U.S. President Trump apparently called Turkish President Erdoğan on Monday to congratulate him on his victory in Turkish referendum that took place on Sunday. Setting aside the fact that observers have called the freeness and fairness of the referendum into question (not an insignificant fact); it is the actual substance of the victory for Erdoğan, how it changes the trajectory that Turkey was on not so long ago, and the fact that Turkey is a NATO ally, that makes this a strange and deeply unfortunate thing for an American president to do.
the powers that would be afforded to the executive presidency are vast, including the ability to appoint judges without input from parliament, issue decrees with the force of law, and dissolve parliament. The president would also have the sole prerogative over all senior appointments in the bureaucracy and exercise exclusive control of the armed forces. The amendments obviate the need for the post of prime minister, which would be abolished. The Grand National Assembly does retain some oversight and legislative powers, but if the president and the majority are from the same political party, the power of the presidency will be unconstrained. With massive imbalances and virtually no checks on the head of state, who will now also be the head of government, the constitutional amendments render the Law on Fundamental Organization and all subsequent efforts to emulate the organizational principles of a modern state moot. It turns out that Erdogan, who would wield power not vested in Turkish leaders since the sultans, is actually a neo-Ottoman.
This is a major step in the authoritarianization process that is occurring in Turkey, under Erdoğan. As journalist, Dexter Filkins points out, the trajectory of Turkey has dramatically changed in recent years. It was not always this way. Not even with respect to Erdoğan.
Fifteen years ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was the hope of the Islamic world. He was an Islamist, of course, but that was part of his appeal. As the mayor of Istanbul, one of the world’s great cities, Erdoğan had governed as a charismatic and smart technocrat. He’d served time in prison, in 1999—for reading a poem that seemed to celebrate militant Islam—but his jailers had been the country’s rigid, military-backed secular leaders who, by then, seemed as suited to the present day as dinosaurs. When Erdoğan became Prime Minister, in 2003, every leader in the West wanted him to succeed. In a world still trying to make sense of the 9/11 attacks, he seemed like a bridge between cultures.
Indeed, Turkey continued to make dramatic political and economic strides several years beyond this point. In 2004, Turkey was given an invitation by the European Commission to commence negotiations on accession to the European Union. At the time, Erdoğan (then Prime Minister) supported the political and economic liberalization reforms that were required as part of this process, and Turkey advanced in that respect. Negotiations with the EU on Turkish membership did not move forward along with the steps that Turkey was taking, and there is plenty of reasonable debate to be had about the reasons for this and whether or not Turkey was treated unfairly. That said, it was in 2007 that Erdoğan’s confrontation with the leadership of the Turkish military seemed to shift his attitudes on political liberalization. Cook described the shift in the wake of the failed coup last summer.
Turkey’s transition really began to go downhill in the spring of 2007 when the Turkish military’s General Staff made it clear, via a statement on its website, that the military did not want the AKP’s favored candidate for president, then-Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, to assume the office because he was an Islamist. This was a critical moment in Turkish politics and one in which previous Turkish leaders would have folded almost immediately. Erdogan, sensing his party’s popularity and how much Turkish society had changed in the nearly five years since the AKP had come to power, refused to be intimidated. He called for new elections, which the party won with a broad coalition of pious and average Turks, Kurds, liberals, and big business that gave the AKP 47 percent of the vote. With his party’s renewed popular mandate, Erdogan nominated Gul to be Turkey’s 11th president.
Over the course of the next decade, Erdoğan and the AKP consolidated power, used the levers of state power to accuse and punish political opponents, eroded the independence of the judicial system, shrunk the space for free expression, association, and assembly, and increased state violence against the Kurds in the Southeast. These trends have been consistent since that time, and have accelerated over the last year.
In 2005, Vali Nasr (Dean of Johns Hopkins Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies) published an article in the Journal of Democracy that described Turkey under the AKP as a model for “Muslim Democracy”. By the summer of 2016, his analysis of Turkey’s direction had changed quite substantially.
It is an extremely important partner, and one who has as a state shared our values of pluralism, democracy, and openness. Within the context of threats to its multiple regional orders and the global order that are largely driven by outright rejections of these values, this is a pretty significant setback. The personalization of Turkish power into an individual who clearly does not support the political purpose of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization additionally presents the United States and other NATO states with an unreliable partner.
All of this is not to say that the United States can change what has happened and is happening in Turkey. It seems reasonable though to minimally expect that the U.S. President would not express support for the destruction of an ally’s democracy.