Originally appeared at A-specto, translated by Borislav exclusively for SouthFront
Desislava Pateva interviews Mehmet Ömer, editor of the newspaper “Weekly Overview”
Mr. Ömer, Turkey is on the threshold of a referendum that will decide whether the power is to be fully concentrated in the hands of President Erdogan. The impression remains that these constitutional amendments were passed quietly, without much noise, reminding us of the way amendments to the Electoral Code in Bulgaria were adopted last summer … What caused it? Can we draw a parallel between the way these amendments were adopted in Turkey and that here some processes also do not happen in a transparent, democratic manner?
Parallels you will find with difficulty because 27 years ago, after the fall of totalitarian power, Bulgaria still make a choice, which ended with the country’s membership in NATO and the European Union. Of course, in the so-called transition from totalitarianism to democracy there’s many different shades of doubt. Yet it appears that both Bulgaria and Romania have a long way to go. But in all these conventions, we see that our country somehow belongs to this democratic world to which we aspired.
What parallels do we have with Erdogan’s Turkey? In judicial reforms see huge waves, we see how magistrates are constantly giving signals that they are not satisfied with the unfinished reforms. Yes, there is such doubt, but Erdogan’s Turkey is a completely different matter. Turkey makes a turn from the democratic world to authoritarianism and dictatorship. These are completely different problems. Kemalists now surely dream of having the problems of the Bulgarians because they know that their country is detaching from the Western world, braking off from the democratic community. President Erdogan realized that because of his actions he has no place among democratic leaders. The protests and riots in “Gesine” were crushed and extinguished with immense disdain, with the indulgence of the authorities. President Erdogan began a march to the Sultan’s throne. This matter is very complicated for analysis. But I think as a consequence, modern Turkey will be transformed before our eyes.
Now there’s the question of amendments to the constitution. They give a clear picture that Turkey moves towards transformation. It broke off completely from its secular character, it broke with everything from the past. The whole country will depend on just one person. These amendments, which are 18 in number, still stand in the Majlis. I do not know why Erdogan did not sign them. They were voted in, but now he has to sign them for a referendum to take place. First, we must recognize that these changes were imposed by the majority of the ruling party of the opposition. Actually they were not discussed in a relaxed atmosphere. About their passing quietly, it was not clear why the two leaders agreed – the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), namely Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, and the Nationalist Movement Party – Devlet Bahceli. Some opinions sneak in, some opposition leaders and MPs here and there give explanations, but the majority mutes every other voice.
How do you explain that the two parties mentioned, reached a consensus on the changes? Do you think that between them there was a backroom arrangements, that the ability to control the actions of the president will be stifled in the bud?
First, a backstage arrangements is obviously there, because what happens is not explained to the Turkish public. These amendments were passed in the Majlis without real public debate. Second, only those who praise power commented – analysts, commentators, journalists, but the real experts in constitutional law were kept out of public debate. The official propaganda implies constantly that this is the best outcome for Turkey, that it will launch a new Turkey, that will be a presidential republic of a Turkish type. These accents don’t have an analog anywhere. In all these amendments, nowhere is it written how they will contribute to real change in the country. Everything is concentrated in the power of one person – the president. The prime minister post is repealed and the head of state has the right to create and close down ministries, to issue decrees that regulate the fees of business and tourism. From A to Z everything is directed towards concentrating absolute power in one person. There is no mechanism to control him.
Is it the same in America? Not. The US president has no right to dissolve Congress but the Turkish President will be entitled. With the new amendments the president will be able to remain leader of the party which nominated him. They say that this is a presidential republic, not to frighten the secular Kemalist elite, those who vote for the Republican People’s Party, but people feel what is happening.
These amendments concentrate all power in the president, without a control mechanism. And here they already eliminated any doubt what kind of state we will have. It will not look like the American or French style presidential republic … Even Iran does not look like this, because Iran limits tensions with elections and the change of president. People have the impression that there is some change. In Turkey, this will not happen. First, this is an absolute concentration of all power in the hands of the president. Second, this is a turn from current law and legal practice in Turkey, from the constitutionalism of 1876. With the Russo-Turkish War parliament is repealed, disbanded and Turkey has a singular leader until 1908. The Constitution of Ataturk and the Constitutional coups and the current Constitution, have established a legal basis. There’s established legal tradition in the Turkish state, and he is breaking it. Now we are turning to a completely new model of government. My prediction is that a single person can not bear this burden, and Turkey will be transformed.
