EU relations

Time to Rethink Turkey

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Turkey has never been as internationally isolated as it following last weekend’s referendum on increasing the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

  • Facts


    • In a vote on Sunday, Turks narrowly voted to give their president wide-ranging executive powers.
    • Critics have called the move antidemocratic.
    • Turkey is currently in talks with the EU about joining the bloc.
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Turkey Referendum
The EU's new bogeyman. Source: AP

Recep Tayyip Erdogan believes he has reached his goal. Welcome to the Islamic Republic of Turkey – based not on the Shiite-Iranian model but on a conservative, Sunni notion.

Democratic institutions such as political parties and the parliament remain but have become meaningless. The entire nation is Islamic and characterized by a leader who derives his legitimacy and charisma from religion. There will no longer be independent institutions such as the judiciary; everything is subject to the will of the president. Contrarian thinkers are only tolerated to the extent that they make no waves.

Or is the President mistaken? The vote of 51.3 percent in favor of changing the constitution on Sunday doesn’t point to an overwhelming majority. How would the referendum have turned out if opponents had been given the chance to conduct a real electoral campaign? The state of emergency forced them to lie low. Hanging above them is the sword of Damocles of being labeled “terrorist” sympathizers – whether of the religious Gulen Movement or the Kurdish separatist PKK.

Along the western and southern coasts of the country as well as in the Kurdish regions of the east and southeast, the constitutional change was rejected by sometimes massive majorities. How can President Erdogan integrate this half of the population into his project of a “new Turkey”?

The history of Turkey since the Second World War – not least in recent years – shows the high potential for violent “solutions” in its society.

He is aiming not at integration but polarization. Conspiracy theories and an anti-Western mood are supposed to cause him to appear as the great leader and rescuer of the nation. But only around half of the nation agreed with this view.

How does Mr. Erdogan intend to win over the Kurds when the leaders of the Kurdish HDP party are in prison? And how can he convince enlightened segments of society to support his project when religious schools continue to be making rapid inroads? The subject of jihad has meanwhile been included in the curriculum of the Imam-Hatip secondary schools. Darwin’s theory of evolution is no longer taught.

The Erdogan system doesn’t envision the democratic resolution of political, social and cultural differences. The history of Turkey since the Second World War – not least in recent years – shows the high potential for violent “solutions” in its society. Is Mr. Erdogan really the guarantor of political stability? The acts of reckoning with actual or supposed political opponents since the failed putsch of July 2016 have created many open accounts.

The issue of stability is all the more urgent because Turkish foreign policy has deeply enmeshed itself in the Middle Eastern networks of violence. Turkey has numerous enemies in the region who are ready to destabilize it. The shocking anti-European and anti-German accusations and polemics made during the referendum campaign make it clear that Ankara has lost its foreign-policy bearings. Never since the end of the Second World War has the country been as internationally isolated as now.

This will also have repercussions in its relationship with the EU. The discussion whether Turkey still has a chance for membership is a sham. The referendum has meant Turkey has missed the EU boat. The reintroduction of the death penalty would only confirm this fact. The question regarding the European-Turkish relationship will now be: How can Europe strengthen the half of Turkish society that with its No decided in favor of democracy?

The dilemma has also reached Germany: The crisis in Turkey makes it impossible to ignore a knock-on crisis in Germany. Around half the Turkish citizens residing in Germany who have Turkish voting rights participated in the referendum; 63 percent voted Yes. This admittedly shows a welcome democratic involvement. But there is deep reason for concern that amid this strong majority, no voices were raised which – while supporting Mr. Erdogan – distanced themselves from his crude polemics against “fascist” Germany.

So the result of the referendum raises wide-ranging questions: Has the West ever really understood Turkey? What was ignored? What went wrong in Europe’s relationship with Turkey? Is there need for a fundamental change of course, and what will this look like?


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