Erdoğan is (Partially) Right

Turkey’s Referendum Has Something To Do With Democracy[i] 

By Elektra Kostopoulou

In response to Turkey’s constitutional referendum on April 16, 2017, which replaces the parliamentary system with an executive presidency,  PoLAR and APLA commissioned a series of responses from scholars and activists working on democracy and human rights in the region. In this installment, Elektra KostopoulouAyşe Parla, Aimilia Voulvouli and Jennifer Curtis reflect on the ramifications of the referendum.

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Women chant slogans and hold pictures of pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) co-leader Figen Yuksekdag, who is detained pending a trial on terror charges, on March 5, 2017, at Bakirkoy, in Istanbul. Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party Thursday launched its campaign for a “No” vote in April’s referendum on whether to give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more powers as its two leaders remained imprisoned. After the July 15 failed coup, the government launched a large-scale crackdown, detaining, dismissing and sacking over 100,000 people suspected of having links to coup-plotters and those accused of links to Kurdish militants.HDP co-chairmen Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag have been imprisoned since last November facing accusations of links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images.

More than ten days after the contentious constitutional Turkish referendum of April 16th, developments in Turkey seem to confirm that the country is moving from bad to worse: human rights abuses, violent censorship, massive retaliations against any form of opposition. This is hardly a surprise. In the past decade or so, the regime of Tayyip Erdoğan has become synonymous with autocracy. Hence, the outcome of a referendum that inextricably links the fate of millions to the will of one man (and his cronies) unambiguously forms but a step in a much longer process of growing authoritarianism.

It would be easy, then, to dismiss any references to democracy in Turkey as pure propaganda. The referendum allows for President Erdoğan, now well into his second decade in power, to convert Turkey into a “one-person” system. The vote results may have been tampered with. The regime undoubtedly coerced or cracked down on hundreds of thousands of voters. Yet it is important to highlight that President Erdoğan has chosen to manipulate rather than outright reject democratic proceedings in order to assume almost absolute power. In this sense, the example of Turkey resonates both with historical precedent and contemporary developments in a number of so-called “western” democracies. Erdoğan’s rise to, and consolidation of, power unsettles the binary juxtaposition between democracy and autocracy, inviting a re-consideration of how democracy operates; as well as some of the factors that may contribute to its self-destruction.

If anything, the Erdoğan phenomenon is a reminder that totalitarianism at play does not resemble a B-rated Hollywood movie, in which an evil genius enslaves the country. It can be born out of procedural democracy, rendering the reality and concept of citizenship more indeterminate. Erdoğan represents but one example of the widespread rise of neo-totalitarian populism on a global scale. To contextualize, we need to move beyond ideological assumptions and artificial regional barriers to a comparative examination of democracy’s real function (or dysfunction) in the context of the 21st century state; and as a case in point, the Turkish state.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) greets supporters as he attends a “YES” campaign meeting at Bestepe People’s Culture and Congress Center in Ankara on March 29, 2017, three weeks ahead of the referendum on whether to change the current parliamentary system into an executive presidency. On April 16, 2017, the Turkish public will vote on whether to change the current parliamentary system into an executive presidency that would boost President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s powers. / AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images).

When Tayyip Erdoğan first came to power as prime minister of Turkey in 2003, his hallmark victory shocked, inspired, and terrified. His Islamic party, AKP, led a popular takeover of the secular political establishment, allegedly in the name of the country’s forgotten people(s). This was a carefully constructed image of popular resistance against the domestic elites’ apparent monopolization of the country’s political, economic, and educational apparatuses. The takeover was accompanied by the premise of democratization and integration with neoliberal globalization which, [ii] initially, attracted different levels of support among dissimilar, or even mutually hostile, groups. Domestic ethnoreligious minorities; the EU; international trade advocates:  all saw the rise of political Islam as an opportunity to spread neoliberalism and pluralistic democracy, two rather different yet closely intertwined agendas. As of the last decade, however, this type of support has started to evaporate.

Among the so-called Kemalist opposition in Turkey (CHP), the accelerating autocracy of Erdoğan’s regime proved to be a vindictive justification of their former predictions. Others struggle to find the reason why, or the moment when, things started to go really wrong. A matrix of circumstances could be identified along these lines: the global recession of 2009 that destabilized the Turkish bubble of neoliberal development, causing the Turkish lira to crash in 2016 to an all-time low; the Turkish military involvement in Syria that has opened a Pandora’s box of internal disasters with many external ramifications; the goal of EU membership that appears to be increasingly unrealistic; and last, but not least, the Kurdish political opposition (HDP) which, under the leadership of the charismatic Selahattin Demirtaş, has drawn a significant number of votes away from AKP.

