Erdogan’s Bid for More Power Awaits Outcome of Turkish Vote

By Selcan Hacaoglu, Firat Kozok, and Onur Ant

Turkish voters will decide on Sunday whether to endorse President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bid to centralize power in his hands in the most radical shake-up since the republic was formed 93 years ago.

Opinion polls this month showed the referendum was too close to predict after two months of campaigning that divided Turks and damaged ties with the European Union, where some states slammed the campaign as an affront to democracy. Domestic critics claim the same, but Erdogan says the broader authorities are necessary to stabilize Turkey and quicken decision-making at a time of political and economic turmoil.

Results are expected to be known within hours of polls closing at 5 p.m. in Turkey. The ballots include no question, only a slip of paper reading “yes” on a white background on one side and “no” on a brown background on the other, with voters required to mark their preference with a stamp.

A supporter during a ’Yes’ referendum campaign rally in Istanbul. Photographer: Kostas Tsironis/Bloomberg
A supporter during a ’Yes’ referendum campaign rally in Istanbul.
Photographer: Kostas Tsironis/Bloomberg

“Whatever the outcome, there won’t be a respite from the growing authoritarianism” of Erdogan, said Wolfango Piccoli, the London-based co-president of political risk advisory Teneo Intelligence.

It’s been just nine months since Erdogan defied a military coup. Now, Turkey’s leader of 14 years is on the cusp of a victory that would make him one of the G-20’s most powerful elected heads of state. Constitutional amendments being considered would give him the authority to appoint ministers and judges at his discretion and call elections at any time.

Critics Muzzled

He’s been setting the stage for this vote since winning the presidency in 2014 and turning what was a largely ceremonial role into a nexus of authority. In the process, he quashed protests and muzzled critics in the media, undermining civil liberties in the majority-Muslim nation. Under a state of emergency imposed in the wake of the coup attempt, Erdogan fired more than 100,000 people and jailed 40,000, among them academics, journalists and judges.

As in previous elections in recent years, campaigning has been heavily lopsided in favor of the government. Erdogan and the governing AKP got more than 68 hours of air time to make their case on state-run television during the first three weeks of March, nearly 20 times that allotted to the main opposition party CHP, according to a study by the pro-Kurdish opposition party HDP, whose leadership has been jailed. The HDP got only one minute, its deputy head Saruhan Oluc said.

There have also been reports of intimidation. During the week before the vote, some employers asked workers to bring photographic evidence of a “yes” vote or face repercussions, according to Kani Beko, head of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey, known as DISK.

Founding Principles

Opposition to an even more powerful presidency brought out voters such as Kerem Sener of Ankara. “We are here to say ‘no’ to a proposal that is out of line with the founding principles of our republic,” he said at a polling station in the capital’s Cankaya district. “We are children of the republic and we would like our child to grow up in the same way.”

On the other hand, voter Mert Yalcin, 24, concurred with Erdogan’s position that broader powers would make the country stronger. “I voted ‘yes’ because I think the country needs a more stable administration while we’re surrounded by threats from all directions,” he said.

Erdogan, voting in Istanbul on Sunday, said approving the measures would lead to a “leap”for Turkey, tying them to faster development and higher economic growth rates.

Market Fallout

In recent years, Erdogan’s clampdown and attempts to meddle in central bank policy have alienated foreign investors, with the lira losing a fifth of its value since the botched coup alone. Turkey’s once-booming economy has stalled as terrorist attacks drove away tourists and unemployment climbed to seven-year highs.

Many investors, though, say if he wins a popular mandate to formalize his grip on power, markets will bounce back, at least in the short term. A rejection of the referendum, on the other hand, could spark a selloff because it will pave the way for Erdogan to seek early elections to try to secure a more sympathetic parliament and push through the executive presidency that way.

The vote positions Erdogan’s political base spanning the country’s vast rural heartland against cosmopolitan antagonists on the coasts and in Istanbul — a global crossroads for centuries. A victory would echo the same conservative, nationalistic forces that powered Donald Trump to the White House, pushed Britain out of the EU and put Marine Le Pen within shouting distance of the French presidency.

One-Man Rule

“Turkey’s longer-term political and economic trajectory is likely to remain negative,” said Anthony Skinner, a director with U.K.-based forecasting company Verisk Maplecroft. “The consolidation of one-man rule, the eradication of the few remaining and ineffective checks and balances and increased suppression of dissent will all factor.”

The amendments being voted on also:

  • Abolish the role of prime minister
  • Remove the requirement for presidential neutrality, allowing Erdogan to reinstate his affiliation with the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party he co-founded
  • Enable the president to stand in two five-year election cycles, and a third with parliamentary backing
  • Allow the president to appoint six of a whittled-down panel of 13 top judges, with others chosen by lawmakers

If the “evet” or “yes” vote succeeds, Erdogan, who first became prime minister in 2003, could potentially hold the reins until at least 2029. That’s a decade longer than the rule of Ataturk, the father of the modern secular nation that he has sought to roll back.

Foreign Policy

While clinching power at home, Erdogan is turning his foreign alliances on their head. He’s sought to repair his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin — a staunch ally of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad that Erdogan opposes — while threatening to reconsider ties with the EU, a bloc Turkey had been trying to join for half a century.

When countries like the Netherlands stopped Turkish ministers from campaigning for the referendum among expatriates on their soil last month, Erdogan accused them of Nazi practices, throwing a critical deal on halting the flow of migrants to Europe into jeopardy. For Trump, having Erdogan onside will be crucial if he’s serious about taking on Islamic State.

At first, Erdogan’s authoritarian turn was slow as his AKP enjoyed popular support and won three straight parliamentary elections.

Back then, the media had more freedom to criticize the government and the judiciary had greater independence. But gradually, laws were changed to make it easier for the ruling party to, for instance, make judicial appointments and enrich pro-government businesses with state contracts.

When anti-government protests erupted in mid-2013, Erdogan came down hard. Within months, he’d quashed a corruption probe targeting his government by purging police and judges he accused of being sympathizers of his former ally Fethullah Gulen, an influential U.S.-based Islamic preacher with millions of followers.

The two had a falling out that year widely seen as a catalyst for a crackdown that’s since made Turkey the world’s largest jailer of journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders. Erdogan blames Gulen for orchestrating the coup attempt.

Polarizing Campaign

The referendum, meanwhile, polarized Turkey’s 58 million eligible voters and left many undecided. In one campaign tactic, Erdogan tried to sway those on the fence by accusing the “hayir” or “no” campaign of backing “terrorists” like Gulen’s movement and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is waging an insurgency in southeast Turkey.

Many Turks voting “yes” want a powerful president to confront terrorism and the campaign against Islamic state in Syria. Some are eager to avoid a repeat of the deadlocked coalition governments that hindered growth in the 1990s and are tired of frequent military coups. Others are observant Muslims who applaud Erdogan for opening many new religious schools and lifting restrictions on wearing head scarves in universities and state institutions.

“I don’t want this system for myself, for Tayyip Erdogan,” he said April 10. “I say let’s build a system that will save the future of this country.”

For “no” campaigners, though, the amendments dismantle democracy, a view shared by the Venice Commission, which advises the leaders of 61 member states, including Turkey, on rule of law. In a March 13 opinion, it said the changes “would introduce in Turkey a presidential regime which lacks the necessary checks and balances required to safeguard against becoming an authoritarian one.”

If passed, proposals like the abolition of high military courts would take effect immediately, with others enacted after elections scheduled for November 2019, unless they’re called earlier.


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