Don't let Turkey's Erdoğan cement repressive power with referendum
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On April 16, Turkey will vote in a referendum that will shape the country’s future for decades to come.   A yes vote in the referendum would cement the rule of Turkey’s charismatic and pugnacious president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, allowing him unprecedented new powers.  The stakes could hardly be higher, but the campaign has not been a free or fair one.

Erdoğan’s rough rhetoric and troubling human rights record has won him little praise among his Western allies in recent years, but he remains genuinely popular for tens of millions of Turkish citizens, who see him as representing true national values and love the way he seems to dare the world to oppose him.

His defiant image was burnished by his response to an attempted coup this past July.  It was a desperate and foolish affair.  Had it succeeded, Turkey would have almost certainly descended into civil war.  Political parties from across the spectrum decried it.  Taking to social media, Erdoğan called his supporters to the streets, where they faced down tanks.  By daylight, the attempted coup was broken.  Even his critics expressed admiration and support; Erdogan’s personal standing had never been higher.  


Erdoğan capitalized on this victory to accelerate his crackdown on potential opposition, detaining more than 100,000, most without charge.  More than 125,000 civil servants have been sacked without pay, more than a hundred journalists detained, and 160 media outlets have been closed outright. Turkey’s once vibrant and diverse civil society has been gutted with more than 1,000 NGOs shut down.  Torture has once again become widespread.

Erdoğan has also resurrected plans for a constitutional referendum that  would move Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system. Unlike America’s system, however, it would not have  meaningful checks and balances to the president’s power. Erdogan conceivably could remain in office until 2029, which would mean he would have rule for more than a quarter century.  Some analysts point to a potential loophole in the revised constitution that would allow him to rule until 2034.

The Turkish government has framed the referendum as a victory for democracy.  It is not.  To be sure, the constitutional system currently in place in Turkey is in bad need of reform.  It suffers from inadequate protections for individual liberties, weak protections for minorities and a marked inability to check government abuses or protect judicial independence.  But the referendum would resolve none of these issues and exacerbate many of them.  

In order to win, Erdoğan will have to retain the support of his party and expand upon it.  But even some longtime AKP supporters are anxious about extensions of his power.  Many former luminaries of the party including former president Abdullah Gül and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have been loudly silent about the campaign.  In order to win, Erdoğan needs to win over enough people who voted for the National Action Party (MHP) or the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in previous elections to make up for any deficit from traditional AKP voters.  Not impossible, but certainly a steep climb.

But the campaign so far has been anything but fairly contested.  The full power of the government and the president have been employed in favor of the referendum.  The media, and particularly television, co-opted by the government years ago, offers non-stop support for the referendum.  

Government meddling goes further, however.  A pall of fear hangs over the no campaign.  Opposition campaigners and no rallies have been repeatedly attacked. In AKP municipalities, Yes campaign posters are everywhere; No campaign posters are routinely torn down.  AKP governors and the Supreme Election Board (YSK) have repeatedly forbidden No rallies.  The campaign efforts of the mostly Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) have been particularly targeted: many of their most prominent politicians have been jailed.  Their campaign song was banned.  With both civil society organizations and the opposition press sharply weakened, there is a greater risk of fraud in the referendum than in previous votes.  

On Sunday, Turkey will vote on its fate.  A victory for the yes campaign could well be a death blow for Turkey’s beleaguered democracy.  But the campaign over the referendum already shows how damaged that democratic tradition has become. The vote will be anything but free and fair.

Howard Eissenstat is an Associate Professor of Middle East History at St. Lawrence University and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Project for Middle East Democracy (POMED).  

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