Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Business Recorder editorial April 19, 2017

‘Sultan’ triumphant Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan has triumphed by the narrowest of margins in the referendum to change the country’s political system to a presidential one, granting him sweeping powers to consolidate his rule and, in the eyes of his critics, alter the basic secular principles of the country’s founding father, Kemal Ataturk. Erdogan’s margin of victory was 51.41 percent for and 48.59 percent against, an outcome that has elicited cries of foul from the opposition, which charges the election commission with changing the rules in the middle of the game. They are demanding a recount of at least 37 percent of the votes cast. European Union (EU) monitors have also expressed reservations about the conduct of the referendum, characterizing it as having been held in an “unfair environment”. The EU is for an investigation into alleged irregularities, including the acceptance of ballot papers without an official stamp at the last moment. Two and a half million irregular votes were cast/counted as a result, a critical number since the margin of Erdogan’s victory was only about 1.3 million votes. Turkey presents the picture of a divided country and society, support for Erdogan coming mostly from the rural areas. The big cities, including Istanbul, the birthplace of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), voted by a majority against the 18-point package of constitutional and other changes to the existing hybrid of a presidential and parliamentary system. The prime minister’s office is to be abolished. The ‘No’ vote was in front in 33 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, especially in the cities. Those observers who may have hoped that Erdogan in victory would change course from the aggressive campaign line he has been taking against foreign ‘enemies’ and internal ‘traitors’ towards a more reconciliatory and inclusive approach are likely to be disappointed. Erdogan shows no signs of toning down his rhetoric. This aggressive approach has been in evidence since the failed military coup of July 2016, a foolhardy attempt crushed by citizens irrespective of which side of the political divide they belong. This citizens’ broad resistance has to be seen in the context of Turkey’s history of military coups and regimes in the past, a track record weakened by Erdogan’s AKP being in power since 2002, during which period he is credited with catapulting Turkey through rapid economic development into the front ranks of emerging markets today. Yet even Erdogan’s ardent admirers were stunned by the widespread crackdown against real and imagined authors of the coup, with centre-stage being accorded to US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and his actual or suspected supporters. The frenzied purge saw almost 100,000 people jailed, including generals, teachers, journalists, et al, with thousands more sacked from their jobs. Erdogan and the AKP still need to win the 2019 elections at a time when the closeness of the referendum vote and the allegations and accusations of it being an unfair process are in the air and creating uncertainty about the future. Two main opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) have decided to challenge the result, despite Erdogan’s warning to the opposition as a whole not to question the veracity of his victory. Meanwhile, betraying his frustration and ire at the stillborn bid even after many years of efforts by Turkey to join the EU, Erdogan has threatened to reintroduce the death penalty, one of the original conditions for EU membership. If Erdogan carries through on this threat, that would effectively doom any chance Turkey may still have had to enter the hallowed portals of the EU. In all likelihood, Erdogan, whether he implements his death penalty threat or not, is likely to adopt a ‘look east’ policy after turning his back on a Europe that has been dragging its feet over Turkish membership for years. Not only is the parliamentary opposition, bureaucracy, judiciary, military and media on the receiving end of Erdogan’s post-coup ire, the lingering problem of the Kurds still awaits a decision whether to try and resolve the conflict through talks or go all out to destroy the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), struggling for Kurdish autonomy. Unless Erdogan softens his tone and actions against all comers, Turkey seems headed for more internal discord and even conflict. Given the sensitive situation in the region and on its southern borders, Turkey may find itself squeezed by all these factors in the days ahead.

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