On 16 April, nearly 60 million Turkish citizens within Turkey and abroad voted on a referendum deciding to expand President’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan powers. With a close victory, Erdoğan may now be in power up until 2029. After the failed coup attempt last year and the implementation of a state of emergency, the President thought it best to tremendously increase his powers.
Erdoğan, founder of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) served two terms as Prime Minister before becoming President. He and his party have long defended the referendum and urged the millions of Turks residing abroad, mainly in Germany, Netherlands and France, to vote in favour of it. The referendum is a response to the country’s troubled political history, and according to Erdoğan, it will strengthen political institutions and cooperation between parties. The successful campaign marks the biggest change to Turkey’s political system in decades. Since Kemal Ataturk’s declaration of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the country has remained a parliamentary system despite experiencing several coup attempts. But now, Turkey will become a presidential one and alarmingly centralise powers in the hands of President Erdoğan.
Following the victory of the Evet ‘yes’ campaign, the role of Prime Minister will be abolished; instead, vice presidents will be chosen by the President himself who will also be able to appoint and dismiss ministers and any high-rank officials, including judges. The President will also have the power to dismiss parliament at any point, call for parliamentary or presidential elections. To make matters worse, parliament will no longer have the power to monitor the activities of the President or call for no-confidence votes. Parliament will really only be able to draft and implement laws, although under the strict guise of the President. Last but not least, the successful referendum changes the current system under which the President may not have official ties with a party.
Ties between the President and a party would mean that if a particular party held the majority of seats in the parliament, it would be easier for the President to control parliament and its decisions; this is why Erdoğan initially stepped down as AKP’s leader in 2014.
While some of these political actions may work in other countries, it is important to note that those countries respect and uphold independent judicial systems. Of course, this does not fully apply to the Turkish government which has long been accused of manipulating and influencing the judges and court cases. Since the 2016 coup attempt, more than 10,000 people have been arrested, imprisoned or accused of treason and related crimes, yet the majority of those actions were extra-judicial. The juridical system has still to this day never pointed out or made a statement on this issue.
Erdoğan has long been accused by NGOs for violating people’s rights and freedom of press. More than 1,000 journalists have been arrested for articles produced since 2010, and their families have been banned from travelling abroad. Turkey ashamedly 151 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Sans Frontières, an international NGO based in Paris. Over the past few years, the government has banned social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and WhatsApp under the pretext of security measures. Following the 2016 coup attempt, Erdoğan himself promoted and enforced the closure of several independent media outlets. Just two days ago, an Italian journalist went missing after writing an article on Erdoğan and his ties to Islamist groups. Just a week before that, a French journalist was imprisoned after stating that if the referendum passed, it would mean a crackdown on human rights.
Analysts advocate that the referendum will shape the future of Turkey for decades. The President will have practically have full control of state bodies with virtually no opposition from judges, press or parliament.
Turkey’s political future can cause instability across the whole region. Its recent deal with the EU regarding the refugee crisis has been at risk following the escalation of political tensions. During his speech following the victory, Erdoğan stated his will to reintroduce the death penalty either by referendum or his own declaration. Previous similar attempts were met with strong comments by EU officials and German Chancellor Angela Merkel who responded by stating ‘countries with death penalty are not compatible for EU membership’. Just a few weeks ago, Netherlands barred Turkish ministers from addressing a political rally of Turkish citizens in favour the referendum. The incident prompted harsh comments by Erdoğan who stated that ‘Netherlands will pay’, called for international sanctions and characterized the country as ‘remnants of Nazism’.
It is clear that tension between EU member states and Turkey won’t cease to escalate. According to regional analysts, the result of the referendum and its implementation might not only cause further diplomatic rows, but great unrest within Turkey; this unrest has already begun.
Since the referendum result, thousands of people have taken to the streets of Istanbul to protest against the result. Banging pots and pans, a custom introduced during the Gezi protests in 2013, people demonstrated their staunch opposition. But more than anything, they showed that they are afraid.
As we strolled down by the Bosphorus, I saw our neighbour's young daughter looking for the ice cream truck which passes every evening to serve dondurma and chocolate ice cream. The young girl asked her father when Eçem, the woman who owns the truck, will pass. Her father took her into his arms. 'She will not pass again', he said. Her husband used to work as a security guard at a Gulen school. He, among others including homosexuals, Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Shias, and secularists are now in direct threat from the regime.
The young girl furiously asked why. 'Because', he said, 'Turkey is no longer Turkey. Turkey is now Erdoğan, for us and the foreigners. '
As I was boarding my flight home this morning, friends and colleagues from abroad asked me how I felt and my opinion on the matter. I could not have better summed it up: Turkey is now Erdoğan.