Turkey recently overhauled its constitution, putting much power in the hand of its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Though the result was not surprising, considering the control Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) exerts over the media and its strong presence in Turkish courts, the ramifications of the vote are huge. The parliamentary system will be replaced by a presidential one. As such, members of Parliament will have much less decision-making power in comparison to the president, whose position was previously ceremonial and non-politicized. The president can now be affiliated with a political party, which seems likely since many of Erdoğan’s supporters are calling for him to reclaim leadership of the AKP. Parliament has lost a significant amount of power to impeach the president, and Erdoğan will now be able to select a larger portion of the judiciary. Further, as the new system will come into effect in 2019, Erdoğan might be able to stay in power until 2029, and if Parliament calls for an election near the end of his second term, he could hold onto the presidency until 2034. With the president seemingly above “legislative scrutiny,” Turkish checks and balances have been completely thrown off, and the country could suffer as a result.
During the campaign, opposition parties, especially the Republican People’s Party (CHP), expressed concerns that the presidential system would cause a great imbalance of power. They mentioned that if the “Yes” campaign for increased presidential powers won, there would be no real way for the government to express the voice of the opposition, seeing that Parliament’s power would be significantly curtailed. The CHP then saw their concerns realized when the results of the referendum came in.
Immediately after the election, opposition parties, from the CHP to the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), cried foul and rejected the results. According to Yiğit Akdemir, aTurkish student at the University of Chicago, government officials counted ballots that did not have official stamps, which is against Turkish law. This allegedly fraudulent activity and others like it led to widespread protests throughout Turkey. Because the “Yes” campaign won by a slight margin of about 1.2 million votes, these invalid ballots could have had a monumental effect on the election results.
Another University of Chicago student from Turkey, Kaan Ulgen, believes that the referendum was problematic even before the vote. He notes that many opposition MPs are in jail and that the AKP controlled most of the media coverage surrounding the referendum. Given these circumstances, Ulgen considers the “No” campaign’s 49 percent of votes commendable. He also believes that the allegations of the opposition will not lead to anything more than protests because judges sympathetic to Erdoğan control the courts, and members of the opposition do not want to put their lives in jeopardy. Many people currently fear posting anti-Erdoğan messages on social media, and some of those who took to the streets were greeted with tear gas.
Unlike in the United States, where President Donald Trump’s executive orders can be struck down by impartial judges, Akdemir worries that Turkey does not have the same luxury. Even though international bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have been quick to condemn the results of the elections, Erdoğan has merely shrugged them off. Although the circumstances surrounding the referendum are suspicious, the potential courses of action that disillusioned “No” voters could take would most likely lead to dead-ends.
Recently, the Washington Post compiled commentaries from many of its readers about the referendum, shedding light on the “Yes” voters’ motivations. Some believed that the consolidation of power under the president would create and implement new laws more efficiently, bring about economic reform, and achieve new foreign policy goals. One reader cited his family’s economic successes under AKP governance as a good omen for the presidential system. Other comments were more divisive, with one man exclaiming that, “the enemies of Turkey will be voting no. The Turkish people will be voting yes.” Ulgen disagrees with this statement—though some of the “Yes” camp’s rhetoric had nationalist undertones, he believes the referendum was not about nationalism. In fact, many members of the nationalist party, the MHP, voted “No.” Instead, Ulgen believes that the referendum was a vote of confidence on Erdoğan’s leadership, and that Erdoğan’s victory is a show of support for his presidency, even though these results were produced under suspicious circumstances.
Though many, especially those of military background, have despised Erdoğan since he rose to power in 2002, Akdemir maintains that Erdoğan has not always been bad, but rather has been corrupted by power. He cites Erdoğan's desire to accelerate the process of membership in the European Union (EU) as an example of the president’s open-mindedness after coming to power in 2002. In Akdemir’s view, it was not until 2007 that Erdoğan became very power-hungry and turned his back on Europe. In response, some vocal critics of Erdoğan’s anti-Western policies fled the country, fearing Erdoğan’s wrath. And, given the result of the referendum, Erdoğan has been successful in consolidating power, with Ulgen even warning that the current president now has Putin-like, or even Sultan-like, powers.
Many have decried the referendum as the end of democracy in Turkey, or the end of the country itself—yet this is simply not the case. To Ulgen, “Democracy in Turkey has died many times and it kept on reviving itself.” This referendum will not be the sole factor in determining the fate of democracy in Turkey’s fate. Yet if Turkey wants to revive the democratic values of its republic, the 23.7 million “No” voters must find a way to mobilize in opposition to Erdoğan.
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