Do Turkish citizens understand what this would mean for Turkey to become a presidential republic, what this referendum would actually lead to? You said that there was a news blackout on the subject. Are Turkish citizens sufficiently aware to make an informed choice?
No, because this debate was not transparent. It was implemented in conditions of emergency. The media are completely under the control of power, they are the shackles of power. I say this without reservation, I stand behind my words. I have direct observation about how the media were eroded gradually. After the attempted coup on July 15 last year until now in prison were thrown 150 journalists, but with no indictments. This is a very large figure, although Turkey is a large country with many media. Closed are radios, televisions, newspapers. We saw what was happening. They even did it openly, they did not hide it.
How do you explain the fact that the international community does not respond to the violation of freedom of speech and the purges in all spheres of society in Turkey? Their eyes are “wide shut” about the actions of Erdogan. Only Angela Merkel hinted that democratic values must be respected .
I constantly ask myself this question. I have no answer. We do not know whether there is a tacit agreement between the West and Erdogan. If we find the answer to this question, we’ll explain it. But there was recently leaked a confidential report of the European Union, by intelligence services, which are subordinate to the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Federica Mogherini. First, they say that behind the attempted coup is not the Turkish Islamic preacher, theologian and philosopher Fethullah Gülen. It is assumed that this was staged, that it was a signal for cleansing, a brutal and uncompromising response planned earlier. Even on the night of the attempted coup it was already clear that the lists were ready, and the next day the purges began. This abortive coup freed the boundless hands of Erdogan. Here we can say that the coup, whoever organized it, was not Gulen. But apparently someone in the army had organized it.
Coups are reprehensible acts. A party or leader or president came to power by elections, he can not be removed by unauthorized means. But the response of Erdogan leave a shadow of doubt. For example, why were these actions not aimed to investigate the coup and to prove the guilt of the perpetrators, so they can be brought to justice, so we know which are the organizers? The response did not prove the guilt of the true culprits, but untied the hands of the Turkish president to an infinite power. The country got constitutional amendments that are in favor of one person. That doubt will not be cleared until you know who is the organizer and leader of this attempted coup.
The president said: “I learned about it from my uncle.” Well, if you’ve learned from uncle, does that mean that the head of MIT was involved in a conspiracy against you? If so, why is he still in office? If not, why did he not tell you, and instead you learn it from your uncle? These are very intertwined stories, many questions remain unanswered.
Going back to the question of Turkish society. It knows nothing, because the Turkish media have no right to overshoot the “correct” line. Now it is very important what kind of campaign the President will lead. Erdogan’s hard electorate is nearly 30%, this is his conservative-Islamist electorate. They came to power with 49% in 2015. There is a fluctuating minority in this electorate – about 12% and about 8-9% who do not know how to vote in the referendum. So according to sociological agencies is very important how Erdogan will lead this campaign. And they will use the whole state machine, all the power with which they are dressed up in for a positive outcome in the referendum.
That you think that Erdogan will use the levers of power to affect the outcome, to put pressure on certain people to vote in favor of the change, or even to replace the results of the vote?
We have reason to listen to the words of the government spokesman, who said: “If the referendum passes, the terror will end.” This raised many questions. In Turkey formed two camps of celebrities – singers, sportsmen, former coaches. Some say: “I will vote “yes” in the referendum” and others with the secular Kemalist elite who say, “No, on the contrary.” There is a more modern campaign different from the verbal jousting in the Mejlis.
If citizens decide in favor of the changes they will be dictated by fear. But if some vote against, would mean that they supported terror? No, they were regular elections for parliament in Turkey in 2015 and AKP received 253 deputies, it was the first defeat for the party in 13 years. You know Ahmet Davutoglu was leading talks on forming a cabinet to drag out time for a coalition and to go on elections. But during this time to November 1, 2015, Turkey was marked by bloody attacks. In front of the railway station in Ankara, 104 people lost their lives. There was again the scarecrow of terror. Turks have chosen security over democratic choice. Now again they are suggesting this model. Suggests to them that there is no peace in Turkey, that every day there’s shootings, bombs, that civilians and police and military die. At one point, society began to get used to it. If you put a frog in hot water, it will jump, or will die inside. But if you are heating water gradually, it will not feel what is happening. Turkish society is now placed in that situation. People do not perceive what was happening, because the media hide information and there is no free discussion.
