The autocrat’s new clothes


The outcome of the April 16 referendum in Turkey ushers in one of the most, if not the most, radical transformation of the country since the proclamation of the republic in 1923. The electoral approval of a constitutional amendment package that bestows sweeping new powers to the office of the president is only ostensibly about the transitioning of Turkey’s parliamentary system into an ‘executive presidency’. It crucially constitutes the codification of the authoritarian nativism of the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, into the constitution.

The new power architecture that is introduced by the victory of the “Yes” vote is one that does away with a sufficient and effective system of checks and balances, creating a democratically-elected president in the mould of an unfettered autocrat. The position of Prime Minister is eliminated, and the president is handed the power to rule by decree, only nominally controlled by the legislature or the judiciary. The new constitution gives him the right to appoint his cabinet and all senior bureaucrats without the requirement of parliamentary approval. By virtue of its provisions, it also creates the opportunity for the Turkish president to extend his reign for two additional five-year terms until 2029.

For years an elusive political prize for Mr Erdoğan, securing this outcome required nothing short of a no-holds-barred effort which confirmed all the pathologies of Turkey’s slide into authoritarianism under his stewardship. With the entire state apparatus and all state resources on his side, the “Yes” camp’s omnipresence both in media coverage and on the streets was only mirrored by the level to which the “No” camp was muffled, harassed, and repressed during the campaign. People were reportedly detained even for circulating flyers in favour of “No”, while the Turkish president, whose daily rallies were broadcast live across almost all national media, routinely labelled any critical voices as “terrorists”, “traitors” and “enemies of the state”. Drawing from a time-tested playbook whereby fear is wielded for election purposes, Mr Erdoğan raised the spectre even more by manufacturing a series of crises beyond his country’s borders. He then skilfully played a game of vitriolic rhetorical ping-pong with a number of European governments, managing to energise some of the Turkish diaspora while activating the nationalist reflexes of his audience domestically.

The more than suboptimal conditions preceding the referendum were confirmed by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which, in its preliminary findings report, diplomatically stated that “the 16 April constitutional referendum in Turkey was contested on an unlevel playing field, and the two sides in the campaign did not have equal opportunities”.

Yet as crowing political victories go, this felt particularly Pyrrhic. With the media landscape heavily skewed in the government’s favour, the visibility of the “No” campaign at nadir levels, a prevailing climate of fear caused by the continuing state of emergency, and even the leadership of one of main pro-“No” parties languishing in jail, it was an extremely close result.

Given that this became a contest not only about the character of the constitution, but about the current Turkish president’s character as well, the razor-thin majority for “Yes” exposed the increasing electoral vulnerabilities of Mr Erdoğan and the cracks in the nationalist-conservative arc of forces that have been reliably behind him since his advent to power. The Turkish president lost support in most urban centres, and the most illustrative indicator of this is that the “No” camp prevailed in Turkey’s 3 largest cities, Istanbul (where Mr Erdoğan began his political career), Ankara and Izmir, the first two reliable bastions of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2002.

Even under these heavily unfavourable conditions, the resilience of the “No” camp shows that democracy still has a pulse in the country, as also exhibited in the immediate aftermath of the failed coup attempt. Nonetheless, the result also reflects how sharply divided the country is. The stark choice Turkish voters faced and the divisive rhetoric that has been employed for years by the government have led the country to a status quo of extreme polarisation.

This means that the broad societal consensus needed to legitimise the drastic regime change introduced by the referendum is simply not there. And perhaps more crucially, the extremely divisive and personal character of the vote does not lend itself to scenarios that this feeling will easily subside. The narrow win of the “Yes”, an outcome that is far from the emphatic result the Turkish president had hope for, will also likely embolden his appetite for polarisation. Mr Erdoğan is no stranger to narrowly clinched wins and he will move to guarantee that his long-coveted reforms are enacted swiftly, even if this means upending the entire political structure and culture of the country.

For the European Union, the exercise of navigating through the murky waters of a post-referendum Turkey will certainly become more complicated than before. With the accession talks effectively moribund, the cooperation with the country is expected to be guided by more narrowly defined interests, in particular in the security and defence sectors, instead of a semblance of common values.

With so much at stake, however, it is clear that European democratic standards should be the primary lens through which Turkey’s actions are seen and weighed upon. Any quid pro quo gains from a transactional rapprochement between the sides – as in the case of the migration deal – should not undermine the steadfastness of the European Union in defending its own organising principles: full respect of democracy, the rule of law, fundamental freedoms, pluralism, and human rights. Turkey is much bigger than its president, and in this sense, keeping constant channels of dialogue open with those parts of its society who aspire to a European-style democratic system and who want to see their country to continue on a liberal, secular path, should be seen as a policy priority.

In Turkey’s troubled politics, the transition from a de facto one-man rule to a de jure one could not be more consequential. With the political deck to be reshuffled in a number of fundamental ways for the country and its citizens, the Turkish president has followed the well-trodden illiberal path of making power more personal that has worked so ‘well’ for the ranks of other authoritarian leaders, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, or Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s populist prime minister. The April 16 referendum does not mark the beginning of this process; it only serves as the culmination of it. For the packaging might have changed, but Turkey’s steady decline towards consolidated authoritarianism, which has been increasingly evident to the naked eye for years, spells great trouble for the future.

Photo: thomas koch /

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