The recent April 16th referendum in Turkey was the culmination of a number of Erdogan’s efforts to transform the country. It narrowly passed with roughly 51% of votes cast, creating major implications for the country’s political system and garnering criticism as an attack on its democratic institutions. Steven Cook, Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, sat down with Second Nexus for a detailed account of the referendum and its impact in Turkey and beyond.
By Jay Kuo and Thanos Dimadis
SECOND NEXUS: Has the situation in the Middle East become more unstable since the 2011 Arab uprisings? How have these events affected Turkey in the short term?
COOK: Yes, the Middle East has become more unstable since 2011. There are now arguably three or four failed or failing states in the region — Libya, Yemen, Syria, and arguably Iraq. There are a variety of reasons for this, which are too long and complicated for our purposes here, but one important reason has to do with the failures to rule in any of these places without the significant application of force or threat of force. That is an inefficient means of establishing political control. With the exception of Iraq, the revolutionary environment that emerged in 2011 encouraged people in these countries to challenge their respective leaders and the regimes they defended. Turkey has borne the brunt of the destabilization of Syria and is itself unstable in large part because of the conflict there.
SECOND NEXUS: How has the Liberal Democratic project encouraged by the West been a factor in the resurgence of authoritarian figures in countries such as Egypt and Turkey?
COOK: It is an interesting question. I wouldn’t say that the failure of the West’s democracy promotion efforts caused the resurgent authoritarianism in the region. Rather, authoritarians sought to undermine reform and delegitimize people and groups that want to live in more open and democratic societies. Both Egypt’s state elites and the Muslim Brotherhood appropriated the language of reform and change, but when they had the opportunity, they actually pulverized reformers. In Turkey, President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party came to power in late 2002 promising to get rid of the repressive apparatus of the state that the Kemalist establishment used to repress religious Turks, Kurds, liberals, and the Left. When Erdogan got into trouble, however, he availed himself of the same authoritarian methods to ensure he remained in power.
SECOND NEXUS: Can you outline the stakes of the recent referendum in Turkey? What will result from the pro-Erdogan vote?
COOK: The stakes were high. As a result of the referendum — the results of which are being challenged because of questionable electoral practices by the ruling party — President