Turkey’s Ugly Referendum

Democracy in the crosshairs.

The run-up to Turkey’s referendum in April looks to be an ugly affair. It already is. During debates on the constitutional amendments fighting broke out in the Turkish parliament, where one deputy was bitten on the leg, another had his nose broken and a third lost her prosthetic arm. The amendments themselves, which were passed with nine votes more than the 330 needed to send them to referendum, are yet another example of the “advanced democracy” that Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has promised for Turkey.  

The basic tenets of the Turkish republic remain unchanged, that Turkey in principle is a democratic, secular and social state governed by the rule of law, and the amendments give the president executive power rather than a ceremonial role. There will no longer be a prime minister and cabinet and the president will be empowered to appoint vice presidents and ministers. He will also be able to dismiss parliament and call for an election as well as issue decrees.

Parliament’s authority to supervise ministers will be abolished and the number of deputies will be increased from 550 to 600. 18-year-olds will also be eligible to become a deputy. Five years ago Erdoğan, then prime minister, declared it was his government’s intention to raise “a religious generation”, which until now has known 14 years of AKP (Justice and Development Party) rule. This could be their opportunity.

One amendment could be considered a ‘get out of jail free’ card for President Erdoğan, who three years ago was faced with serious allegations of corruption when not only charges were filed but also incriminating evidence surfaced on social media. The charges were quashed and a witch hunt began against police officers, judges and prosecutors suspected of belonging to the Gülen movement, which was believed to be behind this “judicial coup.” In future, it will take a two-thirds parliamentary majority, that is 400 votes, before the president is impeached.

The president can also remain head of his political party. Surprisingly, Turkey’s justice minister Bekir Bozdağ has defended this provision with reference to the period of one-party rule under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, when Atatürk was both president and leader of the only political party.

Furthermore, Erdoğan’s control of the judiciary will be reinforced by an amendment which reduces the number of members of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors to 13. The minister of justice and his undersecretary will be permanent members, the president will appoint four and seven will be appointed by parliament, where the AKP will presumably hold the majority.     

There has been no lack of criticism from the AKP’s secular opponents. Former judge in the European Court of Human Rights, Rıza Türmen, has pointed out that the package will pave the way for the concentration of judicial, legislative and executive power in the hands of one person – in effect, either dictatorship or absolute monarchy. As Erdoğan’s presidency ends in 2019, Erdoğan will be able to continue for a further 10 years (two periods) under the new constitution.

There is a fear that the referendum campaign will be marked by assassinations and suicide bombings but Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş has reassured voters that once there is a significant ‘yes’ result in the referendum, the terrorist organizations will be completely silenced. Kurtulmuş has also said that a ‘yes’ vote means support for the fight against terror, as gathering executive power in one pair of hands could lead to quicker and more effective decisions.

Conversely, one of President Erdoğan’s supporters, a notorious Turkish gangster, Sedat Peker, has threatened anyone who takes to the streets to prevent the referendum. Last week a member of the youth branch of the opposition CHP (Republican People’s Party) was shot by an armed gang when campaigning for a ‘no’ vote in Istanbul. A shopkeeper in Bursa was also denounced to the police and briefly detained after arguing for a ‘no’.

President Erdoğan finds that holding a referendum during a state of emergency is “comfortable”, but this is quite understandable. The state of emergency, which was declared after the attempted coup last July and extended twice, authorizes the authorities to ban the publication of certain newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, books and leaflets. Speeches, public gatherings and meetings, marches and parades can also be banned or postponed, all of which is hardly conducive to democratic debate. 

In addition, in the last six months 68,774 social media users on Facebook and Twitter have been reported to the authorities for ‘terrorist propaganda’. Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has warned young people that posts which are “criminal in nature”, for example, insulting the president or government officials, will get them into trouble. So far, 1,734 have been imprisoned, 1,317 have been released on probation and a further 17,862 are expected to be detained. There is no doubt the government means business.

Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.