Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, delivers a speech a day a referendum that granted him sweeping new powers. (Burhan Ozbilici/AP)
Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has engineered the path to his virtual one-man rule of Turkey. A very small majority of Turkish voters approved a controversial referendum on Sunday to amend the country’s constitution, converting the largely ceremonial post of president into a highly powerful chief executive. The amendments eliminate the post of prime minister and confer vast new powers on the president to issue decrees as law and make judicial appointments. The changes will obliterate any semblance of a democratic republic with checks and balances among independent branches of government. They will take effect with the 2019 presidential election. Erdogan is expected to run for the newly empowered presidential office, which he could hold onto for at least two terms through 2029.
The constitutional amendments will simply formalize the creeping autocracy and Islamization that Erdogan has imposed on the Turkish people during his years as prime minister from 2003 to 2014, and while serving in the supposedly ceremonial post of president since 2014. The current prime minister is an Erdogan loyalist.
Turkey has been operating under emergency rule since last summer’s failed coup. A vast purge of government workers suspected of opposing the government took place, accompanied by mass arrests. The alleged dissenters removed from their positions cut across academia, the police, the military, prosecutors and the judiciary. Turkey also accounted for nearly a third of the global total of journalists arrested world-wide in 2016. More than 100 news outlets were closed down.
In the run-up to the referendum, opponents were physically assaulted and intimidated. Authorities prevented some opposition rallies from taking place. Opponents of the referendum have charged that the referendum results were fraudulent, complaining of last-minute changes in the rules that allowed ballots to be counted without the legally required official stamp.
An International Referendum Observation Mission, conducted by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (which includes Turkey as a member), was highly critical of the referendum campaign. It found that the “constitutional referendum took place on an unlevel playing field and the two sides of the campaign did not have equal opportunities… Supporters of the ‘No’ campaign faced a number of undue limitations on their freedom to campaign. Many ‘No’ campaigners suffered physical attacks. A high number were arrested, most often on charges of organizing unlawful public events or insulting the president.”
The mission had limited access to polling stations on referendum day. Within those limits,the mission’s observers did not find widespread irregularities in vote counting and tabulation that they were able to observe. However, the mission corroborated the opposition’s complaint about the last-minute non-appealable change in the rules by the Supreme Board of Elections, loosening the standards for ballot validity.
Erdogan touted the slim 51.4% majority yes vote on the referendum as an “historic decision” for Turkey. He rejected the criticisms of the international monitors and claimed the vote was the "most democratic election" of any Western country. Responding further to the criticisms, he added, "First, know your place! We won't see or hear the politically motivated reports you prepare." Reprising his anti-European remarks during the referendum campaign, Erdogan told supporters that he had been "attacked" by nations with the "crusader mentality."
Erdogan scolded opponents for challenging the results, declaring their efforts would be "in vain." He indicated an interest in restoring the death penalty, which would end Turkey’s ability to become a member of the European Union. As if on cue, Erdogan supporters assaulted some Turks who dared to protest what the opponents considered to be a fraudulent referendum vote, leading towards a dictatorship.
Erdogan’s opponents have good reason to be worried. The referendum is virtually the last nail in the coffin of a pluralistic democratic state with even a modicum of checks and balances. Last month, the European Commission for Democracy through Law (known as the Venice Commission) issued a critical report on Turkey’s proposed constitutional amendments. The Venice Commission’s analysis found that the amendments would result in “an excessive concentration of executive power in the hands of the President and the weakening of parliamentary control of that power.” The report also warned that changes placing more unchecked power in the hands of the president over the selection of judges would place “the independence of the judiciary in serious jeopardy… The amendments would weaken an already inadequate system of judicial oversight of the executive.”
The Venice Commission also questioned the process under which the referendum took place: “The whole process of parliamentary adoption and submission for approval by referendum of the constitutional amendments is taking place during the state of emergency, when very substantive limitations on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are in force.”
Taken together, the Venice Commission report concluded that the scope of powers conferred on the newly empowered presidency by the proposed constitutional amendments carries the “intrinsic danger of degenerating into an authoritarian rule.” It viewed the proposed amendments as “a dangerous step backwards” for Turkey.
For Erdogan, however, the proposed constitutional amendments vastly enlarging the powers of the presidency represent a major step forward in his master plan. They will place him in a position to complete his long-held vision of eliminating Turkey’s secular pluralistic state and replacing it with an Islamic state governed under Sharia law. Way back in 1994, as Istanbul's mayor, Erdogan called himself the "imam of Istanbul." He also said, "'Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off." A 2007 U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks noted concerns about Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) “‘secret’ Islamist agenda.”
Soon to be freed of any effective constraints, Erdogan can fully unleash his true Islamist, anti-Western identity and make himself the “iman” of Turkey who seeks to bring about some sort of Ottoman revival.