Erdogan's referendum on absolute power means the European dream is over for Turkey

Kim Sengupta
President Erdogan secured a marginal victory in a referendum called over whether to grant the presidency additional powers: EPA

Ak Saray, the residence of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a complex of around 1,100 rooms in acres of hillside over Ankara. It is not garish or tasteless, like some of Saddam Hussein’s architectural monstrosities were, but then Turkey’s President sees himself not as just another Kalashnikov-wielding strongman, but heir to the legacy of Ottoman sultans.

A few colleagues and I were given a conducted tour of Ak Saray, “White Palace” in English, soon after last summer’s attempted coup, when Erdogan was being presented as a defender of democracy against the perfidy of a treacherous exiled cleric, Fethullah Gulen, and a renegade military faction. But the White Palace definitely seemed a home more befitting a potentate than that of a champion of the people and Turkey’s referendum has now confirmed Erdogan in that position. And, at the same time, any effective international backing for attempts to dethrone him is now relatively meaningless after Donald Trump called him from the White House to congratulate him on his victory.

Trump was the first major world leader to publicly give his support to the Turkish President; he had followed Qatar, Guinea and the Palestinian movement Hamas. Trump’s stance towards Erdogan is very different from his predecessor Barack Obama, whose administration had been critical of some of the Turkish President’s more autocratic ways. American support for Kurdish rebels in Syria has been a further source of acrimony. Relations had soured to the extent that Ankara claimed there was an American “hidden hand” behind the Gulenists that carried out the putsch.

Erdogan was one of the first foreign leaders to offer his congratulations to Trump after his victory in the US election declaring “a new era” in relations between the two countries.

The two men see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, not least in their shared antipathy towards a critical media (although Trump is yet to start jailing them on an industrial scale like the Turkish President) and more generally in depicting political opponents as the enemy within.

As yet, there have been no felicitations to Erdogan from Vladimir Putin. But the Turkish President has made great effort to build good relations with his Russian counterpart after he lost the stand-off over the Turks shooting down a Russian warplane 18 months ago. There is now regular liaison on a range of issues, including actions of the two countries forces in Syria. It is highly unlikely that the Kremlin will criticise the referendum results.

Western European political leaders, however, have been willing to do so. They have expressed grave disquiet about alleged voter fraud at the polls and urged Erdogan to be restrained as he assumes near absolute power.

In Berlin, Angela Merkel warned that the “tight referendum result shows how deeply divided Turkish society is, that means a big responsibility for the Turkish leadership, that means a big responsibility for President Erdogan personally.” In Paris, François Hollande’s office warned against actions which would “obviously be a break with values and engagements” that Turkey has accepted in joining the Council of Europe. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, called for claims of electoral malpractice to be investigated. Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz said the referendum result was a “clear signal against the European Union” and ends the “fiction” of joining the union.

But Erdogan and his supporters no longer see being barred from the European Union as a dire threat because they believe that the country would not be allowed entry in any case. Within hours of claiming his win, the President was saying that he would have no hesitation in introducing the death penalty – a move which will scupper European Union entry entirely, but one he nevertheless had no hesitation in making public.

The reality is that Turkey holds a few aces in its relations with Europe on a range of issues, from Syria to refugees. The latter is the one of most concern. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people had been using Turkey as a transit point for Europe. Under a deal made between Merkel and Erdogan, the numbers coming through have fallen significantly. In return, Europe was supposed to agree to visa-free travel for Turks, but that is yet to happen. The Turkish government has already indicated that it will refuse one of the demands that would allow the visa waiver: reform of anti-terrorism legislation.

It will be interesting to see how the European Union reacts to other hardline measures which are likely to accompany Erdogan’s accumulation of power, just how much declarations of supporting democracy and dissent in Turkey is tempered by realpolitik and self-interest at the prospect of the refugee floodgates opening again.

It will also be interesting to see just how much Erdogan, sitting in his Ottoman splendour at the White Palace and buttressed by backing from powerful friends such as Trump and Putin, is prepared to play hardball with Europe.