Erdogan Spins European Criticism Into Election Gold

5 MINS READApr 18, 2017 | 00:39 GMT
The West's disapproval helped the Turkish president tap a nationalist vein and carry his constitutional victory.
(ELIF SOGUT/Getty Images)

Turkish supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gather at the Presidential Palace in Ankara following the victory of a constitutional reform package that will greatly expand the president's powers.

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Turkey's interactions with the West follow a peculiar cycle. First, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan takes steps to consolidate power, intertwining the fate of the Turkish Republic with his own political destiny. The West follows with a condemnation of Turkey's authoritarian drift, lamenting the country's abandonment of its more enlightened European roots. Turkey, in turn, capitalizes by spinning those lectures into a Western plot to keep Turkey down, handing Erdogan a fresh supply of nationalist ammunition with which he can entrench support among the half of the Turkish population that still looks adoringly at him as a sultan rather than a despot.

Predictably, this is the cycle that played out in the aftermath of Turkey's contentious constitutional referendum. Erdogan on Sunday claimed a razor-thin victory (51.4 percent voted "yes," a margin of victory of 1,379,934 votes) to overhaul the country's political system to favor the presidency, the office that he currently holds and intends to hold for at least another dozen years. The European powers and the U.S. State Department reacted to the result largely by admonishing the government for the way it controlled the media and intimidated the opposition in the lead-up to the vote. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), invited by Turkey to monitor the vote, said the referendum "did not live up to Council of Europe standards." Though the OSCE could not cite specific instances of fraud, it said an eleventh-hour decision by Turkish electoral authorities to allow unstamped ballots to be counted contradicted electoral law.

Erdogan seized on the moralizing tone of the West, bellowing on Monday to throngs of supporters in Ankara, "The crusader mentality in the West and its servants at home have attacked us." Later, he said: "We neither see, hear, nor acknowledge the political reports you'll prepare. We'll continue on our path. Talk to the hand. This country has carried out the most democratic elections, not seen anywhere in the West." Europe will gasp once again at the audacity of Erdogan, and Turkish nationalists will feel ever more emboldened. The cycle continues.

And it continues because Erdogan knows very well that he has geography on his side. For as much as Europe wants to admonish the Turks and believe that it can somehow enlighten Turkey to uphold the ideals of Locke and Rousseau as it conducts its version of democracy, those lessons are going to go only so far when Erdogan can capitalize on the fact that his country occupies highly strategic real estate in Eurasia. The dynamism of Turkey's neighborhood is what compels the Turkish government, in spite of its rhetoric, to maintain some level of a working relationship with the West for its own economic and security needs. At the same time, since Turkey sits among a fragmenting Europe, an aggressive Russia and a smoldering Middle East, its cooperation is still essential to any Western agenda to contain migrant flows, keep a check on Moscow and contain terrorist threats emanating from the Islamic world.

This is the reality that enables Erdogan to give such casual treatment to the darkest periods of European history. On several occasions in the run-up to the referendum, Erdogan liberally slapped the Nazi and fascist labels on European leaders. Though the Europeans themselves stood aghast at his comments, the firebrand rhetoric evidently worked to galvanize the overseas support he needed to eke out a victory. In Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria and Belgium, the "yes" vote led by a wide margin. (Farther abroad in the United Kingdom, United States, Australia and Canada, where Erdogan spent less political capital campaigning, the "no" vote dominated among Turkish expatriates.) As Erdogan said in the run-up to the vote: "I don't care what Hans, George or Helga say, I care what Hasan, Ahmet, Mehmet, Ayse and Fatma say. I care what God says."

The overseas vote in the April 16 Turkish national referendum helped President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pass a constitutional amendment package.

With the slim margin of victory, no doubt padded by Turkish voters in parts of Europe, Erdogan will now be able to dramatically expand his powers and extend his political tenure. He will also continue to use European tut-tutting to whip up nationalist fervor as he sees fit. Already, Erdogan is indicating that additional referendums could be held to attempt to reinstate the death penalty and decide whether it's even worth Turkey's time to continue pursuing EU membership. The reality all along, of course, is that major European powers never intended to invite a large, Muslim-majority country into their already fragile bloc, but they could still dangle the accession process as a carrot in negotiations to shape Turkish behavior. Likewise, the Erdogan government has largely used the EU accession process as a public relations platform to convince skeptics both at home and abroad that Turkey does care about keeping a foothold in the West.

But the act is drawing to a close, with nationalists on both sides pulling down the curtain. As Europe grapples with questions of national identity and as the foundations of the European Union gradually melt down, there will be less room for Erdogan to assert the interests of a Hasan over a Helga in Berlin. And with the deep polarization of Turkey's electorate laid bare, Erdogan will tap into more potent currents of nationalism to maintain support among half of the Turkish population. As the leading "no" vote revealed in Turkey's three biggest metropolises — Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir — Erdogan knows he has little chance of bringing the secularized and Europeanized Kemalist elite to his side. And so he will resort to more extraordinary measures to consolidate power while he still can, rebuffing — and weaponizing — European lectures on human rights along the way.

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