Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current president of Turkey, began his political career in the ’70s. He founded the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP) party, of Sunni Islamic inspiration, and held the position of mayor of Istanbul. Conservative since the very beginning, in 1998 he was arrested for inciting religious hatred. In 2003 he became prime minister and remained in office until 2014 when he was elected president of Turkey. Over the years, he gradually tried to institutionalize the Islamic religion in a state with a secular constitution. Because of disputes with the opposition, mainly the Kurdish ones, his AKP party lost the majority in the chamber in 2015, and in 2016 an attempted coup attempted to oust him from power. But the coup became the means and the excuse to strengthen his power by allowing the purge of political and social opposition. It was then declared the state of emergency, still active, 43 thousand people were arrested, and over 136 thousand public employees have been laid off: judges, teachers, policemen and military people.
On the day of the Catholic Easter, Erdogan has asked the people the authorization to gain more and stronger executive powers. The referendum served to approve a constitutional reform that entails the change from the parliamentary system to the presidential one. The 18 new articles have no reference with any democratic principle; rather, they do have much in common with the Middle East dictatorships. The main points of the reform involve the abolition of the prime minister, the possibility for the president to appoint and dismiss ministers without parliamentary consultation, as well as the possibility to directly appoint four of the seven judges of the High Court, to appoint the military leadership and the secret services, the university deans and the heads of the judiciary institutions.
Since a number of years, the AKP ruling party encourages the religious education; for example it has reestablished the use of the veil for women, which had previously been banned in public offices, in universities and in the parliament. “The new constitution should not be secular,” said Ismail Kahraman, President of the Parliament, “it must address the issue of religion. This new constitution should not be irreligious, but on the contrary it must be a religious constitution. “In Turkey, 99% of the population is Muslim, the vast majority of the 78 million inhabitants is part of the Sunni faction, one fifth is of Alevi religion that refers to Shiite traditions. A survey conducted in 2013 by the institute Pew Research Center showed that 12 percent of Turks would be in favor of shari’a, the Islamic law, as the official law.
In any case, Turkey is now projected towards a religious and political extremism; the AKP is after all an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Six months ago Orhan Pamuk, recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote ‘“freedom of thought no longer exists. We are distancing ourselves at high speed from a state of law and heading towards a regime of terror.”
As for the elections, independent observers point out that the time allowed by the Public Television and the newspapers to the “no” supporters (those who do not want the constitution proposed by Erdogan), was infinitely less than the time obtained by the AKP party. No wonder that in the index of freedom of the press compiled by Reporters Without Borders in 2016, Turkey ranked 151st out of 180 analyzed countries. Moreover, the opposition to the president, formed by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) has remained isolated after the ‘no’ has undergone several limitations with the arrests of the leaders and many members of the Democratic Party of Peoples (HDP). 55 out of 59 MPs are accused of “terrorism” and of having links with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an illegal and paramilitary organization.
In this context, the “yes” won, and now the president has absolute power. The country is anyway split. The victory is narrow (51%) and there is already talk of electoral fraud. There is no agreement between the conservative Islamic Sunni groups and the Islamic pro-Western democratic groups. The Kurdish electorate, which is opposed to the president, is large and fierce and controls the Syrian and Iraqi borders and the eastern territories of Turkey. Europe and the West will eventually take increasingly more distance from Turkey.
At this point, Erdogan will try to create more relationships with Sunni Islamic states but also with Putin’s Russia. Probably the latter could be Erdogan’s trump card because it could become a nuisance to the Shiite coalition between Iran and Syria, and Russia in fact. Not only that; the approach to Russia by Erdogan would then play in favor of the Sunni Arab powers, but would also bring big changes to the military balance, especially those inside NATO, to which Turkey is a partner since 1952. Finally, the Syrian issue will not be meaningless, with Assad trying in every way to prevent Erdogan and Putin to ally together, so that not to lose the Russian protection.
Finally, Erdogan’s regime, regardless of the referendum outcome, is seeking an internal solution that would force the population to a unity of intents, and he is pursuing this, not through democratic forms, but rather by institutionalizing religious extremism, trying to bring the government towards a more autocratic form of the executive bodies and maintaining the state of emergency. But Erdogan also wants the international legitimation and tries to become the pivot of the entire Middle East. He wants to blackmail the European Union with the control over the migration flow but also with its military power in the NATO, as it has the largest army after the US. At the same time he will interact with Russia and will make an attempt to delegitimize the same Nato by buying Russian weapons. But he will try to play its major strategic role by trying to split the “Shia crescent” (Iran and Syria) just becoming a strategic partner of Russia – Assad permitting. This will strengthen his position with the alliances of the Sunni countries (Saudi Arabia and Qatar) and will be able to assert his objectives in the Syrian War acquiring control of the Kurdish territories. What is certain is that Erdogan will no longer accept that Turkey will only be considered as a bridge with the West, but will try to achieve a position in the center of the world for the rebirth of a new Ottoman Empire.