I do not agree with the many critics of Turkey that the danger facing the country is dictatorial rule.
Nevertheless, I don’t have good news either. I think that we should consider the worse scenario that Turkey could slide into chaos regardless of the result of the referendum.
First of all, it seems that the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) will do everything to ensure a result in favor of “yes.” Even if the majority still votes for “no,” I don’t think the current government will take it easily. I have no idea what will follow in that case, but I am sure that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
has a contingency plan like calling for new elections, since the referendum is considered a milestone of the New Turkey project rather than an ordinary poll. Besides, we know what happened when the governing party lost its majority in the June 2015 elections.
If the majority votes for “yes,” it may seem that it will be a problem only for the opposition, since the president and his supporters will win the day and live happily ever after. Indeed, it seems that there will be nothing to stop the uninhibited use of power with further legal sanctity and that this will be the end of the story. Turkey will look more like other authoritarian states, such as the Central Asian Turkic republics, for example, among others. Nevertheless, Turkey is too advanced and complex a country to sustain a modern or post-modern dictatorship. First of all, in terms of the economy, it is not only that Turkey lacks the natural riches to support authoritarian rule, but its economy is far too advanced and interdependent to afford isolation from the Western world.
As for politics, even if Turkey has never been a model democracy, its democratic political experiment is in advance of many other non-Western countries. That is to say that Turkey’s democratic practice has not been strong enough to hinder the authoritarian swing, but its democracy cannot easily be replaced by dictatorial rule without falling into a crisis of governability. Finally, Turkey’s society is far more plural and liberal than many other non-Western societies. Regardless of the rise of religious and nationalist conservatism, Turkey has a large middle class with liberal values. Secular liberals remain a minority, but their numbers are too large to dismiss and cannot easily be explained away as alienated “elites.”
We may not be able to imagine a majority vote for gay marriage in Turkey, but even the conservative middle classes tend to live more liberal lives in comparison to other Muslim countries, including the supposedly “most secular” ones like Tunisia. It may not be a good sign for the advance of liberal values, but divorce rates are increasing even among conservatives. The better news is that even conservatives have adopted more democratic family values and individualistic life expectations. Consequently, for example, despite efforts to revive the culture of martyrdom, life is cherished more than any ultimate sacrifices for the cause. And despite efforts to bolster militaristic attitudes, the majority is not eager to conduct military service. The statistics show that given the chance, a majority of those with the requisite wealth opt to pay more to conduct short-term symbolic military service. It may sound paradoxical but, AKP rule has provided the means to improve middle-class life and inculcate even liberal middle-class values over the past 15 years.
That is not to say that Turkey is safe from the prospect of an authoritarian regime and that we have little to fear. No, I think nothing will stop the rulers of Turkey from imposing a harsher regime; at the same time, however, I think Turkey cannot sustain an authoritarian regime without falling into the vicious cycle of crises of governability and stability. As early as the immediate aftermath of the 2011 elections, I expressed my concern that the AKP would “rule” but not be able to “govern” Turkey, since its understanding of politics and society is very narrow-minded. That is what has happened since then: the ruling party has managed to gain a majority of the votes and grasped a lot of power, albeit at the expense of more social tension and polarization. Moreover, it has failed to achieve a solution to the Kurdish issue. The more the governing party has failed, the more authoritarianism it has sought, creating a vicious cycle.
That is why I am more scared and concerned than many of my friends who think Turkey is heading toward dictatorship for decades to come. Turkey can’t afford the decades of authoritarian rule or, it would appear, find its way out of such authoritarianism anytime soon.