Most importantly, HDP has started to appear as a tangible political alternative to the tired Kemalist narrative, which continues to revolve around a self-indulgent identification with secularism. Ideologically, Kemalism means “western progress.” Politically, it supports the rule of a western-like internal elite. The growing gap between this version of secularism and the country’s ethnoreligious, socioeconomic, and geographic realities has rendered the secular party (CHP) practically unelectable; and AKP practically undefeatable. President Erdoğan’s own political persona has evolved through the systematic elimination of challenges (and of challengers) both within and outside his own party. Hence, Demirtaş’s rise signaled a much-needed alternative not only for Turkish Kurds but for Turkey as a whole. This became clear in the general election of 2015 when, exceeding all expectations, and despite campaigns of intimidation, HDP drew an unprecedented 13.12 percent of the Turkish vote and AKP’s wrath.[iii]

Regardless, while coverage of Erdoğan’s many outrages remains prominent in the world press, we pay little attention to the fact that, for the time being, he exists in the vacuum created by a lack of a cohesive democratic alternative. His turn to bigotry, authoritarianism, and violent suppression has been the clear outcome of persisting popular support. This becomes even clearer when we situate contemporary realities in relation to preceding circumstances.

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Supporters of the “No” march at Besiktas to submit their petition calling for the annulment of a referendum that approved sweeping constitutional changes boosting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s powers, claiming blatant vote-rigging had swung the result, on April 18, 2017 in Istanbul. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images)

Turkey was born in the aftermath of World War I, from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, to become, right from the outset, a one-party (initially, a one-person) state molded by military mobilizations. This was followed by the gradual crystallization of deeply hierarchical socioeconomic and political elites which, nevertheless, failed to prevent political instability and domestic military turmoil. From the 1960s to the 1990s, the country experienced three military coups and numerous failed political coalitions, which resulted in further oppression of ethnoreligious difference, lack of economic opportunity, and ideological indoctrination. From this point of view, the first years of AKP (which overlapped with the first decade of the 21st century) formed a short-lived interruption to long-term patterns of uncertainty, and to the widespread exclusion of large indigenous groups from the democratic political process. In the past few years, however, Erdoğan has revived old-fashioned authoritarianism in a “neo-populist” guise.

The 21st century has witnessed accelerated economic globalization and international military interventions with varied, and at times extremely violent, effects. In contrast, democracy remains the political offspring of the nation-state, with nationalism the main institutional apparatus of popular representation. In this unsettling contradiction, charismatic neo-populists thrive. They can benefit both from the forceful winds of globalization, which undermine existing national barriers, protections, and restrictions; and from the fear, anger, and uncertainty caused when globalization fails the people. Alarmingly, this phenomenon resonates directly with developments in the democracies of western/central Europe in the mid-20th century.

Hence, approaching the Turkish referendum, or political autocracy in general, through the lenses of “middle-eastern” exceptionalism implies a misunderstanding both of democracy’s controversial histories and of contemporary global realities. The failure to take into account that developments in the US, the EU, Britain, Russia, and elsewhere resonate directly with Turkey, is consistent with our tendency toward binary understandings of economic/cultural development, democracy, and progress.

The semiology of the Turkish referendum is in fact becoming increasingly familiar. Democracy often survives by reproducing topological and ideological deformities, which sometimes take the shape of the authoritarian. In this context, both political survival and full destruction seem imaginable. But the answers as to what the future holds are not to be found exclusively in the deformities of a given regime. This is not a debate about how terrible autocratic populism is, but rather, about what happens if its opponents fail to reimagine, reshape, and eventually reclaim their connection to a coherent majority of people(s)—or are barred from doing so through violence, propaganda, or straightforward war.

Dr. Elektra Kostopoulou In joined the Modern Greek Studies Program at Rutgers University in 2013. Her  research and publications address regional histories from the perspective of global queries, with a specific focus on the intertwined histories of the late Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece. Her most recent book project, Of Minarets and Minotaurs: The Story of Autonomous Crete (1898-1913), addresses regional autonomy as an example of the convoluted layers of colonialism, empire, and nationalism in the Eastern Mediterranean. She has been the recipient of various awards, fellowships, and grants and has taught at numerous universities in Europe, Turkey, and the USA. Her most recent courses aim to draw connections between late Ottoman history and the current migrant/refugee crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean in an attempt to find in academic engagement with the region new opportunities for solidarity and tangible action. Email: or


[i] The title is a play on piece published in the Guardian on April 27th, 2017. The author, Ibrahim Kalin is a spokesperson for the Turkish regime, see

[ii] Marcie J. Patton, “The Economic Policies of Turkey’s AKP Government: Rabbits from a Hat?,” The Middle East Journal 60, no. 3 (July 1, 2006): 513–36; Murat Akser and Banu Baybars-Hawks, “Media and Democracy in Turkey: Toward a Model of Neoliberal Media Autocracy,” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 5, no. 3 (January 1, 2012): 302–21, doi:10.1163/18739865-00503011.


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