Reasonable people have long believed that the first person in a conversation to mention Adolf Hitler, or the Nazis, loses the argument. Turkey’s President Recep Tayib Erdogan does not subscribe to this view, and he has no intention of losing the argument.
The argument—the referendum, more precisely—is about whether Erdogan should be given absolute power in Turkey for the indefinite future. He was seriously annoyed when various German municipalities dared to doubt his rendezvous with destiny.
Their crime was to withhold permission for Erdogan’s government and to hold referendum rallies in German cities. Germany is home to 1.4 million Turkish citizens and in a tight referendum their votes matter, so Erdogan was quite put out.
“Hey, Germany,” he said last week in a rally in Turkey. “You know nothing about democracy. Your practices are no different from those of the Nazis.” The German government was astonished and rebuked him publicly.
Erdogan’s devout supporters only grow more enthusiastic when foreigners criticize him. And with 140,000 Turkish officials, judges, soldiers and journalists arrested, dismissed or suspended since last July’s failed coup attempt, most of his domestic critics have fallen silent—Reporters Without Borders now ranks Turkey 151st out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom.
And yet, the referendum that is supposed to grant Erdogan virtually unlimited power could go either way. It will certainly be close because the country is still split right down the middle—it’s no longer left versus right. It is primarily secularist versus Islamist.
When Erdogan first appeared on the Turkish political scene as mayor of Istanbul in 1994, he was an openly religious politician in a country that had suppressed any public expression of Islamic values for decades. He even did four months in jail for reciting a religious poem in public.
In 2003, Erdogan became the country’s first devout prime minister, and many secular Turks welcomed him in power. “Kemalism,” named after modern Turkey’s secular liberator Kemal Ataturk, had become corrupt and oppressive. Erdogan spent his first two terms in office dismantling the secularists’ stranglehold on the state apparatus.
His main ally in this exercise was Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher whose followers were appointed to tens of thousands of positions in the civil service, judiciary, police and army. But Turkish liberals also supported his attempt to negotiate a peace deal with the militant Kurdish separatist movement PKK—and all the while the Turkish economy grew at a highly satisfactory five percent a year.
Things began to turn sour in 2013, when protests grew at Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and there was a bitter split between him and the “Gulenist” movement. His policy of keeping the border with Syria open for Islamists fighting the Syrian regime (including Islamic State) drew strong criticism both at home and internationally—secularists began to suspect that his ultimate goal was an Islamic state in Turkey.
These suspicions deepened when Erdogan gave up the prime ministership in 2014 and got himself elected president instead. The presidency was a ceremonial non-political office, but he planned to turn it into a powerful executive post that concentrated all power in his own hands. That required a referendum—but his ambition may have played a big part in his loss of the parliamentary election in early 2015.
In order to win back control of parliament, he had to make an alliance with the hard-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP). To gain their support he broke the ceasefire with the PKK and reopened the war against the Turkish Kurds. Then Russia and his own NATO allies forced Erdogan to close the border to Syrian Islamists, and Islamic State terrorists started bombing Turkish targets as well.
Erdogan narrowly won the second parliamentary election in 2015, but almost lost power to a military coup last July. He calls the coup attempt a Gulenist plot, but it was so badly organized that it was probably a panicked last-minute response to a secret government plan to purge all Gulen’s followers in state institutions, including the army.
Since last July, Erdogan has used the coup attempt to whip up support for the planned referendum in April that would grant him untrammelled power as executive president. Turkey has been under emergency rule, with mass arrests and government by decree. Nasty, but not necessarily effective.
His default mode is outraged anger, so incidents like his “Nazi” accusation against Germany are ten a penny. Nobody in Turkey is even surprised—but the Turks may yet surprise him.
The Turkish economy is crashing, internal and external wars are multiplying and there are far too many people in jail for months on end without being charged. Despite a reign of terror in the Turkish media, Erdogan’s victory in the referendum is still not assured.