Since mid-July 2016 Turks have been living in a state of emergency, subject to the sweeping powers permitted the president and his ministers in this situation. Triggered by the coup attempt on 20 July, in which 240 soldiers, police and civilians were killed trying to stop rogue troops who had commandeered fighter jets and tanks to bomb parliament, the state of emergency was extended on 19 January 2017 for a further three months.
Officially, therefore, the emergency comes to an end on 19 April, but by then Turkey may be facing a quite different emergency, the biggest perhaps since Kamel Ataturk swept away the Ottoman sultanate in 1922. For three days earlier, on 16 April, Turkey will have voted in a referendum on whether to grant its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, supreme powers, changing Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential republic.
Under the new constitution that Erdogan is asking the Turkish nation to endorse, the role of prime minister would be scrapped and the president would become the head of the executive, as well as the head of state. He would be given sweeping new powers to appoint ministers, prepare the budget, choose the majority of senior judges and enact certain laws by decree. The president alone would be able to announce a state of emergency and dismiss parliament, which would lose its right to scrutinize ministers or propose an inquiry.
Erdogan argues that the reforms he seeks would streamline decision-making and avoid the unwieldy parliamentary coalitions that have hamstrung Turkey in the past. The problem is that while a presidential system works well in a country with proper checks and balances like the United States, in Turkey, where judicial independence and press freedom have plummeted, an all-powerful president would be akin to a dictator on the lines of a Hitler or a Stalin. On 13 March a Council of Europe inquiry expressed “serious concerns at the excessive concentration of powers in one office… It is also of concern that this process of constitutional change is taking place under the state of emergency.”
Erdogan’s presidential ambitions go back a good few years. The events of 2013, when he held the post of prime minister, may have crystallized them. Twice during the course of the year violence directed largely against Erdogan and the party he leads, the AKP, broke out on the streets of Turkey’s major cities. The incidents precipitating the protests may have been different, but the underlying cause was essentially the same – a widespread perception that Erdogan had become too dictatorial and too arrogant in attempting to end Turkey’s role as a model of secularism in the Muslim world.
In May 2013 popular fury was triggered by a terse government announcement that a shopping mall was to be built on Gezi Park, one of the last green public spaces in the centre of Istanbul. Over the course of the summer, though, a more dangerous opposition built up within Erdogan’s own party, the AKP. This centred around followers of Fethullah Gulen, an influential Turkish cleric who lives in the US. Gulen was once one of the AKP’s main spiritual leaders, preaching a blend of moderate, business-friendly Islam that helped the party rise to power. His dispute with Erdogan and the AKP leadership arose over a government decision to shut down the large network of private schools that the Fethullah Gulen community, or Hizmet Movement, operated.
Gulen had followers at high levels in the Turkish establishment, including the judiciary, the secret service and the police force. Early in December 2013 Erdogan was furious to discover that, for more than a year and unknown to him, the police had been engaged in an undercover inquiry into corruption within the government and the upper echelons of the AKP. By the end of the year Erdogan’s own son had been named in the widening corruption investigation. Erdogan undertook a major cabinet reshuffle, describing the police investigation as a plot by foreign and Turkish forces to discredit his government ahead of local elections in March 2014.
Those elections were the key to unlocking Erdogan’s ambitions. The AKP party had to retain its political lead. It did so and, returned to office, Erdogan was able to change the constitution to allow him to remain as prime minister beyond his statutory three terms. Subsequently he was able to stand for president in 2014, and then to imbue the office – once largely ceremonial – with greatly increased powers. If he succeeds in the forthcoming referendum, he will have turned his long-held dream of gaining supreme power into reality.
Erdogan blames Fethullah Gulen for inciting the coup attempt in July 2016, and he has been exacting a ruthless revenge on those accused of having links with Gulen. 170 media outlets have been shut down, including 29 publishing houses, 3 news agencies, 45 newspapers, 16 TV stations, 23 radio stations, and 15 magazines. 1,577 university deans have been forced to resign, while 2,700 judges, 163 admirals and generals and 24,000 teachers and Interior Ministry employees have been fired.
The referendum that would effectively confirm sweeping powers like these in Erdogan’s hands is already under way. On 27 March Turkish citizens started to vote at airports and borders in Turkey, as well as in Turkish diplomatic missions in Germany, Austria, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Denmark. Voting will start in other countries in due course. All voting outside the country will end on 9 April, with the main referendum vote taking place on 16 April in Turkey itself.
On present indications, Erdogan is not assured of a favourable outcome. Of 28 recent public opinion polls, 12 predict a ‘no’ vote and eight ‘yes’. But the gap has been narrowing. Gezici Research has found that while the ‘no’ camp was ahead in January by 58 to 42 percent, when early voting began on 27 March its lead had reduced to just 51 percent. This no doubt reflects the fevered efforts by Erdogan’s AKP party in the last few weeks before the referendum. While the “no” campaign is having a hard time getting its message past the AKP’s pressure on media outlets, the “yes” campaign has bought massive TV, radio, newspaper and billboard ads.
Will Turkey’s opposition maintain its momentum and carry the day? Or will Erdogan reverse the tide and finally reach his long-held objective of accruing supreme autocratic power in his own hands?