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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The failed French presidential candidates who refuse to endorse Emmanuel Macron

While the candidates of the main left and right parties have endorsed the centrist from nowhere, others have held back. 

And breathe.

At 8pm on Sunday night France, Europe, and much of the West let out a huge sigh of relief. After over a month of uncertainty, scandals, rebounds, debates and late surges, the results of the first round of the French Presidential Election was as predicted: Emmanuel Macron (24 per cent) will face off against Marine Le Pen (21 per cent) in the second round of the election on the 7 May.

While polls have been predicting this face-off for a while, the shocks of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump had thrown polling predictions into doubt. But France has a good track record when it comes to polling, and their surveys are considered some of the most reliable in the world. The irony is that this uncertainty has meant that the polls have never been so central to a campaign, and the role of polling in democracies has been a hot topic of debate during the election.

The biggest surprise in many ways was that there were no surprises. If there was a surprise, it was a good one: participation was higher than expected: close to 80 per cent – on par with the Presidential Elections of 2012 – whereas there were concerns it would be as low as 70 per cent. Higher participation is normally a bad sign for the extremes, who have highly motivated voters but a limited base, and who often do better in elections when participation is low. Instead, it boosts the traditional parties, but here instead of the traditional right-wing Republican (Fillon is at 20 per cent) or Socialist parties (Hamon at 6 per cent), it was in fact the centre, with Emmanuel Macron, who benefited.

So France has so far not succumbed to the populist wave that has been engulfing the West. The contagion seemed to be spreading when the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi lost a referendum on reforming the constitution, but the fightback started in Austria which rejected the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in its Presidential election and voted for the pro-European, former-Green independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. Those hopes now rest on the shoulders of Macron. After having dubbed Angela Merkel the leader of the free world during his farewell tour of Europe, Barack Obama gave his personal blessing to Macron last week.

Many wondered what impact Thursday night’s shooting on the Champs-Elysées would have. Would it be a boon for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration platform? Or even right-wing François Fillon’s more traditional law and order approach? In the end the effect seems to have been minimal.

In the second round, Macron is currently predicted to beat Marine Le Pen by more than 60 per cent of the vote. But how does Le Pen almost double her vote in the second round, from around 20 per cent to close to 40 per cent? The "Republican Front" that saw her father off back in 2002, when he received only 18 per cent of the vote, has so far held at the level of the two traditional political parties. Both Hamon and Fillon have called to vote for Macron in the second round to stop the Front National - Hamon put it nicely when he said he could tell the difference between political opponents, and opponents of the Republic.

But not everyone is toing the line. Sens Commun, the anti-gay marriage group that has supported Fillon through thick and thin, said that it will not call to vote for either party – a thinly veiled invitation to vote for Le Pen. And Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a conservative, Catholic and anti-EU right wing candidate, whose 5 per cent is the reason Fillon didn’t make it to the second round, has also abstained from calling to vote for either. It is within this electorate that Le Pen will look to increase her vote.

The other candidate who didn’t call to vote for anyone was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who fell back on a demagogic position of saying he would follow the wishes of his supporters after having consulted them. But as a spokesperson for the FN pointed out, there are remarkable congruities between their respective platforms, which can be categorised as a populism of the left and a populism of the right.

They in particular converge over the question of Europe. Aping Brexit, both want to go to Brussels to argue for reform, and if none is forthcoming put membership of the Eurozone to the electorate. While Le Pen’s anti-Europeanism is patent, Mélenchon’s position is both disingenuous and dangerous. His Plan A, as he puts it, is to attempt reform at the European level. But he knows fine well that his demands, which include revoking the independence of the European Central Bank and putting an end to austerity (the ECB, through its massive programme of quantitative easing, has already been trying to stimulate growth) will not be met. So he reverts to his Plan B, which is to leave the European Treatises and refound Europe on a new basis with like-minded members.

Who those members might be he hasn’t specified, nor has he explained how he would leave the EU - at least Le Pen had the decency to say she would put it to a referendum. Leaving the European Treatise has been in his programme from the beginning, and seems to be the real object of his desires. Nonetheless, having set himself up as the anti-Le Pen candidate, most of his supporters will vote for Macron. Others will abstain, and abstention will only help Le Pen. We’ve been here before, and the last thing we need now is complacency.


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