Turkey could be about to leap from division to despotism | Elif Shafak

With Erdoğan untouchable since the failed coup, Sunday’s referendum on the constitution will reveal whether he has succeeded in crushing opposition

No referendum is ever run of the mill. But the one Turkey is holding on Sunday, on changes to the constitution, could alter the country’s destiny for generations to come. After the vote, Turkey will either start healing its badly bruised parliamentary democracy, or it will adopt a new system that will allow one man – the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – to have a virtual monopoly on power in the country. One of the proposed changes is the abolition of the office of prime minister, with those responsibilities going to the president.

Whether he gets his way or not, Turkey will remain a sharply polarised country. Turkish society is now split into political and ideological ghettoes. The culture of coexistence has been eroded. The crux of this is Erdoğan. With his antagonistic rhetoric he has become the most divisive politician in Turkey’s modern political history. People either revere him or find him intolerable. There is no middle ground anymore.

Once, as a nation, we saw ourselves as part of Europe. As Turkish writers, our literary journeys were enhanced by reading French, English, Italian and Russian literature alongside Turkish novels and poems. Arab and Persian literature were rather late to be translated into Turkish — a mistake, no doubt, but one that shows how the country’s literati did not see themselves as part of the Middle East.

Now the mood is different. Euroscepticism has become the dominant narrative. Politicians and pro-government newspapers tell young people that Europe is against their country. It is better to abandon any prospect of joining the EU and enter the Shanghai Pact with Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Russia and China. It’s true that this would be the right place for any country with a depressing human rights record.

What Turkey is going through is more than just political turbulence. It is an existential crisis. Fear, anger, anxiety and paranoia have become normal. Nobody trusts anyone anymore. Nobody feels secure. People, including journalists, try to prove their loyalty to the government by snitching on colleagues and neighbours. Party politics has shattered friendships.

The bloody coup attempt in July made everything worse. Since then we have been in a state of emergency. The sense of solidarity that followed the coup attempt did not last long. A widespread purge was initiated, lumping anyone who opposed the government into the same basket. Today more than 150 journalists are in jail. Nearly 5,000 academics have lost their jobs. There are close to a million victims of the purge.

This is the context for the referendum. The two sides of the argument have not been given equal representation. TV channels and newspapers are predominantly pro-government. Those who have dared to say no have been stigmatised, sacked, intimidated, and accused of siding with “terrorists”. Binali Yildirim, the prime minister, claimed the no campaign was supported by terror organisations: “My citizens will not be on the same side as terrorists.” Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner said: “Legitimate dissent and criticism of government policy are vilified and repressed.”

Is Turkey on the road to autocracy?

The AKP government, under the aegis of Erdoğan, is supported by the far-right and Eurosceptic MHP (the Nationalist Movement party). Together they form the largest bloc in the parliament. The opposition is fragmented, disorganised. Meanwhile, the polls indicate a tight race. But predictions cannot be trusted. The truth is, many people in Turkey have two opinions: a public opinion and a private opinion. Out of fear, many citizens refuse to share their private opinions with pollsters.

Leading the opposition is CHP, the Republican People’s party, known for its secularist values. One of its most active MPs, Sera Kadıgil, was recently detained for her tweets. She continued to campaign for no, undeterred.

The Kurdish community has also lined up against the proposed changes. One of the most vocal opponents of the presidential system has been Selahattin Demirtaş – the charismatic leader of the Kurdish-based HDP (Peoples’ Democratic party). Promoting a new vision that transcends ethnic divisions, Demirtas has been able to get votes from different segments of the population, for the first time succeeding in turning a regional party into a national one. Today Demirtas is in prison, with his co-chair Figen Yüksekdağ and other HDP leaders.

The third centre of opposition, strangely, comes from within Turkish nationalism. Meral Akşener, a 59-year-old veteran politician who some regard as Turkey’s “Iron Lady”, constitutes a serious challenge to both Erdoğan and his ally, head of the MHP Devlet Bahçeli. Her rallies and speeches have been suppressed. At a recent meeting, a mob flung high-heeled shoes and skirts at her. She mocked their sexism, refusing to be silenced. Even people who do not share her nationalistic and conservative views have been impressed by her courage.

But the staunchest opponents of the AKP-MHP bloc are ordinary Turkish citizens. Students, professionals, artists, minorities, and especially feminists. The women’s movement in Turkey is going through a transformation and revival. This is not a coincidence. When societies slide into authoritarianism, ultranationalism and fanaticism, women have much more to lose than men. Women have been holding anti-AKP rallies. They organise campaigns on social media, writing hayir (no) with their bodies, urging everyone to hang purple cloth from their windows and balconies as a sign of support for gender equality.

Under the present constitution, the post of the president is supposed to be ceremonial. The holder of the office is meant to remain at an equal distance from all political parties. Erdoğan has never complied with this requirement. If a majority votes yes, this will be the end of parliamentary democracy in Turkey. We will become just another Middle Eastern country, with one man holding extraordinary powers at the expense of diversity in civil society.

There are people, both inside and outside Turkey, who believe that a presidential system would bring “strength and speed” to policy implementation. Decisions will be taken more swiftly, they say, without wasting time with the nitty-gritty details of pluralistic democracy. We Turks are being asked to choose between “stability” and “democracy”. But this is a false dichotomy. Those who believe in it have learned nothing from history. They have not understood that undemocratic nations are unhappy nations, and unhappy nations cannot possibly be stable.


Elif Shafak

The GuardianTramp

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