Citizens of Turkey just voted in a referendum on whether to move from a parliamentary to a presidential system of democracy – one in which a great amount of power would be concentrated in the hands of one person, the duly elected president of the country.
Turkey has been in the news quite a bit lately, and not just because of this referendum. The country sits at a critical location, given the turmoil of the Middle East in Iraq and Syria, and the resulting refugee crisis that is overwhelming many European countries.
This brings back many old memories for me. It was August 1972 when I landed in Ankara, coming from Karachi. I had been admitted to the Middle East Technical University, an American-style educational institution just outside the city limits of Turkey’s capital. I studied and lived there for the next four years, developing a lifelong connection to the country and its people. Since then I have visited just about every year and watched the country evolve economically, socially and politically.
Turkey of the 1970s was a very different place than it is today. The vision of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, of a secular democracy, was still very much alive, even though the “democracy” part of it was at times questionable as the generals stepped in time and again to keep civilian governments from straying too far from the founder’s vision. Secularists were firmly in control, sometimes riding roughshod over the more religious public, particularly outside the larger cities.
So it is that the phenomenon of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamist-leaning politician, hasn’t really come out of nowhere. He tapped into the frustrations of large numbers of Turks who felt ignored and even ostracized. He has been in power since 2003, always managing to narrowly win elections, until he was able to change the system to where even a very narrow win provides unchecked power to govern. Early results from the referendum indicate a 51% “yes” vote as desired by Erdogan. Not really a surprise.
While analysts have been commenting on the results of the Turkish referendum, I’ve yet to hear parallels being drawn with the political reality of Donald Trump’s USA. A president who managed to win with just 46% of the popular vote, and a U.S. Senate where the majority party holds only 52 out of 100 seats, representing states that comprise less than half the country’s population. Yet this party has thwarted a duly elected president from the opposition party from fulfilling his constitutional duty of appointing a ninth and potentially decisive Supreme Court Justice.
As far as Turkey, Erdogan has delivered tremendous economic progress during his first dozen years or so, a time during which the per capita income across the country rose by more than 100%. More importantly, he has ruled by empowering his base and making them feel that their way of life and religiosity will not be matters of ridicule. And all along, he has marginalized all forces that could oppose him. Political opponents have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges, newspapers shut down, journalists jailed, even judges summarily dismissed. Erdogan has called all newspapers that oppose him “enemy of the people”. Sounds familiar!
We are living in a world of 50/50 – deeply divided countries, where slim majorities, or even large minorities, are willing and able to impose their will on the rest. In Turkey, Erdogan is likely to stay in power for another dozen years. In the US the actions of the ruling party in appointing a Supreme Court justice – possible only by changing the rules of the Senate – is likely to affect the direction of the country for perhaps a generation.
S. Qaisar Shareef concluded a career of nearly 30 years with Procter & Gamble Company in 2011. He is the author of When Tribesmen Came Calling: Building an Enduring American Business in Pakistan, to be published in July 2017 by Blue Ear Books. He lives outside Washington, DC.