A referendum scheduled to take place in Turkey on April 16, 2017, is threatening to reconfigure the democratic structure of the nation, which would see the ending of a parliamentary system in favour of an executive presidency. Not only would this inhibit the ability of the Turkish government to keep the powers of the head of state in check, it would secure current President Erdogan and his AK party in power.
While the government maintains that an executive style government would ensure political stability, Turkey is a nation which enjoys religious and ethnic diversity and is split down both religious and ethnic lines with secular, religious, and nationalist citizens, as well as Turks, Kurds, Alevis, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. Embracing an executive government risks shutting out those voices, which would present the potential for continued instability.
Since the failed coup last year, President Erdogan and his government have initiated a crackdown on citizen freedoms, with the arrest of around 50,000 citizens and over 100,000 losing their jobs. In spite of this, only a small portion of these citizens was involved with the coup. The leaders and 10 members of the People’s Democratic Party, the third-largest political party in Turkey, remain in prison. While the government has a duty to keep its citizens safe, these powers are no longer being used to protect, instead they are being used to silence those who speak out against the government. If the referendum is successful, President Erdogan will be free to continue using these powers with minimal constraints.
Those who have spoken out about the referendum have already faced arrests and been victims of violent actions from Erdogan supporters. Officials of the main opposition party have reported that those voting ‘no’ have faced 143 attacks so far during the campaign. Additionally, those from the “no” campaign have been denied the use of meeting halls and their rallies have been banned. As the majority of media in the country is under state control, the government’s campaign for the changes has enjoyed five times more airtime than their opposition.
It is believed by those who have campaigned for a democratic and secular Turkey that a successful “no” vote will halt an increasingly totalitarian regime. Alternatively, a “yes” vote would push the nation towards an elected dictatorship, including (if Erdogan stays true to his promise) a resurgence of capital punishment, and the end to Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.
While national polling has the “yes” votes at a very narrow lead, the results remain within the margin of error, the sign of an extremely tight campaign, which could see Sunday’s vote going either way.