Since 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics.  That isn’t to say that he has met no opposition.  In 2015, Erdogan’s party lost its majority in parliament.  Erdogan responded with an anti-Kurdish offensive that led to new elections in November 2015 that recovered the majority.   In July 2016, a bunch of soldiers tried to overthrow Erdogan.  They missed their punch, not least because a lot of Turks hold fast to the idea of democracy.  Erdogan responded with a state of emergency that allowed him to purge the military, the bureaucracy, and civil society.  Now he is campaigning to change the constitution to gain great new powers that might threaten the survival of Turkish democracy.  This challenges many Turks.[1]

It challenges others as well.  Since the time of Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk,” Turkey has sought to balance Westernization against its Turkish identity.  Membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a desire to join the European Union (EU) formed hall-marks of this effort.  Erdogan has broken with that policy.  On the one hand, he took advantage of the Syrian crisis to deluge Europe with refugees in order to extract promises of aid and accelerated consideration of Turkish membership in the EU.[2]  On the other hand, Turkey has been tilting toward Russia in the latest phase of the Syrian struggle while NATO’s members have been agog at Russian behavior.  Then, Erdogan has been campaigning for support among the Turkish diaspora in Europe.  Germany and Holland blocked the attempts by Turkish officials to address Turkish voters in those countries.  Erdogan’s savage response pandered to Turkish nationalism.

Historians inevitably think in analogies.[3]  Among historians, Italy long has been a historical laughing-stock.  French armies won its independence.  It then paid shipping companies to take away Neapolitans and Sicilians to foreign lands.  It only granted the vote to all men the in 1907, then rigged the election results.  In The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes regrets having been grievously wounded on “a joke front” during the First World War.  Then it wound up with Benito Mussolini and a Fascist dictatorship that eventually got the country creamed in the Second World War.

There is a photograph of the Fascist Party headquarters building in Rome in 1934.  The four-story façade is covered in in propaganda: at the center of a black background is a silver image of Mussolini’s face (looking rather like a cat) surrounded by rows of “SI” (“Yes”).[4]

Without in any way wishing to suggest a parallel, the current referendum campaign on extending the powers of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is marked by huge bill-boards bearing pictures of Erdogan and the message “Yes.”[5]  The “Or Else” part of the message comes from Erdogan’s surrogates who suggest than anyone who opposes Erdogan is a terrorist (read: Kurd) or traitor (read: Euro-Kurd).  Erdogan’s party (AKP) expects a landslide victory.

Will they get it?  That is—suddenly, surprisingly—less clear.  Erdogan needs the support of a right-wing party, but opinion polls suggest that its members are much less enthusiastic than are its leaders.  If Erdogan loses the vote in the referendum on 16 April 2017, how will he respond?  Observers think that “when faced with challenges to his authority,” Erdogan “escalates[s] crises and creates new ones.”  So, many things could go wrong after 16 April 2017.

[1] See: “The Devil and the Deep, Blue Sea.”

[2] In the cases of Portugal, Spain, Greece, and all the post-Soviet Eastern European countries, the creation of democratic political systems was a prerequisite for membership.  It isn’t clear that Turkey could meet that standard.

[3] They are not alone.  See: Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton University Press, 1992).

[4] See:

[5] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Stakes Are High in Turkish Referendum on Erdogan’s Power,” WSJ, 24 March 2017.

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