If President Erdogan succeeds in making radical constitutional changes, it could mean the end of Ataturk’s secular, democratic state, warns Justin Huggler
With all eyes on the rocky start to Donald Trump’s US presidency, there has been little international attention as another populist leader has set about dismantling one of the world’s very few Muslim democracies.
Turkey has always prided itself on being different from its Arab neighbours – not least because, for all its human rights problems, it has a functioning parliament and genuine elections, in which its people can throw out the government of the day. But that could soon be a thing of the past, if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gets his way.
Radical changes to the Turkish constitution, voted through parliament in January and signed off by Erdogan the following month, will be put to the people in a referendum on April 16. If they are approved, they will set Turkey on the path to an Arab-style strongman regime of its own – with Erdogan as strongman.
On the surface the reforms are all about consolidating Erdogan’s grip on power, and extending his term of office. But they go deeper than that. At their heart lies Erdogan’s deep personal sense of rivalry with the only Turkish political leader of modern times who can claim similar stature: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
Erdogan has described the reforms as a ‘rebirth’, a ‘resurrection’ and a ‘revival’ for Turkey. It is no secret that he would like to supplant Ataturk in the national consciousness, and the new constitution will give him the opportunity to remake Turkey in his own image. The measures being voted on in April would not transform the country into a dictatorship overnight. But they would greatly expand the president’s powers and set the country on a dangerous path.
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has presented the reforms as a change to an American-style democracy, with a separation of the executive and legislature. The office of prime minister will be abolished; the president will take over the day-to-day running of the government and handpick cabinet ministers, who will no longer be MPs.
But the Turkish proposals lack the crucial checks and balances of the American system. Not only will Erdogan be able to declare a state of emergency and rule by decree, he will have the power to dissolve parliament and call elections. Unlike in the US, there are no primary elections. Erdogan will remain the leader of his party, with the power to nominate or withdraw parliamentary candidates – meaning those supposed to hold him to account will owe their positions to him.The amendments also further erode the independence of the already embattled judiciary, with the president granted the power to appoint senior judges directly.
‘The democratic regime in Turkey will be replaced with one-man rule,’ said Bülent Tezcan, an opposition MP from the Republican People’s party (CHP), while Human Rights Watch warned that the proposed amendments ‘concentrate unchecked power in the president’s hands’ and ‘pose a huge threat to human rights, the rule of law and the country’s democratic future’.Ersin Kalaycioglu, a Turkish political scientist, told NPR radio the reforms would give Erdogan powers ‘nothing like any president of the United States has ever experienced’ and leave Turkey with ‘very little, if any, checks and balances’.
The Turkish proposals lack the crucial checks and balances of the American system
The path to this moment began in 2014, when Erdogan decided to honour a promise not to seek another term as prime minister and instead stand for the presidency – more fitting for a man who likes to see himself as a successor to the Ottoman sultans.But it was the failed coup attempt of last summer that made it possible for him to follow through on his ambitions to give the office sweeping executive powers.
The state of emergency declared in the wake of the failed putsch has allowed Erdogan to purge political opponents and silence critics in the name of national security.Some 130,000 Turks have been fired from government jobs, and 45,000 have been arrested – among them 151 journalists.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the trial of 47 former soldiers on charges of attempting to assassinate Erdogan during the attempted putsch began in February, as campaigning for the referendum got underway.Nor that a new school curriculum drawn up by the education ministry includes a class on the coup attempt. The events of that night, when the muezzins called the people onto the streets from the minarets to defy the coup plotters, have become a sort of founding myth for Erdogan’s Turkey.
The referendum is not taking place in isolation. The new school curriculum also banishes the teaching of evolution from the classroom. Erdogan has called on Turkish women to have at least three children, and described childless women as ‘incomplete’. Alcohol taxes have also been raised sharply – all further evidence that the conservative Islamist is intent on dismantling the secular democratic Turkey of Ataturk and remaking it in his own image
There are serious concerns that a free vote on the referendum cannot be held in the current state of emergency. Erdogan, who under the current rules is supposed to remain impartial as president, has openly said voting ‘No’ amounts to siding with the coup plotters. He has used his emergency powers to suspend rules on media balance, meaning television stations will not have to give equal time to speeches from both sides.With most opposition media closed down and almost all TV stations government mouthpieces, there is little prospect of open debate.
A couple in the Kurdish south-east who named their baby Evet, the Turkish for ‘Yes’, in support of Erdogan, have been given airtime, while one of the country’s best known news anchors has been fired for daring to tweet that he intends to vote No.Kanal D claimed it had sacked Irfan Degirmenci for breaching its rules on impartiality, but his supporters pointed out that it had taken no actions against journalists who openly supported the Yes campaign.
Ibrahim Kaboglu, a professor of constitutional law at Marmara University who spoke out over holding a referendum under a state of emergency, and warned of government intimidation, was also fired. MPs who have dared to campaign for a No vote have had the electricity cut in the middle of public speeches and been forced to carry on by megaphone, and young people who attempted to carry No placards in the streets have been arrested.
Yet, despite all this, Erdogan is not assured of victory on April 16. He has not dismantled Turkish democracy yet, and voters have proved willing to challenge him in the past, most notably in 2015, when his AKP party was denied a parliamentary majority – though it regained one in snap elections five months later.
One opinion poll found Erdogan could be heading for defeat, with almost 51 per cent of Turks saying they intended to vote No. According to others, as many as 14 per cent say they haven’t made their minds up yet. Even the AKP’s private polls, which have not been published, reportedly put the Yes vote at only 50 to 55 per cent.
One reason for the lukewarm support may be that Turkey’s economy, which flourished during Erdogan’s earlier years in power, has suffered amid the post-coup crackdown on his opponents.The Turkish lira has fallen 10 per cent against the US dollar this year alone, and tourists visiting Istanbul fell by more than a quarter last year.
The country has also seen a sharp rise in terror incidents, including the New Year’s Eve gunman attack at an Istanbul night club in which 39 people died, the assassination of the Russian ambassador at an art exhibition in Ankara in December, and an Islamic State attack on Istanbul airport last summer in which 45 people were killed.
While Erdogan’s support in the Anatolian heartlands remains high, the AKP is said to fear it could be losing the support of liberal, urban voters. If the No vote does eventually triumph, Erdogan will not be the first leader to face unexpected defeat in a referendum. But he is unlikely to follow in the footsteps of Britain’s David Cameron or Italy’s Matteo Renzi, and resign. He has, after all, survived a coup. And the chances are he will get his way, sooner or later.