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Ding Gang: Referendum widens social rifts in Turkey


By Ding Gang    Source: Global Times    Published: 2017-4-19


The constitutional referendum held in Turkey on Sunday is widely regarded as "the retrogression of democracy" by Western media. The new constitution will put an end to more than 90 years of parliamentary system in the country and strengthen the power of the president, which will make the government more authoritarian.

In Turkey`s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan`s words, the referendum is the "most democratic election never seen in any Western country." In fact, democracy is only a formality. What should deserve more attention here is that "democracy" has been used to promote Islamism in Turkey. It is a retrogression of secularity, not democracy.

Erdogan`s Justice and Development Party is a conservative political party, developed from the principles of moderate Islamism. In recent years, the party has continuously strengthened its control, and relied on its promotion of returning Turkey to an Islamic state to gain votes in rural areas. The new constitution will no doubt expedite such tendency.

Among Muslim states, Turkey is one of the earliest countries which have implemented representative democracy, and pursued a multiparty system. Turkey`s attempt to combine Western political system with Muslim society is not always smooth. Since the Atatürk period in the 1920s, the country has seen intense competition between the secular wing and religious conservatives. Even if Turkey, compared with other Muslim countries, has gone further on the road of secularization, it does not mean that the outcome is clear.

The West once regarded Turkey as the model for reform and opening up among Islamic states, and provided it with support in politics, economics and other fields. The European Union once seriously considered absorbing Turkey into the bloc. However, the democratic development in Turkey failed to consolidate what the West regarded as bases of democracy, but eventually gave chances to the so-called "democracy retrogression."

In recent years, due to its slow transformation, Turkey`s economy risks being marginalized amid rapid globalization. In 2016, the country`s economic growth rate has fallen to 2.9 percent. In March, its inflation rate has reached up to 11.29 percent. The country has witnessed currency devaluation, foreign investment barriers, surging unemployment and social division, which all contributed to the fall of the once "development star" nation.

Fierce struggles among different political parties, the military, ethnic groups and distinct interest groups under Turkey`s multi-party democratic system have led to turmoil and unrests. Terrorists are seizing the opportunity to stir up trouble. Turkey`s society is in urgent need of consensus.

Erdogan will stick to the path of returning Turkey to an Islamic state, whether it`s for the sake of development or stability. Religious conservatism, populism and authoritarianism are seemingly combined in this way.

So far, it is too early to jump to the conclusion that Erdogan has found a new path for his country. Erdogan is able to claim vast power after a narrow victory during the latest referendum.

In Turkey`s three largest cities - Istanbul, Ankara and Izmi, most people voted against the constitutional changes. It showed that struggles between rural and urban areas, secular and religious spheres, conservatism and liberalism are far from over.

Radical changes in Turkey are not isolated. It`s triggered by Islamic civilization encountering Western civilization and the impact of globalization. The retrogression of democracy in the nation is the result of parliamentary democracy, which also mirrors the puzzle in many developing countries.

The conflict between secular and religious spheres is one of the prominent issues in today`s world. It has impacted the struggle between globalization and protectionism, especially in Muslim nations like Turkey.

Before these countries find their footing in the global industrial chain, such conflicts will continue. However, it could be dangerous to unite people in a society, which has gone through decades of secularization and Europeanization by turning to Islam. It could further exacerbate social divisions.

The author is a senior fellow of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.

Key Words: Turkey   referendum   democracy   Ding Gang  

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