Right now the biggest news in Europe is the Turkish referendum, whose ballot-counting is going on as I write this. The referendum is for a constitutional change that will favour the office of the Turkish presidency, currently occupied by the dyspeptic Erdoğan, who has stuffed Turkey’s prisons with journalists and judges. The full implications of the referendum and the associated constitutional change, expected to be a Yes vote (probably narrow), are disputed, but in a nutshell, it eliminates some of the distinctions between the executive and the legislative branches, and creates a much more powerful presidential office. Some people in Western Europe and the Turkish opposition consider it to be a step directly into Erdoğanist dictatorship.
A good summary of what is going on is available at this Foreign Policy article, which casts the “narrow” conflict in terms of the role of the bureaucracy:
In order to get things done in government, elected politicians traditionally were obliged to constantly bargain with the groups that composed this “bureaucratic oligarchy.” Most of Turkey’s political trends, such as the Leftists or Nationalists, have long had their natural networks in the corridors of the state, and would leverage them to get things done. The prime minister would be from one of these groups and be responsible for the day-to-day business of government. The president would always represent the Kemalist order and oversee the senior cadre of the Constitutional Court and senior military officials. The basic rhythm of government was not one of formal checks and balances, but tension between the president and prime minister.
It’s important to understand that prior to Erdoğan, much of Turkey’s public also did not experience Turkey as a democracy in which they had full rights. There was an underlying class conflict part of which was realized as a conflict over public religiosity. In the minds of western media, and in particular Western European society, the religious dimension of the conflict overshadowed all other aspects of it: the Kemalist elite were generally regarded as heroes holding a backwards “Islamist” Anatolia at bay using French-style laicism.
For the supposedly backwards Anatolians, the world had a completely different character: an urbanized, Europeanized elite ignored and neglected economically, dangling a chimera of acceptance in exchange for agreeing to sell away their heritage. Under Erdoğan, women’s participation in the economy and politics, went up, leaving the secular elites seeming like macho poseurs demanding that pious women disrobe before they could go to school. (They also apparently had “persuasion rooms” at school to browbeat and humiliate girls from religiously conservative backgrounds into taking off their headscarves.)
To Erdoğan’s core supporters, the Kemalists were doing this in order to gain a kind of superficial acceptance from a Europe that would never actually accept them properly — such is the experience of those who settled in Germany, France, and so on. To Erdoğan’s core supporters, a Yes vote and the further empowerment of Erdoğan, the Man Who Was There For Them, is also a kick in the teeth of a hypocritical, lecturing Europe. Erdoğan himself knew this and deliberately provoked crises with European leaders. European leaders knew this too, but for various reasons (among them, yes, Islamophobia) played along.
The layers of conflict in this referendum and the events preceding it are too many to disentangle in a quick blog post. Class. Religion. The Europeanization of European politics, which, despite everything, Turkey is very much a party to. The conflict in Syria. The Kurdish conflict. All knotted up in a country that can’t help but be “strategic”.