Turkey: Opportunity Or Repression?

On the 16th of April 2017, the people of Turkey voted by a very small margin to approve a new draft constitution to make their country a presidential republic. Only 51.3% supported the move while 48.75% including those from Istanbul, Ankara, Antalya and the Kurdish people living in Southeast Turkey opposed it. Under the new constitution, the President doubles as Head of State and Head of the Executive branch and can appoint ministers and vice-presidents without them having to be Members of Parliament. Additionally, the President will be able to appoint ambassadors, initiate decrees and states of emergency diminishing the power of Parliament and making ministers accountable. Although previously impartial in a political context, the new constitution will allow the President to belong to a political party and advance its causes. Disciplinary action of the judiciary will now be carried out by politicians removing any functioning independence. The people will vote every five years for a President with the same person only allowed two full terms or a ten-year tenure. Many Turkish people thought the previous charter was old fashioned as it was adopted by military personnel after a military coup nearly forty years ago.  Dissent arose on what the new constitution would be. The new system was sold to voters by the Justice and Development Party aided by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as highly democratic with fewer conflicts and administrative issues ensuring more forward progress. A strong, centralized government would then be able to focus on Turkey’s stagnating economy, the activity of Kurdish insurgents and the influx of Syrian refugees all challenging problems for the Turkish people.

International responses have been very subdued although acknowledgement of President Erdogan and his former party’s victory has been noted by the United States of America. Germany’s Chancellor has noted the division in Turkish society and has suggested conversing with all political parties as a wise action. France has focused on President Erdogan’s suggestion to reintroduce the death penalty and commented this was against the values of the European Union. The latter organisation has yet to make any comment as it may not want to upset the Turkey- European Union migration settlement which keeps Syrian refugees from streaming into Europe.

New reforms give the Presidential role considerable power and at this stage, only vague information is available to explain how and to what depth accountability will be put in place. Under the previous system, government was divided into three distinct arms, the executive, legislative and judicial sections, limiting power so no one area could become too powerful. Professor Howard Eissenstat, an expert on Turkey at the Project on Middle East Democracy, says of the new system “It represents a remarkable aggrandizement of Erdogan’s power….. and possibly a death blow to vital checks and balances in the country.” For some like Doctor Kasim Han, a political scientist at Kadir Has University, the biggest issue is the two thousand laws that will now require amendment. Hurrying to get people’s approval to change the constitution is no excuse for failing to fully explain the rationale and need to update so many laws. Problems exist in Turkey as it is a weak democracy with numerous political groups led by a President who fuels social crises to gain further power and uses his autocratic leadership style to create fear.  There is little hope democratic principles will be followed under such conditions.

Another area of contention is the context of fear in which the referendum occurred. The state of emergency declared by President Erdogan after the failed 2016 coup had not been lifted. According to Euronews, 46,875 people have been arrested and 4,070 judges and prosecutors fired, 7,316 academics fired and 162 journalists arrested in the aftermath of this coup. Campaigners with another viewpoint to those supporting the referendum were frequently declined permission to hold events or meetings under the guise of safety. Remarks were made by President Erdogan subtly linking those opposed to the referendum with terrorist groups which helped to alienate opposition groups from the voting public. People displaced by fighting who had no permanent address were not entitled to vote. The majority of these people were Kurds who were not supportive of the referendum. Election observers from overseas were also denied the opportunity to monitor the elections and were given no explanation. Allegations of voting manipulation have also been made. The seal of the polling station officer is required by law to be on each ballot-paper and envelope before they are distributed. Voting discrepancies, therefore, are reduced. The ruling Justice and Development Party decided after voting had concluded to count votes without seals. No explanation has been given for this decision. Opposition leader Kemal Kihicdaroglu has refused to concede this referendum as he believes the law must be adhered to when people vote.

The climate of fear President Erdogan and his political party have developed over the last year will not serve a divided nation well. His success is built upon fear, conspiracy theories and hints of anti-government forces which he links to terrorism. Terrorist attacks, the failed 2016 coup and reduced security within Turkey’s borders have all contributed to the siege mentality portrayed by President Erdogan.  Removing or silencing dissenting voices is one way to reduce opposing voices and moves Turkey towards a closed society. Turkey‘s population is very divided at present and dialogue between all political groups in a meaningful manner is required to ensure all messages are heard and the needs of each group are articulated. Areas found to be common to all groups may emerge from such talks and provide the opportunity for all to work together and over time develop trust with each other. This would also create a more harmonious domestic climate. If President Erdogan wishes to unite all factions within Turkey to create stability he will need to change his adversarial style of leadership. Returning to former ways of respecting the rule of law and treating political opponents with respect may go some way to regaining investor confidence and increased business opportunities.

Freedom of speech is part of the broader view of tolerance and is a hallmark of democracy. President Erdogan frequently shuts down dissenting voices creating a culture of fear which does not assist developing a cohesive society from one which is polarized. According to Carnegie Europe, Turkey has the highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world. This suggests tolerance levels for expressing alternative viewpoints is not high in this country. A Presidential system works effectively where there is judicial independence and freedom to express other views. In today’s world, the web and social media are sources of information accessible to many. Censorship of digital media constrains those watching it and limits accessibility. Any government which carries out such action must provide criteria for doing so enabling the public to scrutinize its actions. Turkey appears to advocate for a pluralistic society however in practice it arrests journalists it deems have insulted the government which is a very subjective way of handling matters and represses open debate. What the Turkish government says and the actions it takes do not mould effectively together.

Will Turkey continue to model itself on Western standards or will it choose other standards? Will Turkey become a more democratic society as portrayed in the referendum campaigning?  Will its internal issues become resolved?  Time will tell. The international community will be watching with interest to see how effectively President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party deliver the narrowly approved constitutional changes.

Louisa Slack


The Organization for World Peace