On the other hand, users of the Internet are very little – they do not exceed 20%. Many sites are also blocked. You need at least a little effort and knowledge, so you can get authentic information. There are also sites that were never touched, but they are very marginal. Youtube has many interesting discussions, but I see they have 8000-9000 views. People watch national TV after returning from work. And there they see Erdogan. This is the situation at this stage. So I think this will be a decisive choice for the Turks. Many people will probably oppose, but 51 percent are enough to pass the changes.
Can we assume that the results of sociological agencies indicate that the majority of Turks will vote “yes”, they are also manipulated to influence the outcome of the referendum? Could it be that above them is pressure to provide specific preliminary data to tip the scales in favor of Erdogan.
Within the AKP there are also sociological studies. It is evident that a serious percentage of their sympathizers are undecided. At this stage we have not yet emerged with definitive polls in support of the changes. More important is what will Erdogan say. One of the amendments even personifies the presidential institution. Only one leader will manage everything single-handedly. That really puts Turkey among the Middle Eastern countries. Even Assad in Syria failed to maintain the integrity of his country. There’s talks about the future of Syria, the Syrian opposition, the fate of this country. But Turkey is located in an even more complicated geopolitical region. So I think it is not possible for one person to hold all this tension in such a geopolitical situation. I don’t know how this leader will cope. In democratic countries the separation of powers somewhat exercises control over executives – the government and the president. While here there is only one person that will have the right to say what will go on. I can not at this stage say what the future of Turkey will be after this regime.
How do you explain that all these institutions are subject to a single person? Does Erdogan hold all power? Could he be taken down from his post?
It turns out that he can’t be. Erdogan holds power because of the impotent opposition which is unable to produce policies. This leader of the Republican People’s Party – Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is trying to manifest his role as opposition leader, but without success towards the rise of their rating and their electorate. They had many chances, but in the end the opposition proved impotent, unable to respond to Erdogan.
Even the attempted coup brought up the bogeyman witch tinkers in the souls of men. When Erdogan came to power in 2002, he literally crushed the opposition, then smashed the generals – many people were put in jail. If you remember in 2007-2008, there were some very noisy affairs in Turkey, “Operation Sledgehammer”. Eventually the military who were imprisoned were released due to faults in the indictments. Maybe that’s why Gülen was an inconvenient obstacle to Erdogan. The two differ in one very important point. Erdogan turns religion into an instrument of policy, while Gülen stands exactly at the opposite position. According to him, religion is a personal act, religious messages should not be used to entice voters. Erdogan uses the fear in Eastern societies, the respect for religion. Religiously conservative, his electorate largely doesn’t like the West. You know that he is convinced that all problems come from the West. He always criticizes America and Europe, earning dividends within the country. This conservative Islamist elite does not ask questions. When they use religion, with the Koran in hand, they take away his right to questions. That hides the flaws of the leader. And thus hypnotizes the community. But the secular, Kemalist elite, can not be kept under a lid with these methods. And religion can not be used in corruption scandals. They found 400,000 dollars in shoe boxes in the house of the head of “Halkbank”. He said they were for charity, to build a school, etc. Religion is used to collect donations for doing charity … But then why is the money with you?
We are talking about political leadership headed by Erdogan, and about a civilian leadership, which besides Orhan Pamuk and other intellectuals, also had Gulen. The civilian leadership was more influential in promoting secular education, as opposed to the Islamic religious schools of Erdogan. Let religion remain a private act of the individual. Gulen’s philosophy was to mark the three plagues of Turkish society – poverty, ignorance and disunity. He fought against these plagues, wanted to remove them, but then he became a target. Where can we find opposition to Erdogan? There isn’t one that can threaten his government. That partly explains that why has no opponents in the political arena.
How do you explain that the constitutional amendments were proposed, despite the country imposing a state of emergency? What was the reason so many lawmakers rush to accept them?
The explanation is simple. Strike the iron while it’s hot, while the coup attempt holds moisture, especially among his conservative Islamist elite. Although “Yenikapi” where the large rally took place, all united against coups, this spirit was not maintained. Erdogan privatize it to his advantage. All leaders stood shoulder to shoulder to show that coups are an unacceptable act. But this spirit is only used by one party only in favor of one person.
How to explain it – they don’t want to miss the moment, that was the reason Ahmet Davutoglu walked away from the leadership and the premiership. Twenty months he staled, he did not take seriously Erdogan’s instructions, but he wanted in his time already for these amendments to be initiated and to move towards a referendum. Davutoglu is a smart guy, an intellectual. While there are mistakes in his foreign policy, he supported the parliamentary system of government. In this line of thinking, their haste does not surprise me.
