[Picture above: Constitutional referendum 2017 – the provinces that voted ‘yes’ are green, ‘no’ are red.]
The 51.4 percent of the Turkish voters that voted ‘yes’ for the proposed constitutional amendments in Sunday’s referendum have changed Turkey from a secular democracy to a quasi-dictatorship dominated by one man, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The 18 amendments confer wide-sweeping powers on the president, and include the right to appoint ministers and high-ranking state officials, to issue decrees and also to dissolve parliament and call elections. He is also empowered to declare a state of emergency, which has enabled Erdoğan to govern by decree since the abortive coup last July. The state of emergency will be extended again for another three months on Thursday.
Erdoğan is now allowed to be leader of the governing political party, which in effect will give him dominance over parliament. Parliament’s role will, for the most part, be reduced to that of a rubber stamp. The post of prime minister will be abolished, members of the cabinet will be accountable to the president, not parliament, only written questions can be addressed to vice-presidents and ministers and a vote of confidence will not be allowed. The president will also be able to prepare the state budget.
The judiciary will be under the president’s thumb. The president can appoint six of the 13 members of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), which regulates the legal profession, and parliament will appoint the other seven. Three judges from the Constitutional Court will be appointed by parliament and the remaining 12 by the president.
However, what is of particular importance to Erdoğan is the provision that it will take a two-thirds majority for parliament to impeach the president. In view of the allegations of corruption levelled at Erdoğan and government circles in the “judicial coup” in December 2013, this could be considered the president’s ‘get out of jail free’ card. This also has a bearing on the current trial in the U.S. of Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab for breaking sanctions against Iran and the recent arrest of Turkish state-owned Halkbank’s deputy CEO at J.F.K. International Airport.
In the run-up to the referendum Erdoğan, his ministers and the AKP (Justice and Development Party) have made every effort to ensure a ‘yes’. The state of emergency has banned public gatherings and protests as well as critical publications. In the aftermath of the failed coup, over 135,000 public employees have been dismissed, 113,260 have been detained and 47,155 have been arrested in a widespread purge. More than 150 media outlets, including newspapers, television stations, radios and publishing houses, have been closed and 231 journalists have been arrested. Erdoğan has gone so far as to revile the arrested journalists as “thieves, child abusers or terrorists.”
Furthermore, Turks are called on to inform on each other, which has, for example in Europe, torn apart previously close-knit Turkish communities.
13 deputies, including the party’s leaders, from the opposition Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) are in prison, and the Turkish government has taken control of 82 municipalities in Turkey’s southeast and jailed 90 of their mayors.
Erdoğan has accused the leader of the main opposition party CHP (Republican People’s Party), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, of being in league with the coup plotters, and his prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, claimed the banned PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and the Gülen movement, which has been blamed for the coup, were behind the ‘no’ campaign. A leading theologian also branded naysayers as “opponents of Islam.”
The refusal by various European countries to allow Erdoğan and his ministers to hold rallies to drum up support from the Turkish diaspora no doubt contributed to the surge of patriotism among the expatriate voters who voted ‘yes’, although many of them did not understand the amendments they were voting for. The same applied to many of the voters in Turkey.
In addition, tv coverage in Turkey was heavily weighted in favour of ‘yes’. According to the Unity for Democracy movement, which monitored 17 different nationwide tv channels in the first 20 days of March, 169 hours were allotted to the Presidency, 301.5 hours to the AKP and 15.5 hours to the MHP (the Turkish nationalist party allied with the AKP). Only 45 hours were allotted to the opposition CHP and none to the Kurdish HDP.
International observers from OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and PACE (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) have likewise concluded that the referendum took place on an uneven playing field.
In view of the resources devoted by Erdoğan and his party to ensure a ‘yes’, the result must be considered meagre. It is striking that the coastal and metropolitan areas – Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara, as well as the Kurdish southeast voted ‘no’, whereas the Anatolian hinterland supported Erdoğan’s project. The result has already been challenged, as it is claimed that as many as one and half million votes were invalid.
Erdoğan has earlier admitted that since he was mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s he had planned for an executive presidency which would concentrate all power in the hands of one person. What is cause for concern is his next move. Last month he warned that Turkey was “nobody’s stooge”, and he undoubtedly has plans to remove Turkey from Europe’s orbit. Erdoğan has made it clear he supports the reintroduction of the death penalty, which will both put an end to Turkey’s bid for EU membership and membership of the Council of Europe (including supervision by the European Court of Human Rights). Then Turkey – or rather Erdoğan, will be master in his own house.