With the ill-fated attempted coup of 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had the excuse he needed to exert further control over the Turkish state. He started with a crackdown on anyone that has or could oppose him – academics, police, journalists were fired and imprisoned. Talk erupted in the international community about Erdogan’s likely turn towards authoritarianism; a shift that many believe has already been taking place for some time now.
That shift now makes another marked move as Erdogan prepares Turkey for a national referendum. The vote, which is due to take place on 16 April, will decide upon a new constitution for the country, which will see an even greater extension of the President’s powers.
If implemented, the new constitution will transform Turkey from a parliamentary republic to a presidential one. Erdogan would become both the head of state and the head of the executive, while retaining his links to the ruling AKP. This change would also remove the role of prime minister, with that of vice president being introduced instead.
Under the new system, Erdogan would have sweeping powers to appoint ministers and senior judges, prepare the budget and ratify laws by decree. He will also have the power to dismiss parliament and declare a state of emergency. Moreover, parliament would lose its current ability to propose enquiries or probe ministers when deemed necessary.
Erdogan argues this new constitution would simplify the decision making process within the state, pre-empting government coalitions that have inhibited Turkey in the past. He states that under the new rules, the president would no longer have to contend with another leader, namely the prime minister, in order to push through legislation, which Erdogan contends continues to thwart Turkey’s progress.
Given the importance of the referendum for Erdogan it is no surprise that he, along with the AKP, are pulling out all the stops to make this new constitution a reality. With the vote being extended to Turkish expats, Germany has become a prime target for Erdogan’s campaign and both Turkish and German opponents in Germany argue he is using the mechanisms of democracy to consolidate anti-democratic rule. They also accuse him of employing his right to free speech in Germany, yet continuing to chastise others for doing so back home. This is particularly contentious given that, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more journalists were imprisoned in Turkey in 2016 than in any other state.
In this vein, Erdogan’s proposed plans become increasingly suspect. Yes, presidential systems can work, as demonstrated by the US. The US, however, has checks and balances in place, including an independent judiciary that can stand up to the President if necessary. This system is made all the more robust by the freedom of speech enjoyed in the US. This was clearly demonstrated in February when Trump’s travel ban was immediately berated by media in the US, and then officially reversed by a Federal Judge.
Given Turkey’s notorious lack of free speech, particularly among journalists, a presidential system would simply remain unchecked and in turn, undemocratic. Likewise, judicial independence in Turkey is among the lowest in the world, now ranking 151st out of 180 countries, according to the NGO Reporters Without Borders.
On 5 March, Erdogan publically accused Berlin of “fascist actions” evocative of the Nazi regime after the German state cancelled a series of political rallies planned by the president to campaign amongst Turkish expats. German officials reacted in disgust; Justice Minister Heiko Maas called out Erdogan for his “absurd, disgraceful and outlandish” comments.
While Erdogan’s campaign in Germany has taken a nasty, hypocritical approach, at home in Turkey it is truly pervasive. The word no, for example, has been all but banned in the media in a bid to not ‘confuse’ the public, while anyone speaking out in favour of a no vote has been derided, including television presenter Irfan Degirmenci, who was fired after publishing tweets that showed his support. Meanwhile, in a scene that has since been posted online, police in Istanbul physically attacked a group that had been campaigning against the new constitution. These are but a few examples.
As indicated by the shocking, yet familiar, measures undertaken by Erdogan of late, the Turkish president is hell bent on introducing a new constitution in Turkey, which will see him gain more power than ever before. So much power in fact, that considering the lack of freedom within the judiciary and the press, Erdogan will effectively turn Turkey into a dictatorship. This once so-called democratic bridge to the Middle East will thus become a stain on the very notion of democracy and the liberty that it is stands for.
What’s perhaps even more concerning is the sway that Turkey has within the international arena, which oftentimes sees the state get its own way, no matter how unjust. And so, with an indisputable tyrant in charge, Turkey may truly become a menace of global proportions.