The dismantling of Turkish democracy continues
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been prime minister of Turkey, then president, and now a referendum has approved constitutional changes that crown him dictator in all but name. This is a display of political sleight of hand at the highest level, comparable to Vladimir Putin’s performance in Russia, perhaps even studiously copied from it. Fraud and violence rigged the voting in the referendum. A state of emergency was in place, and still is. Selahattin Demirtas, head of the pro-Kurdish party in parliament, was in prison, and still is. Other prominent opponents of Erdogan were intimidated. A million or so unstamped ballots were considered valid. Erdogan advised the supervisory panel, all of them Turks, “to know their place,” as he put it with unmistakable clarity, and they duly dismissed all complaints. Yet in spite of the manipulation, his majority was scarcely more than 1 percent. Throughout the country, in the words of Elif Shafak, a leading intellectual, “fear, anger, anxiety, and paranoia have become normal.”
As with all dictators, the drive for absolute power must lie deep in Erdogan’s unexplored psyche. Born in 1954, he grew up in Istanbul. Committing himself single-mindedly to politics at an early age, he became mayor of Istanbul in his thirties and by all accounts was a success. However, in an address at the end of his time in that office, he quoted a 19th-century poem that amounts to a declaration of war: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers.” Islamism of this kind was an unwelcome novelty at the time, and Erdogan was sentenced to prison for ten months, though released after four.