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COLUMN: Turkey slides further into authoritarianism after referendum

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a meeting about immigration, in Ankara, Turkey on March 2. (Basin Bulbul/Presidential Press Service, Pool Photo via AP)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a meeting about immigration, in Ankara, Turkey on March 2. (Basin Bulbul/Presidential Press Service, Pool Photo via AP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been auditioning for the role of Ottoman sultan – a position vacant since Mehmed VI abdicated 95 years ago – since at least 2003.

That year he became the country’s prime minister, following the parliamentary election victory of his newly-founded Justice and Development Party (AKP). He drew closer to the goal when he became president in 2014.

Is he now on the cusp of almost absolutist power? It seems within his grasp.

On April 16, following a long and contentious campaign, which even involved politicking among expatriate Turks in Belgium, France, Germany, Holland and elsewhere, Turks voted in a constitutional referendum that would allow for vastly increased presidential powers.

The voters approved, by a margin of 51.41 to 48.59 per cent, the creation of a new political system. The result was surprisingly close, given the advantages Erdogan enjoyed. But turnout for the divisive vote, at 85.32 per cent, was high.

The new political structure will abolish the office of prime minister and replace the existing parliamentary system of government with an executive presidency, giving the head of state supreme power.

Erdogan now has wider powers over matters of legislation, finance, appointments and civil society.

He will now be able to bypass parliament completely and introduce legislation by issuing decrees with the force of law. He will also have the power to dissolve parliament and call new elections.

Judicial independence will disappear as the amendments will allow the president to appoint half of the country’s most senior judges. Erdogan can rule until 2029. There are no checks and balances.

The referendum illustrated the growing rural-urban split in Turkey. While the major cities of Adana, Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir opposed extending the president’s powers, he prevailed in the smaller, more traditionally religious smaller towns and countryside. Regions of the Anatolian interior voted Yes, with the share often topping 70 per cent in favour.

Ethnicity also played a role. Erdogan has been battling Kurdish separatists in southeastern Turkey for the past few years, and most people in those districts rejected the proposals, with up to 70 per cent voting No.

The rate of rejection was especially high in the militant Kurdish towns where the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has strong support.

The authoritarian noose has been tightening around Turkey’s neck for years, but especially since the abortive military coup last July, which Erdogan blamed on a reclusive religious preacher and former ally, Fethullah Gulen, now living in exile in Pennsylvania.

The president accused him of running a shadowy parallel network within the country by placing followers in key government, academic, media, and military positions.

Erdogan has taken advantage of the failed attempt, declaring a state of emergency and mounting a gigantic purge. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested, and numerous schools, universities, newspapers, radio and television stations, and publishing houses, have been shut down.

The referendum result has deep impacts on Turkey’s bid for European Union membership, which is already a distant prospect, if, as seems probable, Turkey reinstates capital punishment, something that has been abolished within the EU.

But Erdogan probably now sees the EU as an impediment to his enhanced powers. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticized the “lack of equal opportunities, one-sided media coverage and limitations on fundamental freedoms,” which created an unlevel playing field” for the referendum.

Erdogan told the OSCE to “know its place,” adding that its “political report would be disregarded by Turkey.”

Erdogan sees Turkey’s natural place not in a Brussels-centred EU but as a leader of the Muslim world, whose partners should be Pakistan, Malaysia, Egypt, Iran, and Indonesia.

He also cares more about being in the good graces of China, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and American president Donald Trump – and Trump was the only Western leader to congratulate Erdogan.

Turkey is moving towards what political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way have labelled “competitive authoritarianism.”

In such regimes, formal democratic institutions remain, but incumbents violate their rules so often and to such an extent, that the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy.

In a 2009 book entitled “The Life and Death of Democracy,” the political theorist John Keane referred to what he termed “democide” – the decision of a nation, by more or less democratic means, to murder their democracy. It has happened before, most notoriously in 1930s Germany.




Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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