Turkey Votes YES, Gives President Erdogan Sweeping New Powers in Knife-Edge Referendum

The 'Yes' vote means Erdogan could remain in office until 2029. Is Turkey on the road to autocracy?


On April 16, over 55 million Turkish citizens voted to introduce 18 constitutional amendments to replace the current system of parliamentary democracy with a powerful executive presidency. The momentous constitutional referendum will dramatically alter the country’s political landscape and give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sweeping new powers.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim called the ‘Yes’ vote “a new page in our country’s democracy”:

“With this vote today, Turkish democracy has become stronger and more mature. This is now showing to the whole world what a good democracy we have. There are no losers, Turkey has won as a country we are all winners. We have to be united, we have to be stronger.”

The new system would scrap the post of prime minister and grant wide-ranging executive powers to the president. Since the state bureaucracy would be put under his control, the president would have powers to appoint cabinet ministers, assign vice-presidents, pass diktats, choose half the members in the country’s highest judicial body, dissolve parliament, issue state of emergencies, and call new elections.

Parliament would still be regarded as the legislature, but the president would be able to bypass parliament completely and introduce legislation by issuing decrees with the force of law. The president would be free to appoint cabinet ministers from outside parliament without any vetting processes or by being accountable to the public.

Under the proposed changes that would come into effect with the next general elections, Erdogan’s grip on power would be considerably tightened (he became the Turkish president in 2014 after serving as prime minister for more than a decade) and he could hold office until 2029 (if he wins the 2019 and 2024 elections). However, the new system sets a limit of two five-year terms for the president.

Erdogan claims the proposed ‘Turkish style’ presidential system will banish weak governments (in its 94 years as a republic, Turkey has had 65 governments), stabilize the country dealing with the resurgence of a 30-year conflict with Kurdistan Workers Party ‘militants’, kick-start a lethargic economy, and bring prosperity to the country.

But opponents fear the amendments will give Erdogan unwarranted power, stifle opposition, make the judiciary and the parliament powerless, asphyxiate free speech and press freedom, and hasten the country’s drift towards constitutional authoritarianism.

The opposition has complained about an unfair campaign process. It is alleged that ‘No’ supporters faced threats, arbitrary detentions, and violent scuffles at their events. The referendum, it is claimed, took place under the state of emergency (after a failed coup attempt in July 2016) wherein fundamental freedoms were curtailed and thousands of citizens were detained or dismissed including civil servants, judges, journalists and opposition party members.

A study of 168.5 hours of campaign coverage on 17 national television channels at the start of March found that ‘Yes’ supporters got 90% of the airtime. The route from Sabiha Gokcen airport, outside Istanbul, had more than a dozen building-sized banners with an image of Erdogan or Yildirim extolling a Yes vote; giant ‘No’ banners were nowhere to be seen.

The deputy chairman of Turkey’s main opposition party claimed “illegal acts” were being carried out in favor of the government during the vote. Hours before polls closed, the Supreme Electoral Board said it would count ballots and envelopes that had not been stamped by its officials as valid unless they could be proved fraudulent.

While Turkey’s two main opposition parties are set to challenge the referendum result and demand a recount of up to 60% of votes, the ‘Yes’ supporters are jubilant. Ogu Zhan, an AKP voter who was at the party headquarters in Ankara, told The Guardian:

“Erdogan’s victory in the referendum is a signal of Turkey’s role in the region as a defender of the oppressed in the Middle East, a common refrain for party supporters. When Turkey wins the whole world wins because we will be the voice of the oppressed around the world.”

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