Turkey referendum: Mr. Erdogan rising

The stage is set for Turkey’s strongman to assume even more power

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:45 pm IST

Published - April 18, 2017 12:02 am IST

The path is now clear for Turkey to be transformed from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential republic, after a referendum on constitutional reforms proposed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (or AKP) gave the nod for handing sweeping powers to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The “Yes” campaign won by a relatively narrow margin, with a little more than 51% of the vote, and the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) cited irregularities, including the use of unstamped ballot papers. The three biggest cities, Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, voting “No” also indicates that much work remains to be done by the incumbents to bridge the rift within the polity. However, the head of the electoral body said the vote was valid. This remarkable turn of events, which will echo through the region and beyond, marks a step change from Turkey’s historical tryst with representative democracy. The idea of major constitutional reforms of this sort has been in the making at least since 2014, when Mr. Erdogan became Turkey’s first directly elected president. Nevertheless, many in Turkey and elsewhere, including anxious liberals across the EU, will watch with concern as the 18 major reforms on the table now will centralise power to an unprecedented extent in Mr. Erdogan’s hands, raising valid questions about the separation of powers in the Turkish government.

The new executive powers that will accrue to Mr. Erdogan if he wins the 2019 elections, a very likely outcome, include the abolition of the post of Prime Minister and the transfer of that power to the President; authority to appoint members to the judiciary; and the removal of the bar on the President maintaining party affiliation. These changes could presage overwhelming AKP control of state institutions, which in turn could lead to, for example, a purge in the judiciary and the security forces. Mr. Erdogan has in the past accused the judiciary of being influenced by the U.S.-based Islamic preacher, Fethullah Gülen, besides attacking members of the security forces in the aftermath of the failed coup in July 2016. That these fears are not exaggerated is clear from the fact that tens of thousands of officials have been dismissed and dozens of journalists and opposition politicians arrested since that time, not to mention Mr. Erdogan’s diplomatic spats with the Netherlands and Germany during the harsh campaign leading up to the referendum. Turkey today faces myriad problems, many stemming from the civil war in Syria. But the greatly empowered Mr. Erdogan would do well to design his future policies not only as a reaction to these forces but also as the means to enhance Turkey’s unique effort in reconciling pluralist democracy with political Islam, and Western-style liberalism with populist nationalism.

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