibrant intellectual life in general – which is now being extinguished. Any expression of critical opinion can now be interpreted as witting or unwitting support for terrorism or the attempted coup.

Of course, many leaders in the world have assumed supreme power only to find that they are at the mercy of events. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, Turkey will remain a deeply divided country along political, ethnic and sectarian lines. Mr Erdogan has for the moment crushed the Kurdish insurgency in the south east of the country, leaving many of the cities in ruins. But the Kurdish rebellion is not going to end and will look for support in the two Kurdish quasi-states across the border in Syria and Iraq. Overall, Mr Erdogan’s strategy of demonising and seeking to eliminate all his opponents as traitors and terrorists makes Turkey a much more fearful place than it has been in the past. Differences with foreign countries like Germany and the Netherlands have been exaggerated and exploited so Mr Erdogan and his party can present themselves as the heroic defenders of an embattled Turkish people.

It seems to be working, though Turkish elections have brought surprises in the past. Control of the media means that failures can be presented as successes. Overall, Operation Euphrates Shield, whereby the Turkish army entered Syria last year, has not been very successful and has now been ended. It is difficult for Turkey to exert strong influence when it is vying with powerful states like Russia and the US. But these failings and limitations will not count for much if Mr Erdogan and the AKP know that Turkish media coverage will be overwhelmingly positive.

Turkey might stabilise under the under authoritarian rule by Mr Erdogan if it was situated in another part of the world than the Middle East. But its southern border runs along the northern lip of the great cauldron of violence and conflict in Iraq and Syria whose poisonous influence has already seeped into Turkey. It is a measure of this instability that when there are bombings and killings, it is often a moot point whether they have been carried out by Isis, Kurdish separatists or some other dissident group. Mr Erdogan may win the referendum, but how far this will enhance his power is another matter.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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