The Turkish Referendum: A slide in to autocracy?
10 April 2017
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.