Turkish democracy is on life support. On April 16, Turks will vote on 18 amendments to their country’s Constitution, including whether to abolish the office of the prime minister and transfer its powers to the president.
Pushing for a “yes” vote is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A presidential system would not only give Mr. Erdogan more authority to appoint judges and ministers, and control budgets, but also allow him to rule for two more terms — until 2029 — and it would solidify Turkey’s shift to authoritarianism. But even if a “no” vote is preferable, it may not be enough to save the Turkish republic from Mr. Erdogan’s damage.
Representative democracy has never come easily for Turkey. Founded in 1923, the Turkish republic did not hold its first multiparty elections until 1946. Few Turkish governments since have run the country effectively; none has truly adhered to the rule of law. The military has contributed to Turkey’s democratic deficit. In stepping in — in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997 — to “restore order” to faltering governments, Turkey’s generals reinforced top-down rule.
Several of Mr. Erdogan’s predecessors called for a stronger presidency to tame the military. Upon becoming prime minister in 2003, Mr. Erdogan managed to place civilian oversight over military expenditures and gutted the generals’ hold on the National Security Council. In part because of these moves, the European Union opened negotiations for Turkish accession in 2005.
In 2006, Mr. Erdogan began to talk about the need for Turkey to move from a parliamentary system to an “American-like” presidential one. Many saw that as a further move against the military, which was long considered the guardian of Turkish “secularism,” something Mr. Erdogan, a devout Muslim, opposed. In 2010, Mr. Erdogan’s government took several hundred officers to court on charges of planning to overthrow the government. More than 200 were convicted.
In the wake of a coup attempt last July, Mr. Erdogan secured his authority over the military when he declared — and Parliament endorsed — a state of emergency. Under the state of emergency, the president has authority over military appointments. These powers have also limited the role of Parliament. The cabinet can now draft laws for the president’s approval, with only a simple yes-or-no vote from Parliament. Judicial review is moot, as the Constitutional Court has no jurisdiction during this period.
But for all of Mr. Erdogan’s centralization of power, Turkey has become less stable under his watch. Recent years have seen a rise in terrorism and social unrest. Over the past two years alone, there has been a series of bombings throughout the country. The Islamic State is believed to be behind several of these incidents; the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, known as the P.K.K., and groups associated with it have claimed responsibility for others.
“One of the most important messages,” Mr. Erdogan said in November 2015 regarding the spate of violence, “is that Turkey must resolve this Constitution issue right away” and transfer executive powers to the president. That is the way, he claims, that Turkey will be able to finally “defeat the terrorists.”
Based on the president’s reaction to the coup attempt in July, that might include anyone who opposes or criticizes him. Since July, Mr. Erdogan has jailed journalists and political opponents, including Selahttin Demirtas, the leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party. Over the past several months, the president has purged more than 100,000 public officials, including judges, prosecutors, police officers, civil servants, teachers and university rectors, accusing them of being aligned with Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim preacher who was once his ally but whom he now accuses of masterminding the July coup attempt. More than 45,000 people have been arrested.
Mr. Erdogan has also abandoned the ambitious foreign policy that boosted Turkey’s economy and helped increase the country’s role in international affairs, replacing it with a crude nationalism. Turkey today is increasingly isolated, particularly from the West. In recent years, Mr. Erdogan has accused Washington and Brussels of “dirty plots” against Turkey. Last month, he lashed out at Germany for using “Nazi tactics” and called the Dutch “fascists” and “Nazi remnants” for blocking efforts to campaign for the referendum in the Netherlands.
This belligerence has resonated with the conservative Muslims who feel alienated from the West and resentful of the growing Islamophobia that they see there. It would not be surprising if this population, which has consistently handed Mr. Erdogan electoral victories in parliamentary and presidential elections, delivers him a “yes” in Sunday’s constitutional referendum. Current polls suggest that the results are too close to call.
But if voters choose “no,” Mr. Erdogan won’t be deterred. Turkey’s president is a fighter and he will go to any lengths to get what he wants. In the face of a defeat at the ballot box, he is likely to amp up his war against the Kurds, making him seem like an embattled defender of the nation. This move would also help him win support from nationalist voters who don’t normally back him. It also looks possible that if he is denied further power by way of constitutional amendment, he will seek it by extending the state of emergency — maybe even indefinitely.
Mr. Erdogan could also call for early elections, allowing him to take another “mandate” at the ballot box. In the face of an inept and weak opposition, Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party continues to command significant support. What the Turkish people don’t deliver on April 16, Mr. Erdogan will seek from a majority in Parliament.
Nonetheless, Turkey needs a “no” on Sunday. A rejection of Mr. Erdogan’s proposed constitutional amendments would keep alive the prospect that once this president is no longer in office, Turkey can finally have a shot at curbing the power of its rulers and, perhaps someday, making way for representative, inclusive democracy.
Elmira Bayrasli is a co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted and a professor at Bard College’s Globalization and International Affairs Program.