The main argument for enactment of the changes is that this way the country will stabilize after the attempted coup in Turkey. Aren’t these changes made because Erdogan himself is afraid he could be prosecuted for the purge, which he made in the judiciary and the army, in the schools?
This is one of the essential problems. Erdogan is most afraid of falling from power. Not only because of internal corruption schemes. When on December 17, 2013 a mega corruption scandal thundered in the modern Republican history of Turkey, the first wave was directed toward the ministers, the second – toward Erdogan, who was then a prime minister. So this is an extremely important consideration. But an even more important consideration is that when the Russian aircraft was brought down, the Russians directly showed satellite images of how the Erdogan family coordinate and direct the trade of oil with what is known as a terrorist organization. This means that there are illegal actions with a banned organization. This will directly place Erdogan at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. In the end, someone must be responsible for this. And before the International Court of Human Rights, if you will. I think the fears of Turkish President are very big. This is the reason for his desire for absolute power. He no longer trust anyone, not even his immediate surroundings. He doubts even the smallest movements of his potential opponents. Let’s say if Gul with Davutoglu sit at a meeting, Erdogan begins to worry about whether are doing something behind his back. This takes on hysterical dimensions. He does not trust anyone. In my opinion, Erdogan makes Turkey hostage to his personal ambitions.
Recently Erdogan accused the United States of supporting the Islamic State, although he himself has been accused of supplying the terrorists with weapons. You mentioned the case with the trade of oil. Do you think Turkey will ignore the negative rhetoric against the United States after Trump took over the presidency?
I think that Turkish leaders are hastily pinning their hopes on Trump, but he will cool them down. To make predictions, we have to see at least a start in the relationship in order to comment. On the other hand, I will say that such slogans, such propaganda clichés have an impact on the internal audience, the conservative Islamist elite who doesn’t like the West and looks to blame it entirely. For this type of communities – in the Islamic world and in Middle Eastern countries, this resentment, this anti-Western mood is a fact.
Let see examples from Davos. In 2009, Erdogan criticized Shimon Peres, the now late Israeli president, saying: “You are to blame for the death of innocents in Gaza. For me, Davos is finished.” He was greeted at the airport as a hero. He knows where the subtle psychological boundary of his conservative-Islamist elite is, and he plays on this thin line.
Moscow insists on Washington’s position to resolve the conflict in Syria. The main issue is that after Russia, Iran and Turkey sat down together at the negotiating table, will the US assist the Syrian government in the fight against terrorism. What is your opinion?
Erdogan’s Turkey will not play an important role, it is not a great power. America and Russia will solve it. Putin, however, will not forgive him for the downing of the aircraft. There is seemingly a warming of relations. No. no! Nothing has happened between Russia and Turkey in the direction of cohesion. See how the Russians stoped the talks on easing the visa regime for Turkish citizens. Why? Turkey has taken 3 million refugees, among which there are radical elements and unidentified subjects. Now you promise to give them citizenship, employment, housing. With Turkish passports they can move freely …
I think this closeness between Moscow and Ankara is only on the surface. Undercurrents are different. Moreover, in Turkey was murdered the Russian ambassador, and from a Turkish police officer at that. Putin will not forgive it, but he knows very well the interests of his country. I do not see how at this stage, Ankara will continue to be a regional power, how someone would allow it. I think Russia and the US will agree on something – it will depend on them, as great powers, and Turkey is a regional power. As cat that dreams it’s a lion, is still not a lion.
Do you think Turkish President will again use his trump card of refugees, to extort German Chancellor Angela Merkel to grant him more money, after her visit to Turkey? Is there accountability on how the funds that are allocated under the EU are actually spend?
Accountability I have not seen. President Erdogan explained that from the promised 6 billion, 600 mln. euros are received. He says: “Look, we have accepted them, shelter and care for them, and they only give empty promises.” These issues will again be put on the table, as will Gülenists. 40 NATO generals of the Turkish army recently applied for asylum in Germany, they started a procedure to obtain it. Greeks refuse to return the eight military members there, we will see happens. But it is possible for Europe to seek a deal, no matter how small the transfer … I do not know if European reports are publicized about what tranches we are talking about, but I think that it possible Europe will fork over this money to buy their security. I would not be surprised at anything. But for me there will always be the question of what is the real agreement between Europe and Erdogan. That I can not figure out.