20 March 2017

What Will Happen in Turkey After the Referendum

My friends ask me about the upcoming referendum and its results as they wonder about the potential consequences of a Yes or a No vote.

I usually respond that the results do not matter much as Erdogan's playbook will be the same either way. They are almost always puzzled by my answer.

You see, Erdogan is a cunning and clever politician, which is why he survived at the top for 15 years and weathered coup threats, social upheavals, electoral setbacks and even a small civil war.

Such a man would not roll the dice and accept the verdict of a referendum. But unlike others who would make a Plan B under similar circumstances, Erdogan developed a long term Plan A which works either way.

Let me explain.

Take Over By Taking Out Rivals

Erdogan's goal has always been to abolish the current parliamentary system and establish a presidential system with no separation of powers.

A sultanate with a fig leaf of electoral legitimacy.

How do you achieve that?

Well, by neutralizing and eliminating any group, force, party or institution that has the potential to block such plans.

The first target was the media. Starting from 2008 he systematically placed major media outlets under state receivership to be sold to his cronies. Or he would simply confiscate them (placing them under trusteeships) and appoint one of his henchmen CEO.

Those he cannot grab, like the Dogan group or Cumhuriyet have been constantly threatened.

As a result:
According to Serdar Sement, an analyst with S Informatics Consultancy, a research company that issues annual reports on the state of Turkish media, 70% of the print media is now a government mouthpiece. “Erdogan’s control of the media has expanded steadily since 2008,” Sement told Al-Monitor.
According to Sement, 85% of Turkey’s news channels are currently under government control, again an all-time high.
When it comes to news agencies, Turkey has five national ones, the biggest of which — the Anatolia news agency — is a public institution run directly by the government. Among the private ones, the Ihlas news agency is pro-government, while Cihan was placed in trusteeship along with Zaman. Thus, government control in this sector has reached 60%.
As for the few remaining independent media outlets, they are too afraid to be critical of government: as of January 2017, 170 journalist and media workers are being detained on terrorism charges and another 21 were convicted. That places Turkey ahead of China as the biggest jailer of journalists.

Erdogan also made sure there was no effective opposition.

The two opposition parties, CHP and ultra nationalistic MHP have been so accommodating at critical juncture that many observer wonder whether they are being blackmailed. Since the former leader of CHP was caught on tape in flagrante delicto this would not be unprecedented.

The only party that challenged Erdogan's authority was the pro-Kurdish HDP.  Its co-leader Selahattin Demirtas was charismatic and outspoken. He was unimpressed with the Bully-Victim playbook. He could not be blackmailed as he was not corrupt . And he claimed to speak for the country's 20 million Kurds.

In fact, Erdogan's hatred for Demirtas stems from his promise: "we will not let you become the President."

He was dangerous and he proved it in June 2016 elections. Erdogan suffered his first ever electoral setback after Demirtas got HDP into parliament with 80 MPs.

So Erdogan proposed a constitutional amendments to lift legislative immunity and had it passed with the active support of MHP and CHP. Now both co-leaders of HDP and half of their MPs are in jail on bogus charges.

The next target was the army.

If the constitutional changes that are the subject of the current referendum were tabled last year this time and the country was facing so many economic and political problems, the army might have intervened.

So the army had to be neutralized. As I recently wrote, you organize a comical coup and, presto, you have licence to get rid of tens of thousands of commissioned and non-commissioned officers (COs and NCOs).

More importantly, by prosecuting privates, enlisted soldiers and NCOs who were simply obeying orders, Erdogan ensured that subordinates would no longer obey orders they find suspicious. The fact that this affect chain of command and esprit de corps negatively is not his concern.

Finally, Erdogan made sure that large companies would remain silent by changing government tender laws. He is now the sole authority who decides who gets what project and for how much. Any company he suspects of not liking him is excluded from government contracts and audited.

Others might see their assets seized without due process and sold to Erdogan cronies.
Some $10bn in assets was seized from businessmen accused of being loyal to Mr Gulen. For more than a decade, those same businessmen prospered when Mr Gulen and Mr Erdogan allied themselves against the secular elites, winning contracts from the government.

Now, with Mr Gulen and his followers declared terrorists, their businesses belong to the state, to be auctioned to bidders eager to proclaim their loyalty to Mr Erdogan. Galip Ozturk, owner of a bus company with a market capitalisation of about $100m, aims to bid for the assets of Koza Ipek, a conglomerate whose listed units once had a market cap of nearly $6bn. His biggest qualification: his desire to please Mr Erdogan and to do his will, he bragged to local media.
In short, there is no party or institution left to challenge him.

Despite all of this and his recent desperate attempt to create outside enemies, there is a chance that the referendum might fail.

What Will He Do After the Referendum?

What Erdogan will do regardless of the referendum results is to call fresh elections in the Fall.

Why would he do that, you might ask.

Well, to have a supermajority in parliament.

You see, he knows that MHP base is so disillusioned with their leader that they will sit this one out and MHP will not be able to get the 10 percent it needs to get into parliament.

HDP with its leaders in jail and Kurdish population in the southeast completely cowed after a ruthless and murderous military campaign will also fail to get over that threshold.

Turkey's peculiar proportional representation system dictates that the votes of these parties will benefit AKP disproportionately. And the resulting legislative body will be composed of AKP and CHP with a roughly 70-30 distribution.

If the referendum brings back a No result, that AKP supermajority will give him any constitutional amendment he likes without another referendum.

If the referendum brings back a Yes result, this is his chance to become the sole ruler with the legitimacy of a docile legislative body behind him. He might never get such a shot.

Either way, Plan A is for him to become the Dear Leader.

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