Turkish referendum: an autocrat’s constitution

Proposed amendments have been strongly criticised internationally

This weekend Turkey gets ready for one of the most important political decisions in their history. But who is the architect of this political shake up, President Tayyip Erdogan?

 

If these are the days, as prevailing narratives have it, of the populist strongman president – Trump, Orban, Duterte, Putin – then the undoubtedly popular President Tayyip Erdogan should have little to worry about. His referendum tomorrow to transform Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system should be plain sailing. Made easier when you have silenced or jailed the opposition and the media.

But it is not all going his way. A survey this week by pollster Gezici put support for the constitutional change at 51.3 per cent with “No” votes on 48.7 per cent. Two other polls show similarly close margins, a reality which makes all the more important the 2.88 million voters registered abroad. In the general election in November 2015, some 56 per cent of them backed Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP). In Germany Sueddeutsche Zeitung reports that some 696,863 Turks have cast ballots.

An increasingly autocratic Erdogan says the proposed changes will make Turkey “stronger” in the wake of last July’s attempted coup and when the country faces security threats from Islamist and Kurdish militants. But Erdogan’s ambition to strengthen the presidency and his own position long predates the coup attempt.

The , notably by the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional issues. It warns of a “a dangerous step backwards in the constitutional democratic tradition of Turkey” and “degeneration of the proposed system toward an authoritarian and personal regime”. It would lead to an unjustifiable concentration of power in the hands of the president with very weak checks and balances. In addition to holding all executive authority, Erdogan would exercise power over the legislative branch and shape the judicial branch.

There is likely to be fallout in the relationship between Turkey and both individual EU member states and the union, to which Turkey still aspires to accede. The decision of the Netherlands not to allow Turkish officials to campaign among the diaspora on Dutch soil and clashes with the German government on the issue are symptomatic of how fragile relations with its European allies have become.

Some EU states are set to propose formal suspension of Turkey’s accession negotiations, while the Council of Europe’s parliament has called for formal monitoring to be resumed. Chancellor Merkel is reported to have urged delay – “We should await the vote on the referendum”.

The reality is that even if he achieves a small majority for change, and can rely for now on a majority in parliament with right wing nationalist allies, Erdogan will not unite a polarised society ruled by repression. Turkey will not be strengthened and, ultimately, he and it will be undermined.

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