On Monday, Turks went to the polls to deliver a “yes” vote for a referendum that gives sweeping powers to the office of the presidency and could keep the country’s burgeoning authoritarian leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in power until 2029.
Erdogan and his party are hailing the victory as a clear mandate from the people, despite winning by a razor-thin margin. The opposition, however, claims the vote was rigged, and European observers report the election was unfair and “did not live up to Council of Europe standards.”
Either way, the vote marks a new chapter in Turkey’s history that will change the nature of its relationship with the West. If Turkey turns away from the West, as it appears to be doing, to whom will it turn? The uncomfortable answer might be: Russia.
Turkey Is Growing More Authoritarian Day by Day
Some observers argue the narrow win will ultimately undermine Erdogan’s authority, bring out more vocal opposition, and delegitimize the president. The “no” votes came largely from large cities and economic centers, prompting the notion that Erdogan’s concentration of authoritarian power isn’t sustainable.
But Erdogan has proven over the last year that he’s unafraid of cracking down harshly on his critics or those who get in his way. He has put a stranglehold on journalists and largely removed opponents from the military to avoid future coup attempts. Erdogan’s challengers, who are questioning the legitimacy of the referendum, are only a threat so long as Erdogan chooses to play by the rules, which might not be for very long.
Erdogan has also repeatedly shown contempt for international censure, indicating how little sway the international community, and specifically Europe, holds over him. In response to the Council of Europe’s assessment, he told critics to “know your place,” and accused them of being politically motivated.
The referendum and concentration of power in the presidency will doubtless worsen the relationship between Turkey and Europe—or what’s left of it. Turkey has increased its authoritarian behavior since the coup attempt last July, arresting more than 100,000 judges, journalists, military officials, and intellectuals. Erdogan and his advisors are well aware such moves vex the European Union and risk Turkey’s long-stalled membership application.
As part of its growing authoritarianism, Turkey has requested that Germany crack down on criticism of Erdogan within Germany. This occurred most notably when a German-Turkish comedian named Jan Böhmermann read an explicit poem about Erdogan on German television. Erdogan requested that Germany investigate the comedian under an obscure section of German law, a request German Chancellor Angela Merkel actually granted. Understandably, this caused outcries in Germany over free speech and the right of a foreign power to dictate what German citizens say and do.
Turkey has also begun asking its Turkish expats in Germany to spy on other Turks and report any criticism of Erdogan. The Turkish consulate in North Rhine-Westphalia even urged children to film their teachers and pass along information about any critical comments of the Erdogan government.
The regime is concerned about criticism in Germany because it is home to the largest population of Turkish citizens outside Turkey—approximately 2.7 million people—and they still vote. That’s why Turkey tried to hold rallies in Germany leading up to this weekend’s referendum. When Germany shut them down, Erdogan accused the country of Nazi-like behavior. Turkey’s efforts to interfere in Germany have badly strained its relationship with Europe, but it doesn’t seem like Erdogan much cares.
Where Turkey Is Heading Next
Now that the referendum has passed, Erdogan may try to make EU membership impossible. After the initial results of the referendum came in on Sunday, Erdogan announced he would consider reinstating the death penalty, a move that would effectively kill EU membership talks. He made this even clearer on Monday, when he said he would consider holding another referendum on whether to continue seeking membership in the EU.
Erdogan is sending a clear message to the EU that so far as membership goes, he can take it or leave it. Turkey will ultimately do what is best for Turkey—or for Erdogan.
The country’s recent hard turn toward authoritarianism is something all Europeans should be worried about. Turkey is the gateway between Europe and the Middle East, and has always played a crucial role in the European mind, whether as friend or foe. But now, because of the ongoing flood of migrants trying to make their way to Europe from the Middle East, Turkey holds even more control. It has agreed, for the time being, to prevent migrants from reaching Europe in exchange for three billion euro, but this arrangement could change whenever Erdogan pleases.
Although Turkish officials claim Turkey’s relationship with NATO will remain unchanged, Sunday’s referendum could indicate an intention to move toward Russia as it distances itself from Europe. Turkey and Russia have become closer in recent months, even holding joint naval exercises in the Black Sea earlier this month. Not surprisingly, Russia says the results of Turkey’s referendum should be respected.
Although the two countries have a fraught history, there is a precedent for cooperation. After Kemal Ataturk took power in the 1920s, a nascent Soviet Russia was among the first to recognize the Kemalist government. If Erdogan’s lurch toward authoritarianism does portend a shift to Russia, it poses a big problem for NATO—yet another challenge for the United States in the ongoing upheaval of the international order.