Erdogan is transforming the essence of the Turkish state

By John J. Metzler

There’s troubling news from across the Bosphorus, the narrow slip of water separating Europe from Asia Minor. In a decisive but divisive referendum, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan narrowly gained the political blessing he sought by winning 51 percent of the nationwide vote. Erdogan’s victory (51 vs. 49 percent), allows the increasingly authoritarian Turkish ruler to gain sweeping powers to change the constitution and to allow him near unrivaled power until 2029.

The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, has called on the electoral commission to annul the outcome citing “manipulating the referendum results.” Still the newly minted Sultan Erdogan failed to gain the minimum 55 percent vote he wished for to bless the constitutional changes.

Turkey remains a key piece on the geopolitical board linking Europe to the Middle East and the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. But its strategic situation has been sadly compromised by its border with Syria, whose civil war continues to spill over into Turkish territory both in terms of violent terrorism and humanitarian cost — Turkey is hosting nearly three million refugees.

Contrary to many assumptions, Turkey’s economy in recent years was strong and growth-oriented. Turkish tourism was booming and deservedly so. The Syrian crisis changed the equation dramatically. Tourism has taken a dive downwards.

The once secular Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923. The new 18-article constitutional changes focus on granting of executive powers to an elected president and the abolition of the prime minister. Equally Cabinet ministers can be chosen from outside the parliament. The ruling Justice and Development party has changed the rules of the game. Erdogan became prime minister in 2002 and was elected president in 2014.

Administrative streamlining may be necessary but is it not curiously convenient that Erdogan is the right man at the right time to assume the unofficial role of Sultan? His is a classic personality-centered rather than policy-oriented polity. Erdogan is loved or loathed, a strong paternalist leader with a delirious following combining high-octane nationalistic politics with Islamic fervor.

Having seen Erdogan’s increasingly combative and shrill speeches, at the U.N. for example, one witnesses the physical gestures and gesticulations of a dictator. Yet Turkey has been a good friend to U.N. peacekeeping missions as well as the multinational military operation in Afghanistan. Furthermore, Turkey has been a reliable partner of NATO and a true friend of the U.S.