The Western narrative unnecessarily provokes nationalist sentiments and could lead young voters to favour a strong and defiant Turkey
Turkey's domestic politics are gradually being internationalised, thanks to Europe's explicit efforts to influence the upcoming referendum by preventing pro-Erdogan rallies which have previously been permitted.
European leaders have put Turkey's opposition forces into a difficult situation after they were forced to condemn the European nations for preventing the rallies and stopping Turkish ministers and diplomats who hold diplomatic passports from conducting meetings with Turkish nationals.
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"If a minister of Turkey was refused, the Netherlands should apologise to us," the main opposition party Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu told a rally in Istanbul. “It’s that simple.”
What Erdogan’s opponents perhaps have not realised is that Erdogan's strong odds of winning rest on issues where his external opponents cannot offer the campaigners against the referendum any help.
The best thing Europe could have done to help the "No" vote would have been to underscore the credible possibility of Turkey’s accession to the EU, despite it being blocked for years.
Given the European reaction, however, Turkey’s secular forces, which are mostly in opposition and whose political ideals have been inspired by European democracy, see no reason to support the Western narrative of Turkish politics.
Instead, there is growing consensus among Turks that all of the country’s Western partners and their domestic allies are untrustworthy, giving Erdogan an upper hand in the upcoming referendum.
Here are five specific reasons why these dynamics are likely to bring conservative, nationalists and undecided voters behind Erdogan:
1. Erdogan’s opponents can’t guarantee Turkey’s accession to the EU
All of the reports that the EU issued between 2004 and 2014 on Turkey’s accession progress explicitly and generously acknowledged the role Erdogan and his government has played in democratising Turkish institutions.
In 2006, for example, the EU report welcomed the start of Kurdish broadcasting, including specialist programming produced by and for Kurdish communities, allowing Kurds the freedom to exercise their cultural and educational rights.
When Erdogan tells his people that it's EU members who are betraying Turkey and delaying Turkey’s EU accession, his comments are believable
In 2007, Turkey’s Progress Report again welcomed the fact that democracy prevailed that year over attempts by the military to interfere in the political process and acknowledged the progress public institutions and civil society organisations had made on protecting women against violence.
In 2014, the report commended the government’s democratisation package, presented in September 2013, and welcomed the establishment of new institutions protecting individuals’ rights and freedoms.
In 2015, the EU Parliament welcomed the adoption in March 2014 of the Action Plan for the Prevention of Violations of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) as a significant step towards aligning Turkey’s legal framework with the convention.
Given the years of reports recognising the achievements of Erdogan and his government, European countries really need to work hard now to convince Turkish voters that the same progress that they touted has been reversed.
So when Erdogan tells his people that it's EU members who are betraying Turkey and delaying Turkey’s EU accession, his comments are appealing and believable. He was once very close to achieving accession, something German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then French president Nicolas Sarkozy blocked. If Merkel loses the elections, Erdogan could potentially start a new, more pragmatic beginning on this.
Among Turkey’s opposition, there is no such strong and convincing EU accession agenda upon which the Turkish voter can rely. In the absence of Turkey’s EU membership, they would prefer a leader who has more alternatives than either the secular or Kurdish parties can offer.
2. The opposition doesn’t have a plan to improve Turkey’s economy
Turkey's economy is going through a storm. The value of the lira is in historic decline against the dollar and investors have had sleepless nights since the 15 July failed coup. But who will manage this situation better?
In recent elections, Erdogan was able to sustain his popularity mostly because of his ability to sustain the country’s economic growth and protect it from the 2008 global economic crisis. There is no indication that Turks have lost their confidence in his ability to manage the economy, nor have No campaigners offered any appealing alternatives. In the short and medium term, Erdogan and his party are still their best hope.
There is no indication that Turks have lost their confidence in his ability to manage the economy, nor have No campaigners offered any appealing alternatives
As Turkey’s normalisation with Russia and Israel continues, there are hopes that tourism will pick up this summer and small investors, business communities and major business groups are worried about the impact that any set back to Erdogan could have on them.
Turkey’s foreign relations are now shaped in such a way that its trade volume is expanding and diversifying beyond Europe and China. In its trade with the Gulf countries, Turkey secured a surplus of $85bn between 2012 and 2015. At the recently held Economic Cooperation Organisation summit in Islamabad, Turkey sought to increase its trade volume with Central Asian countries.
