Turkey: The new Middle Eastern dictatorship?

On Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a narrow majority in a national referendum that will transform Turkey’s political system and extend his powers. 58 million people out of a population of 75 million voted in the referendum, with 51.3% voting ‘yes’ to the new measures. This represents a sharp turn away from Turkey’s modern history as a secular democracy.

A supporter holds a flag depicting Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a pro-government demonstration in AnkaraA pro-government supporter waves a flag depicting the Turkish President at a rally in July 2016 (image: Reuters)

Despite allegations of irregularities and vote tampering, the result looks set to hold and US President Donald Trump called President Erdogan earlier this week to congratulate him on his success. The victory will see Turkey transition from a parliamentary system to a presidential one, shifting democratic power into the hands of Erdogan, who could potentially remain in power until 2029. The secular elite in Turkey are devastated by the result, which may see Turkey shift from one of the most open, democratic countries in the region to an Eastward looking dictatorship.

The Islamist-aligned Erdogan will surely seize the opportunity presented by this win to further cement his power. He is likely to continue the ‘purge’ that he embarked upon in the wake of the failed coup attempt that took place in July 2016, which has sought to remove political opposition from the ranks of the military and the civil service. Accordingly, Erdogan’s first move after the referendum result was to extend for three months the country’s State of Emergency, which was implemented in the wake of the coup and was due to expire two days later.

coupThe Erdogan regime launched a crackdown against political opposition in the wake of a failed military coup in July 2016 (image: ABC News)

The referendum comes at a time when Turkish relations with the EU are at a low, with Turkey all but abandoning its bid to join the bloc amid rising tensions and hostile rhetoric between EU leaders and Erdogan’s government. Meanwhile Turkey’s position in the Middle East is shifting, as the Islamist outlook of Erdogan’s Freedom and Justice Party (AKP) places his regime more in line with the Arab states than their Western counterparts. His more extreme, autocratic tendencies (such as limiting the freedom of the press, supporting the reintroduction of the death penalty etc.) also echo those elsewhere in the region.

Turkey has also reached a rapprochement with Russia in recent months. The two states had previously bickered over the future of Syria, with the Kremlin steadfastly backing the Assad regime while Ankara insisted he must go. The two sides have shown increasing signs of working together to reach a compromise on Syria, presumably driven by the Erdogan government’s concern over growing Kurdish autonomy in parts of norther Syria and Iraq, where Kurdish forces have played a key role in the fight against the so-called Islamic State.

astanaIn January 2016, Turkey, Russia and Iran brokered negotiations on the Syrian conflict in Kazakhstan, representing a new phase in Turkish-Russian relations (image: Al Jazeera)

Internally, Turkey has faced a spate of terror attacks in recent months that have been claimed by the so-called Islamic State and Kurdish militant groups. These have included the high-profile shooting of 39 people in an Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s Eve and a bomb attack that took place earlier in April 2017 in the country’s south. This shows how both internal tensions and wider regional conflicts are threatening the safety of Turks across the country – a dynamic that has arguably helped President Erdogan to justify his expansion of power.

reinaTributes are paid to the victims of the Reina nightclub attack in Istanbul – one of many attacks to take place in Turkey in the last year (image: Yahoo)

What the future holds for Turkey is, as yet, unclear. But one thing that is certain is that the referendum result marks a new chapter in Turkish history, as the country moves away from its secular, democratic past towards a more uncertain, autocratic future against the backdrop of internal instability, a divided Europe and a conflict-ridden Middle East.

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