In Islamic eschatology the Mahdi (‘messiah’) plays a prominent role. For the Iranian Shia he is already born and has hidden down a well for over a millennium, waiting for the right time to emerge. Turkish Sunnis already have a candidate, breathing fire and brimstone and ready to purge the world.
At least, so it would seem, to judge from the campaign Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has waged against unbelievers who have dared to block his plans to become the country’s all-powerful leader.
On April 16 a referendum will be held in Turkey, where voters can decide on constitutional amendments which will remove all cumbersome checks and balances to Erdoğan’s power. In his campaign to secure a ‘yes’, Erdoğan has admitted he has been planning for such a system since he was mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s. Furthermore, that his plans for an executive presidency will concentrate all power in the hands of one person.
This “Turkish-style” presidential system means Erdoğan will have the power to appoint and dismiss ministers and high-level state officials without the need for parliamentary approval. He will also be able to declare a state of emergency, issue decrees, dissolve parliament and call elections without being held to account. The president will not only be head of state but also head of government – the post of prime minister will be abolished, and in effect the judiciary will be subject to his control.
What is particularly alarming, as the Venice Commission (the Council of Europe’s advisory body) has pointed out, the way the new constitution is configured means the president could stay in office for a potentially unlimited period of time.
The current conflict with Europe derives from Erdoğan’s insistence to extend his referendum campaign to the Turkish diaspora (there are about two and a half million Turks eligible to vote in Turkey in various European countries). However, as not all Turks are Erdoğan supporters, there is the danger of clashes, which could destabilize forthcoming elections in France and Germany, and latest in Holland.
Erdoğan has reacted violently to Germany and Holland’s refusal to allow him and his ministers to hold rallies, accusing Germany of “Nazi methods” and Holland of being “Nazi remnants” and “fascists” as well as “a banana republic.” This may go down well with Erdoğan’s supporters but not in Europe, where relations with Turkey are already strained.
But Erdoğan has stepped up the rhetoric. In a spectacular example of projection Erdoğan has claimed that “the spirit of fascism is running wild on the streets of Europe” and has compared the banning of rallies to the treatment of Jews during the Second World War. Here Erdoğan conveniently ignores that there has been a state of emergency in Turkey since the abortive coup last July, where public assemblies are banned and free speech is stifled. Also the fact that more than 135,000 have lost their jobs and over 140,000 have been detained or arrested in the ongoing purge of the Gülen movement, which has been held responsible for the coup.
Naysayers have been stigmatized as siding with the coup plotters, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Gülen movement have been accused of backing the ‘no’ campaign. A prominent cleric has also branded opponents of the constitutional amendments as “opponents of Islam.”
Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu has warned of “holy wars” in Europe and Erdoğan has spoken of a struggle between the cross and the crescent, after the European Court of Justice allowed employers to ban the Islamic headscarf along with other religious symbols. As Turkey is term president of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), President Erdoğan also intends to mobilize the OIC against Euro-fascism.
President Trump has not yet formulated a policy against radical Islamic terrorism but until now has left it to his generals to decide policy in the war against ISIL.
Here Turkey plays a key role, especially as Turkish forces in support of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) occupy an area in northern Syria, driving a wedge between two Kurdish autonomous areas. The question is whether the US in its drive to take Raqqa will continue to support the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or agree to cooperate with Turkey. The issue is still open to debate but will not be decided until after Turkey’s referendum in April.
In the meantime, the Trump administration has decided to send Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to meet with Turkey’s leaders at the end of the month. Whether this will be enough to assuage Turkish fears remains to be seen.
Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.