Protesters in Turkey. Photo: Getty
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John Simpson: In Turkey, Erdogan’s aura of legitimacy has been weakened

If this was indeed a warning from the electorate, Erdogan is unlikely to go quiet and soothe the feelings of the losers.

The mild-mannered team leaders from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe put it with their usual circumspection: the Turkish constitutional referendum on 16 April “took place on an unlevel playing field”. I’ll say.

Enormous sums of public money were spent by the Yes campaign on television advertising. Every town in Turkey was hung with vast banners showing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the word “Evet”, meaning “yes”. By contrast, you had to search hard to find any sign of a No campaign: an occasional banner in more or less safe spots such as central Istanbul, stickers that some brave soul had pasted up on a wall, a couple of nervous kids handing out leaflets near the sanctuary of the modest No headquarters. It felt like an underground movement.

And yet, in spite of the intimidation, the dearth of No rallies and the overwhelming imbalance of publicity, Yes won by only a whisker: a million votes out of almost 49 million cast. And given that the election authorities suddenly announced on the morning of voting day that they would accept ballot papers that hadn’t been authenticated – of which, according to one estimate, there were more than a million – you can see that the OSCE’s expression “unlevel playing field” might have been a tad understated.

Even so, Erdogan exploded with fury. The OSCE should know its place, he roared to his adoring supporters in Ankara. Maybe he meant that the job of any official body is to bow down to power; or maybe he thinks that, given the cold shoulder Europeans have shown to Turkey, they have no right to question what happens here. Either way, the crowd cheered him ecstatically. It’s been impossible not to be reminded of the Trump campaign and of Brexit here during the past week or so. Evet supporters love listening to their man as he draws blood.

Yet the closeness of the result has made many people think. The right-wing press was surprisingly sober on the day after the referendum. One columnist, who usually supports Erdogan pretty unquestioningly, talked about “a warning from the electorate”. My team and I went to film in Tophane, a working-class suburb of Istanbul where emotions have been running high. There are particular tensions there. It’s an attractive area – where in Istanbul isn’t? – in the process of being gentrified. At the bottom of the hill, characters with beards and topknots hang out in cafés with girls wearing artfully slashed jeans; at the top, ancient men sit around watching passers-by resentfully and nursing glasses of tea by the hour.

Most of the old inhabitants refused to let us film them. “I won’t talk to German TV and I won’t talk to the BBC,” one said. But a group of three, sitting on upturned boxes outside a playground, were less forbidding. The interesting thing was how unsettled they clearly were by the close result. “The president told us he would win this easily,” said a greybeard, in a puzzled kind of way.

Erdogan’s aura of legitimacy has been weakened. Like Trump, like the Brexiteers, he only just managed to squeak through; like them, he and his allies are shouting loudly about the will of the people and the duty of everyone else to accept the result. And like them, his instinctive response in victory is to be aggressive. Expect him soon to threaten Europe with unleashing a new wave of refugees from Syria and Iraq.

If this was indeed a warning from the electorate, Erdogan is unlikely to go quiet and soothe the feelings of the losers. He will now have American- or French-style presidential powers, plus a great deal more. For instance, he will have the constitutional right to do what, up to now, he has done only by diktat: purge any judges who hand down verdicts he doesn’t like.

Middle-class, European-minded Turks, casting around for any faint reason to be optimistic, are starting to wonder whether the result will galvanise the feeble opposition into changing its leaders and uniting. Don’t hold your breath, is my advice. The last serious demonstration against Erdogan and his way of doing things took place in 2013 and the police responded so savagely that there has never been a repeat. The other day I spoke to someone who lost an eye that night; soon afterwards, his girlfriend was killed in another incident. Would you go out on to the streets again, I asked? His answer was about as forthright as the OSCE report: “Well, I’d consider it.”

What should the rest of us do – foreigners who love Turkey, and who find in Istanbul everything they want in a city? Cross the country off our list, now that the man who runs it could be there until 2029? Surely not. Somewhere under the new carapace of aggressive nationalism and religious intolerance, this is still the society that has been justly famous for its culture of coexistence: where women in hijab and others in the most revealing clothes could walk down the street without attracting any special attention, where people were free to say pretty much what they wanted about politics and faith. This freedom, in particular, is vanishing fast: people are careful now about what they say on the phone or in text messages.

The outside world has caught on to this fast. It’s shocking how few Western tourists you now see in the likes of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar; and this in a country where tourism is a big part of the economy. A recent poll in Germany showed that people were staying away from Turkey not so much because of terrorist attacks – where in Germany or Britain or France is free from those nowadays? – as because of the perception that Turkey is becoming a nasty autocracy with religious overtones. But boycotting Turkey and making it poorer will only speed up that process. It certainly won’t make Erdogan reflect whether he is right to want to stay in power for at least 12 more years. l

John Simpson is the world affairs editor of BBC News. @JohnSimpsonNews

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”