With Sunday's vote, Erdoğan eyes complete power over Turkey

After a year of brutal trends in the country, a plebiscite this weekend will decide whether President Erdoğan will gain even more power. Is he the master of ballot-box authoritarianism?  

By: /
April 13, 2017
Erdogan
A billboard carrying a picture of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and a slogan that reads: "Yes. It is for the people to speak and to decide" is seen on a building ahead of the constitutional referendum in Istanbul, Turkey, April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

It is, yet again, the eve of another high-stakes plebiscite in Turkey. On April 16, the country will vote whether to amend its constitution, devolve executive rule away from parliament, and confirm Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s claim to the powers he has already informally appropriated since becoming president in 2014.

Specifically, voters will decide on a package of changes — some immediate, and some to come into force after future parliamentary elections. The changes include: eliminating the job of the prime minister, allowing the president to appoint ministers, vice-presidents and some judges, and limiting parliament’s power over things like budgets. The president would no longer have to remain “non-partisan.”

Polls show an electorate evenly split. But up to 20 percent of voters say they remain undecided. That the result is not tied-up is an important part of the backdrop to Erdoğan’s recent diatribes against the European Union and some European countries, his threats to do away with Turkey’s refugee agreements with Europe, his promise to bring back the death penalty, and his denigration of those planning on voting “no” on Sunday as terrorist sympathizers. Scapegoating and vilifying have long been Erdoğan mainstays, and again he is in top form.

This balance between the “Yes” and “No” camps is a stark contrast to the wildly asymmetric campaign. For starters, it has been carried out under emergency rule, in place since last July’s failed coup d’état. Erdoğan’s profound reaction to the failed coup has left stands of opposition withered. More than 160 media and publishing companies have been shut down, and more than 120 journalists are in jail awaiting trial, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. (See also here.)

The government has also done away with a broadcast law that had provided for equal airtime to all sides during campaigns. Pro-Erdoğan media is pervasive. By incarcerating party members and taking control of municipalities, the government has neutralized the Kurdish opposition’s capacity for normal campaigning. Many have turned to hunger strike protests. Not least, Selahattin Demirtaş, co-leader of the Kurdish opposition party (HDP) and Erdoğan’s most effective and eloquent political opponent, has been jailed, unable to electrify the campaign trail as he did in the run-up to parliamentary elections in 2015. One can’t help but wonder what impression a more evenly contested campaign would have had on the electorate.

"Erdoğan enjoys many of the powers of an executive presidency already, having collected them by force of personality and political maneuvering."

A “Yes” result on Sunday will mean the eventual transformation of the Turkish state. In the short-term, it will feel more like a formalization of the status quo. Though Erdoğan will immediately be able to appoint some judges and prosecutors, and officially reclaim his leadership of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which he co-founded, in practice Erdoğan enjoys many of the powers of an executive presidency already, having collected them by force of personality and political maneuvering, and locking them down through emergency rule.

Still, a “Yes” vote will mean Erdoğan’s heretofore de facto executive presidency becomes more efficient, a prospect that should be judged against certain brutal trends in Turkey (see also here). Academics have been bullied and sacked. Since the attempted coup last year, more than 100,000 prosecutors, police and other public servants have lost their jobs to political purges; more than 47,000 people are in pre-trial detention, charged as terrorists and coup accomplices, according to Human Rights Watch. Many of these detainees have allegedly been tortured.  

Some Erdoğan supporters argue that formalizing his power will end the uncertainty and clarify the ambiguity about where power actually lies in Turkey. It is a partly ironic argument; the uncertainty and ambiguity stem, in no small part, from Erdoğan’s insistence on ignoring the constitutional limits placed on his office. At the same time, Erdoğan is the first directly elected Turkish president, and he rightly claims a popular mandate — something none of his parliament-confirmed predecessors could claim — and which is very hard to fit within the constitution in its current form. And, at the end of the day, Turkey’s constitution is an unloved-by-all relic of a past coup d’état, bestowed by the military junta that ruled the country from 1980-1983.

If a “Yes” vote means more of the same in the short term, new elections in the medium term, and wholesale change in the long term, what might a “No” result mean? In the very short-term it will also likely mean more of the same. Erdoğan’s de facto executive presidency won’t disappear the morning after a “No” result. It will, however, highlight that Erdoğan’s informal executive presidency remains only that. The big question is: What does Erdoğan — still wielding emergency rule powers — do if he loses? There is a worrying precedent. When the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in 2015 (for the first time since 2002), Erdoğan stonewalled talks to form a coalition government until he could call new elections. In the interim, he restarted the war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in a bid to win the hearts and minds of Turkey’s hard-core nationalists and to bleed support away from the AKP’s majority-stealing HDP. Thousands died, and in November 2015 the AKP was returned to parliament with its once-lost majority.

Erdoğan is often called a master politician. If he wins Sunday’s referendum, many will be astounded at his ability to deliver, time after time, vote after vote, crisis after crisis. His charisma and popular appeal — even, to a certain extent, his popular legitimacy — can’t be denied. Still, such appraisal must be tempered. Demagoguery, judicial harassment, press suppression — that Erdoğan can resort to such tools, those less of the politician and more of the thug, is possible because he has accrued to himself the levers of state power in Turkey.

This is, in many ways, a central lesson of Turkish politics, true since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923: The prize is the state. If “Yes” wins, Erdoğan will have indisputably captured the prize. If “No” wins, the prize will still be up for grabs, and the brutal contest will continue.