Decision day in Turkey. Voters head to the polls to decide whether the office of President should be given broad powers that opponents fear will lead to one man rule. Current President Tayyip Erdogan and his supporters believe that a strong leader is needed to steer the economy, to fight terrorism, and to challenge the west.
If today’s referendum passes, Erdogan could stay in power through 2029.
The polls suggest a close election. You wouldn’t know that on the streets of Istanbul last week where every conceivable form of outdoor advertising was employed to push the evet or yes option. Opposition voices have been muted since an attempted coup last summer; Erdogan has purged nearly every facet of the government including civil service, the judiciary, the police, and universities. Several hundred journalists also have been imprisoned.
Erdogan is a popular leader. Many of those who oppose the referendum still support him. He began an 11-year tenure as premier in 2003 and has served as President since he was term limited in 2014.
Under his leadership, the Turkish economy has done well. Hyper-inflation that battered the economy in the 1990’s was brought under control, an impressive list of infrastructure projects have been or are being implemented, assistance to the poor increased - especially better health care - and Turkey has emerged as a stronger regional power. Erdogan also has reduced the secularity of Turkish governance. He embraces his Islamic faith and believes faith has a role in government.
If you trade out religions, a Christian with this record would have won in a landslide in last year’s US election.
Turkey is a fascinating country. Two cities, Istanbul and Ankara, account for one quarter of the population and about half of the economy. These are first world places surrounded by a lot of third world ones.
As a regional power, Turkey’s role could be pivotal in securing a more stable Middle East. Egypt, Iran, and Turkey are the largest nations in the Middle East. Turkey is the one most connected with the west. It’s a NATO member and has been seeking European Community membership.
Relations with the rest of Europe have been strained by the refugee crisis in Syria, by countries clamping down on expatriate Turkish settlements throughout Europe in response to terrorism threats, and by European countries denial of Erdogan’s plans to campaign with ex-pats who are eligible voters in today’s election.
Turkey is a lynchpin. If it stays on a moderate course where Turkey moves slightly from the modern state’s orientation to secularity, but remains a tolerant place, it can secure a bright future for the nation. It already benefits greatly by being the most stable and secure place to set up a Middle Eastern presence for global corporations.
Turkey twice provided safe haven for Jews when few other places put out the welcome mat. In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued the Alhambara Decree allowing many Jews booted from Spain to re-settle in Constantinople. Likewise, in the darkness of World War II, the city welcomed Jews trying to escape the Holocaust. Turkey has prospered when it has been a place that tolerates many believers.
If Turkey takes a turn and becomes a much more fundamentalist state, chances to stabilize the Middle East drop precipitously. Turkey is the best option we have for a moderate Islamic state among the trio of Middle eastern countries. Egypt and Iran are much more problematic.
Erdogan is a bit of an enigma but he has a track record of working with the west suggests hope.
The proposed changes that provide for one-man rule is a difficult one for outsiders to evaluate. The messiness of democracy whose inaction threatens even more established countries like ours is even more difficult for emerging economies to embrace.
South Korea and Turkey are often compared regarding their economic development since 1950. South Korea has outperformed Turkey in part because of strong one-party rule in the early years where sticking to a long-range plan could be enforced while Turkey, with its many competing interests, was unable to stick to any single strategy.
Over its long history, Istanbul and the region around it have been served by any number of one-man rulers. A few great, some good, and many terrible over the 1600 years between Emperor Constantine choosing the city as his co-capital (along with Rome) and the fall of the Ottoman empire in 1922.
By tomorrow we should know whether democracy was a brief interlude or the start of another major era.