Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the Turkish constitutional referendum has been widely interpreted in Europe as amounting to a shift away from democracy. Some observers have gone even further by pontificating on the end of the Turkish republic.
These hyperbolic characterisations are obscuring the real significance of the referendum, which is likely to reveal itself foremost in Turkish foreign policy. An executive presidential system is likely to lend greater coherence to Turkish diplomacy and pave the way for more clear-sighted planning and strategising in the foreign policy sphere.
Above all, the referendum result is likely to reverse Turkish aspirations to join the European Union (EU), thus bringing to an end decades of uncertainty. In view of the uncertain future of the EU itself in the light of Brexit and other challenges, it could be argued that the Turks have had a lucky escape.
On the domestic front too, the consequences flowing from the referendum are unlikely to be as grave or far-reaching as many Western observers appear to believe. Turkey may be moving away from Western-style liberal democracy but that may be exactly what the Turks need to put their house in order.
A century of turmoil
It is difficult to over-estimate Turkey’s importance to regional affairs and its potential to be a player on the global stage. Situated in the crossroads between Europe and Asia, and in political and strategic terms the direct successor of the mighty Ottoman Empire, Turkey is ideally positioned to shape events in three flashpoint areas, namely the Middle East, the Caucasus and the Balkans.
For decades Turkey’s ardent secularists strived to take Kemal Ataturk’s legacy to its logical conclusion by attempting to erase Islamic behavioural norms and values from the public sphere, in addition to aligning Turkey to the greatest extent possible with the West.
The result was a profound identity crisis and a resultant wastage of decades in terms of clearly defining and advancing the Turkish national interest and concomitant mismanagement of broader national reputational issues. This identity crisis unfolded against a backdrop of political instability, marked by deep political unrest along ideological and ethnic lines which prompted four army coups and interventions from 1960 to 1997.
Whilst Turkey developed credible political and legal institutions in the 80 years following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, crucially the terms and conditions attached to this narrowly defined development came at the expense of preventing Turkey from fulfilling its true potential as a cultural and diplomatic powerhouse.
Turkey’s Islamists have generally played a positive role in the country’s political development. They have adapted to the limitations of modern Turkey and in the process significantly moderated their demands and aspirations. The Kemalist establishment could never accept a sincere ideologue in the form of the late Necmettin Erbakan and eventually forced him out in a soft coup. It was left to Erbakan’s protégés, notably Erdogan, to pick up the pieces and engineer a vote-winning electoral machine in the form of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The myth of neo-Ottomanism
The Turkish political scientist Ahmad Sozen has aptly described neo-Ottomanism as a “therapeutic process” which enables Turkey’s new Islamist-lite elites to come to terms with their country’s complex heritage. In cultural and psychological terms, this is probably the best definition of the phenomenon.
In political and strategic terms neo-Ottomanism is often defined expansively to impute imperial motives onto Turkish diplomacy.
The fact is Turkey cannot afford to use the past as a rigid reference point for its future direction. But it can become a more effective player in the region and the wider world by staking out more authentic positions. A decisive shift away from the EU and perhaps in the mid to long term from NATO is a step in the right direction.
Erdogan’s first priority is to place domestic affairs on a stable footing. Turkey has become dangerously divided and unstable. The referendum campaign has exacerbated the polarisation, as evidenced by the slim majority in favour of constitutional reform.
Turkish unity (or lack thereof) will determine the future direction of the country. Whatever one may think of Erdogan, Erdogan’s track record has demonstrated that the AKP under his direction will not impose values on Turks. Whilst avowedly Muslim the AKP has not fundamentally interfered with the cultural fabric of the country. Turkish secularists in addition to millions of foreign tourists continue to enjoy a Western lifestyle to its fullest extent.
Finally, as long as the AKP presides over a buoyant economy and specifically by continually empowering the conservative heartland of Anatolia, the party can forge ahead with creating a new Turkish polity and attendant national identity.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.