In Ankara’s Sihhiye Square in 2007, nearly 300,000 supporters of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gathered to show support for an embattled politician who just defied Turkey’s strong military.
As I was wandering around the crowd of mostly Anatolian, conservative supporters, Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, Chief EU negotiator Ali Babacan and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan paraded on the stage to inflame the government’s most fervent supporters. The central theme of their talk was how previous governments emptied 19 banks, profited of rampant corruption and led Turkey down the precipice. The AKP government, on the other hand, represented stability.
Two months before this rally, the Turkish military issued a damning statement on its web-site, a memorandum widely billed as another military intervention into politics. A day after, the Constitutional Court ruled that 367 lawmakers were needed to elect a president in Parliament, effectively blocking Mr. Gul, whose wife was wearing an Islamic veil, from acquiring a seat once occupied by the founder of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Facing a stalemate, and sniffing rising popularity for the government, Mr. Erdogan called for early elections.
In July 2007 elections, Mr. Erdogan significantly increased his party’s votes, thanks to the adversarial military, as millions cast their ballots to approve AKP’s policies and reject military’s encroachment.
A similar scenario played out in 2011 elections, too. Mr. Erdogan’s nationalist rhetoric just months before the elections escalated violence in the Southeast, where the Kurdish rebel group PKK has been waging war against the Turkish state. Mr. Erdogan promised that the peace would prevail in Turkey if he is re-elected and vowed to draft a brand new Constitution with freedoms protected for all. Peace never came. The Constitution was not re-written.
In 2015, Mr. Erdogan asked the Turkish people to elect 400 lawmakers — basically to empower the government with a necessary number of votes to single-handedly introduce any bill and change the Constitution. In one of his speeches before the cheering crowd, Mr. Erdogan issued a veiled threat: “Give 400 [lawmakers] and let this thing be resolved in peace.” In another speech, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu asked for votes if they don’t want “White Toros” cars to be back again, referring to white Renault cars widely used to kidnap Kurdish dissidents and dissolve them in acid wells.
Last week, Turkey had another poll (5th poll in 3 years) to partially amend the Constitution. The referendum gave vast powers to Mr. Erdogan, weaken checks and balances and transferred the center of power from Parliament to the Presidency. The election rhetoric was the same: Mr. Erdogan said the constitutional changes were an answer to a series of bombing attacks, sagging economy and the necessary purge of non-loyalists from bureaucracy and the private sector.
Mr. Erdogan has already learned that Turks would vote for him again and again as long as he delivers the central campaign promise: political and economic stability. Turkish people elected him as a cure for the chaos that spread across Turkey in the 1990s — two devastating economic crises, nearly a dozen failed governments and a raging war in the Southeast. They do know that Mr. Erdogan is a thin skinned strongman who has no tolerance to an alternative view. But political stability and economic stability trumps other concerns.
The massive support Mr. Erdogan receives in polls has also become the major source of legitimacy for the president, allowing him to do whatever he wants. “We the people” is his favorite way to start his speeches. The idea that “we are outnumbered” is the primary driving force for him and his fan base.
The referendum last week was the first time Mr. Erdogan came close to losing that single source of legitimacy. Since the opposition rejects the outcome, citing massive irregularities and ballot stuffing, it won’t be as easy for the president as it was in the past to claim that he represents the majority.
The leader of the secular opposition CHP, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, failed to deliver a forceful critique of the referendum, missing the chance to lead at a time when the opposition needs him the most.
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