Ottoman Nostalgia: Turkish Referendum Poses Threat To Migrant Deal

Following an attempted military coup against the administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016, the Turkish leader is attempting to avoid future threats to his power by proposing changes that would transform the country’s parliamentary government to an executive presidency. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a proposed change; rather, the issue is timing and context. The unsuccessful coup in July was a result of Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic rule, which turned many Turks against him. Such a revision to the Turkish constitution, which will go to a national referendum after being approved by parliament, would make it much easier for Erdogan to centralize absolute power, transforming Turkey from a democracy into a dictatorship.

The proposed constitution, though sharing some similarities, is different from a traditional democratic presidency. It would allow the president to exercise direct control over which candidates his party runs for office, the ability to hand-pick parliamentarians who would be unlikely to run a check over him, along with a new judicial system that is dependent on the executive branch ultimately removing judicial impartiality. Most importantly, under the proposed executive presidency, Erdogan’s two-term limit would be reset which would allow him to stay in power until 2029 if he wins the 2019 election. By then he would have been running Turkey for 26 years.


The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), has negatively received these constitutional amendments. CHP’s deputy leader has claimed that these proposals would essentially create a Sultanate, a system that hasn’t been used since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Whatever Erdogan’s intention might be in replicating such a model, his portrayal of himself as leader of the Sunni world and commitment to authoritarian rule does give the impression that he has deluded himself to the role of neo-sultan. His henchmen are also supportive of this extremely nationalist sentiment, as seen by his Foreign Minister’s disturbing comments on Thursday. Claiming that holy wars will soon begin in Europe, the minister made infuriated statements after his rally in Rotterdam was canceled on Saturday and Dutch authorities restricted his plane from landing.

Allies of the Turkish president are targeting the over one million Turkish voters living in Europe who are eligible to vote on the referendum on April 16th. However, many were barred from rallying in several countries including Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark and the Netherlands. The President of Turkey and various ministers made some offensive and delusional claims after these restrictions, calling the Dutch and German governments “fascists” and “Nazis”, sparking protests across Europe and Turkey. These rally cancellations have been the result of safety and administrative concerns, but are also linked to the fact that thousands of people were arrested in Turkey following the attempted coup in July. It is puzzling that the obviously fascist led Turkey, with over 200,000 people detained for the crime of defending their secular constitution, is allowed to accuse other countries of being fascist while also proposing that Erdogan be president for life. Turkey has been a candidate to join the European Union for several years, although membership negotiations have quite obviously made little progress.

In March of 2016, Turkey signed a migrant deal with the European Union, which promised visa-free travel for Turkish nationals to Europe and accelerated European Union membership talks, in exchange for its help in reducing the flow of migrants crossing to Europe. This deal significantly reduced the number of migrants reaching Greece by sea, and Turkey’s cooperation is crucial in managing migrants fleeing the Middle East and Africa, as the country has taken in the most immigrants so far. However, President Erdogan has told the European Union they can forget about this deal, as he believes the EU has broken its promise of granting visa-free travel to Turks. The European Union has maintained its critical stance that the referendum would allow for the concentration of sweeping power in the president’s hands. Only time will tell whether such a referendum will be approved by the Turkish parliament, and what implications it will have.

Faisal Al-Baghdadi