On April 16, the Turkish government underwent a seismic constitutional shift. With the referendum results uncertain till late into the night, Turkey voted to centralize power in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The referendum, which won with 51.3 percent of the vote, abolishes the post of prime minister and transfers executive power to the president. This allows him to appoint the judges and officials responsible for scrutinizing his decisions. This not only violates many Turks’ sense of proper constitutional order, but also sets the stage for Erdogan to assume a more dictatorial role in the long run. (Additionally, however, the referendum limits the president to two five-year terms.)
The supporting campaign argued that a stronger centralized government would better enable Turkey to take on its challenges: a struggling economy, the world’s largest Syrian refugee population, a war against Kurdish insurgents, and the Syrian war on Turkey’s southern border.
The opposition worried that the new presidential powers will, according to the New York Times, “threaten the separation of powers on which liberal democracies have traditionally depended.” Judicial independence in Turkey was already weak before the change, and now it is in more peril. President Erdogan will now have unilateral authority in selecting the judges, as well as other administrators, who will review his actions to decide their constitutionality. This tightens his grip on the Turkish bureaucracy even further, a process that began after the attempted military coup last summer.”
Since the failed coup, Erdogan has constantly monitored the media, and journalists themselves, for anti-government opinions. One journalist, Kadri Grusel, has been imprisoned since October. His work at Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s last major independent media outlet, was questioned due to his alleged connections to the Islamist Gulenist movement and the Kurdish Independence Movement. Mr. Grusel and at least 81 other journalists are held in detention at Silivri prison, just south of Istanbul, where shuttle services are provided so families can visit the large number of imprisoned newspaper employees. Turkey has now surpassed China as the world’s biggest jailer of journalists. Furthermore, Erdogan’s actions concerning the press have garnered attention from several international human rights organizations.
In addition to silencing the press, Erdogan immediately imprisoned more than 45,000 of the 130,000 state employees he fired after the coup attempt. These imprisonments include punishment for alleged anti-Erdogan sentiments, insulting Erdogan directly over social media, or being suspected of participating in the coup. A former Miss Turkey, Merve Buyuksarac, posted on Instagram a satirical rewording of the country’s national anthem: I am like a wild flood, I smash over the law and beyond / I follow state bids, take my bribe and live. She was sentenced to fourteen months.
Moreover, the legitimacy of the vote is already under scrutiny. The results will take time to confirm, but the opposition Republican People’s Party is already calling for a recount of more than one-third of the ballots – around 2.5 million votes. The opposition claims the president’s campaign on behalf of the referendum was corrupt in that it supposedly threatened people who intended to vote “no.” Many Turks either voted “yes” or stayed away from the polls in fear of their safety. Additionally, a last-minute raising of the standard for proving allegations of ballot stuffing made it easier to tamper with the election results. As of the day after the referendum, there was only one case of voter fraud caught on camera.
The result of the vote, if it holds up, cannot bode well for Turkey. Erdogan has been exceptionally power-hungry and on guard after last year’s coup attempt. All the evidence we can see points to the likelihood that given the opportunity, he will continue to limit the media and centralize more power to himself. This constitutional change will not benefit Turkey in the long run, particularly if Erdogan is elected for a second term.