With an economy less dependent on Europe, Turkey has better leverage to bargain with the EU on its relations. However, Erdogan’s recent rhetoric of going to a Brexit-type referendum over Turkey’s EU accession process is something the majority of Turkish voters may not support because the EU still remains central to Turkey’s cultural, social and economic outlook, if not its politics.
3. Erdogan is trusted to improve the deteriorating security situation
With the frequent terrorist attacks in the country in recent years, perhaps the most important question facing Turks right now is the security situation. Most voters believe that armed Kurdish groups in Syria and Turkey, the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda and the Fethullah Gulen network are responsible for the terrorist attacks from 2015 onwards.
Turks look at US and European support of Kurdish militants in Syria with great suspicion
Given these attacks, Turks look at US and European support of Kurdish militants in Syria with great suspicion. Similarly, Turkey’s go-alone policy in Jarabulus and then Al-Bab sent a strong message to Turks that the current government can go ahead in defeating IS without relying on US support. And Turkey’s Western allies are seen as complicit with forces that the country accuses of using terrorism against Turkey, particularly the Gulen network and Europe-based Kurdish militants.
It is very unlikely that Turkish voters will subscribe to the Western, Russian and Iranian media discourse that Turkey was behind facilitating and promoting IS. Only a few months ago, the CIA formally apologised to Turkey over allegations it made in 2014 about the trading of oil between Ankara and IS.
The failed coup on 15 July was a big day for Erdogan’s popularity which rose to an historic high. Although it has declined gradually since, Turkish confidence in his ability to manage the country’s security is something that remains largely intact.
4. Erdogan already has a proven track record in Syria
Turkey would have been checkmated in Syria had Erdogan not taken a series of corrective measures, including normalising relations with Russia and appointing a new prime minister who is believed to be more flexible and pragmatic on foreign policy than his predecessor, Ahmet Davutoglu.
It is difficult to imagine anti-immigration populism would pay off in Turkey the same way it has in the UK, the US or the Netherlands
Do Turks really disapprove of Erdogan’s Syria policy? After Turkey-Russian cooperation in Syria increased, their trust in Erdogan’s leadership also increased. After all, Syria is now a domestic issue for Turkey which is providing refuge for three million Syrian refugees while the EU-Turkey refugee deal is practically at a standstill.
In a recent speech, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition party CHP, used the anti-Syrian immigrant card saying: “The first thing they will do if the ‘yes’ votes prevail is to give citizenship to Syrians. If the ‘no’ votes prevails, they cannot do so. If you say ‘let my children be unemployed, let the small tradesmen become poor,’ you will vote for ‘yes’.”
It is difficult to imagine that this kind of anti-immigration populism would pay off in Turkey the same way it has in the UK, the US or the Netherlands. For many Turks, Syrians are the real victims and Turkey’s humanitarian opening to them is both religiously and politically attractive.
5. Voters are more interested in a ‘strong Turkey’ than a ‘democratic Turkey’
There has always been a consensus among Turks that the 1982 constitution, drafted and approved by leaders of that year’s military coup, should be completely replaced. But no political party since then has been able to achieve a big enough majority to start the process. If approved, the referendum would finally bring this change.
Among the referendum’s many amendments, one aspect is that Turkey’s parliamentary system will be changed into an executive presidency. But the debate around the referendum has become polarised, reduced to a focus on Erdogan himself and his ambitions for greater power, something that will not sufficiently mobilise "No" voters.
Nationalist Turks see much of the anti-Erdogan campaigning in Europe as being managed by pro-Kurdish independence groups, sheltered by EU countries and, in their campaigns for the referendum, both the MHP and AK parties are successfully using Western hysteria against Turkey and Islam. This political discourse in Turkey and also about Turkey by the country’s Western allies motivates young Turkish voters who definitely prefer a more conservative, nationalist or anti-West narrative than the unfriendly, pro-Gulen and pro-Kurdish independence Western narrative.
So it depends on how the younger generation, now educated and prosperous, will interpret global politics. The existing narratives which unnecessarily provoke nationalist sentiments could lead young voters to favour a strong and resistant Turkey, instead of a Western underdog. The opposition parties may not fare well in this game of competitive nationalism.
- Omair Anas, PhD in West Asian Studies, is a Delhi-based analyst. You can follow him on Twitter @omairanas
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures amid confetti during a rally in Istanbul on 11 March 2017 (AFP)