According to the Turkish government, the referendum to amend Turkey’s constitution and restructure the government under a powerful, central executive passed by a slim margin. As reported by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), he circumstances surrounding the vote and the voting process itself were neither free nor fair. It is likely, however, that the opposition’s attempt to nullify the vote will fail, and that the results will be certified as official this week.

Dozens of news articles have appeared over the past week, analyzing and commenting on the results.  Many have been extremely perceptive, while a few have not been so great. In response to some of this analysis on what newly empowered President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will or should do post-referendum, it is worth emphasizing a few things he will not do.

First, President Erdogan is not going to “send in assassins to kill Europe’s leaders,” something which Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute has suggested. The fact this even needs to be said is, frankly, ridiculous.

He is also not going to institute “Sharia” law, or declare himself the new caliph of Sunni Muslims, as Gary Lane at the Christian Broadcasting Network believes. There is no doubt Erdogan is a committed, conservative Muslim, but he is not a theocrat or even a traditional Islamist. Instead, he is committed to a version of Turkish nationalism that embraces Islam as part of Turkey’s national identity. This Turkish-Islamic synthesis was the brainchild of Turkey’s fiercely secular political establishment, and was first instituted as a wide spread political policy after the 1980, although versions of this idea existed since the founding of the Republic.

Enforcing this ideology may not even be Erdogan’s primary political concern. As the head of the main opposition party argued prior to the referendum, Erdogan knows that if he loses power, even through democratic means, he is liable to be prosecuted for graft and corruption. So, if he does not consolidate his power now, Erdogan could lose everything, including his freedom.

In the same vein, Erdogan is not going to become a “Sultan” or revive some neo-Ottoman Empire, as some hyperbolic headlines, even at respected new sources such as NPR, have suggested. He is a nationalist, and nationalism is by definition a product of modernity. He also thrives as a populist politician, and is commonly referred to as “a man of the people,” by his supporters. Though a minority of Erdogan’s followers do refer to him in terms reserved for  Ottoman emperors, Erdogan cannot adopt such honorifics himself without sacrificing the popular support he currently enjoys. Erdogan technically still needs to win the 2019 presidential election, and cannot afford to alienate his supporters.

At least until 2019, when the referendum changes take effect and he wins re-election as president, Erdogan has every incentive to crush the opposition, while presenting himself as a democrat carrying out the will of the Turkish people. As such, while Turkey analyst, Nick Danforth, makes an interesting and compelling argument that it would be in the best interest of Turkish-American relations for Erdogan to drop his democratic farce, this is extremely unlikely to happen, at least in the next few years.

As many analysts have acknowledged, the outcome of the referendum does little to ensure Turkey’s future stability. Nevertheless, it is important to focus on what Erdogan is likely to do and avoid unhelpful comparisons, tired cliches, and hysterical superlatives masquerading as analysis.

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  • Eric Beyer

    I don’t think any news source sincerely means to say that Erdoğan will reinstate some modern version of the sultanate. They seem to (and rightly so, in my opinion) reflect the political and cultural spirit of the man’s never-ending hunt for more power. Any cursory look at his history will show that he has a wincing disregard for checks and balances – why search for a more apt image of what amounts to totalitarian rule when you’ve got the Ottoman Empire not 100 years behind you?

    He is a populist politician, but if the past five years have shown anything, it’s that he does not hesitate to blatantly and violently surpress dissent and criticism wherever he comes across it (indeed, he seems to delight in doing so). He knows that he has the power to get away with it, and his brash, strong man mentality pleases a rather wide swath of his voting base.

    What will he do? Continue to consolidate power, and not just to keep himself out of jail, either. The man is hubris manifest, it is not unreasonable to fear the volatile temperament of a political actor that has already done so much to plunge Turkey into the destabilized, divisive, demonstrably unsafe country it has become.

    Good article. However, in some cases at least, I think your analysis is off base. Cliches and tired tropes are oftentimes unhelpful, I agree, but if a slightly overblown headline gets people to read an article on the reality of the political situation in Turkey and counters the empty “democratic” rhetoric that Erdoğan so often spouts, then all the better for it.