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The Turkish Referendum: A slide in to autocracy?

10 April 2017

Jon Chitty

The Turkish Referendum: A slide in to autocracy?

Next Sunday (16th April) Turkish voters head to the polls to vote on a series of changes to the Turkish constitution that some see as the most significant event since the country’s formation. Those calling for change are convinced that the country’s social and economic problems can be addressed by granting greater powers to the office of president whereas those who oppose the reforms believe that the proposed changes will result in a de facto sultanate, eroding democratic institutions and marking a slide in to autocracy. Last summer’s failed coup attempt rocked the Republic of Turkey to its core, and though much of the detail surrounding the erstwhile usurpers remains shrouded in mystery, the ongoing threat has been seen as sufficient justification to allow President Recip Tayyip Erdogan to rule with emergency powers. The powers afforded to Mr Erdogan in the wake of the coup have, in effect, allowed him to rule by decree since July 2016 whilst also removing the Constitutional Court’s ability to block his decisions. Following several extensions of this state of emergency, next Sunday’s referendum could potentially extend some of these powers indefinitely. If the last few months are anything to go by it seems unlikely that these powers will go unused.

Using the coup to push the government’s agenda

Since the coup attempt, the president has used emergency measures to confiscate the property and businesses of individuals believed to be supporters of Fethullah Gulen, an exiled preacher the government blames for orchestrating the coup, and someone that has historically been considered one of Erdogan’s allies. Nearly 40,000 people are estimated to have been arrested, with over 100,000 people fired or suspended from their jobs and an estimated 500 businesses with suspected Gulenist ties seized by the state. The government has absorbed assets with a value estimated to be around $13bn (c.£10.5), in effect creating the country’s largest conglomerate, and critics claim that the businesses are likely to be sold to government supporters at non-market prices. It is perhaps no wonder that the government has been accused of overseeing a situation akin to that of ‘crony capitalism’. Perhaps most worrying, given the importance of the upcoming referendum, is the way in which the government has clamped down on press freedoms. There have been several reports of journalists expressing opposition to the constitutional reform only to lose their jobs, and in a move that seems almost too far-fetched to believe, a TV advert from a biscuit maker is currently being investigated by government lawmakers for, in their words, attempting to “manipulate the psychology of 80 million people” in a “nation that has not and will not forget the night of the coup”. Ulker, owner of the Jaffa Cakes brand, has called the reaction a defamation campaign by Erdogan supporters, driven by the mistaken belief that its owner has ties to last year’s coup attempt.

Too close to call…

Despite the government’s attempts to make it difficult for anyone to express support for a ‘no’ vote, opinion polls suggest that the outcome of the referendum is too close to call. With double digit inflation, slowing economic growth and the ever present threat of terrorism, the Republic of Turkey clearly has problems that need to be addressed. Whether or not the creation of an executive presidency with few checks and balances is the best solution to Turkeys problems is for the Turkish people to decide, and given the implications for the nation’s democratic future, we sincerely hope they make the right choice.


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