In the referendum held to bring about massive changes in executive and legislative mechanisms of Turkey on Sunday, President Erdogan clinched victory with a narrow margin. The referendum which calls for abrogation of the post of Prime Minister will mark the end of Parliamentary system of democracy in Turkey. The duties of Prime Minister will be subsumed under the title of President of the country. Turkey which is considered as the bridge between Europe and Asia has been the talking point in the recent past for dubious regions. Be it marked abrasions in the bilateral ties with the US, refusal to allow NATO troops to use its airbase, shot down of Russian fighter plane for alleged violation of airspace, unceremonious assassination of Russian envoy in Ankara, pulling out troops from Syria, foiling coup bid and purging of huge chunk of officials from plum posts in administration, the country is going through tumultuous phases. These colossal changes besides altering the geopolitical equations in the Middle East, had invariably demonstrated Turkey’s progression from a parliamentary form of democracy to an authoritarian regime. The archaic shift in Turkey is undeniably steered by the leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey, unlike the Ottoman Empire was carved on modern lines by the founder Mustafa Kemal, also called Ataturk. Inspired by the tenets of Democracy he diligently transformed the nation ruled by Sultan into a modern state. He exquisitely assigned the powers of administration to legislature, constituting the elected representatives and executive branches. This unique framework has set apart Turkey from other Asian countries in the region. The cosmopolitan approach in governance emulating Western values kept Turkey in a good stead from its inception in 1921 until the current referendum. This referendum marks the annihilation of Ataturk’s vision for modern state of Turkey. Secularism and Democracy, the main pillars of Turkey are now teetering under the burden of Islamists who steadily strangulated all aspects of governance since 2001.
The early seeds of antipathy towards the two guiding principles of modern day Turkey were planted as early as 1960’s by Necmettin Erbakan. This movement gradually caught the attention of Islamists who strived hard to veneer Turkey from the West and led to genesis of Erdogan’s AKP party. Despite being hard core Islamist at heart, Erdogan strived to obtain EU membership. But his attempts never fructified. The prospects of getting into EU have deteriorated further, owing to allegations of human rights violations, crackdown on press, refugee crisis, anti-pathy towards the West. Though Erdogan initially feigned to be a modernist, being a traditional Islamist to the core, attempted to make course corrections to have unrestrained power. Of late, he began courting Russia, was least interested in NATO grouping and was keen on allying with Gulf monarchies.
Erdogan rose to higher echelons of powers in 2003 and served as Prime Minister till 2014. Slogging Turkish economy received a new lease for life under Erdogan whose investor friendly economic reforms bought inflation under control. Turkey soon emerged as one of the fastest growing economies of the World. In 2011, he promised to draft a new constitution to replace military constitution drafted after 1980 coup. Ahead of 2013 elections when Erdogan made a bid for presidency, he deliberately blocked the Inter Parliamentary Committee constituted to draft new constitution. While Erdogan’s economic reforms made him popular among Turkish middle class, his overpowering authoritarian approach had been a cause of concern. He aspired for absolute power devoid of all checks and balances. He blocked the new constitution which bestowed rights to Kurds, which could have potentially brought an end to three-decade long conflict between Kurdish rebels and Turkish government.
Erdogan was elected as president in 2014. In his first public appearance as President, he announced to pursue more active role and firmly laid foundations for changing the Parliamentary system of democracy to an executive Presidential system. But Erdogan’s party failed to surpass the 367-threshold mark in subsequent two general elections to adopt constitutional reforms to bring about a change. Moreover, following government’s massive crackdown on Kurdish forces, the opposition party, People’s Democratic Party (HDP) perceived to be pro-Kurdish, refused to support Erdogan’s amendments in 2015.
In the meanwhile, in the purge after the failed coup attempt, Erdogan had smartly rounded-off all his opponents and jailed most of them. In January 2017, AKP managed to obtain the support of Nationalist Movement’s Party (MHP) to jointly pass a bill to reform Turkish Constitution setting the stage for a referendum on constitutional reforms in April. The reforms intend to dissipate the checks and balances on the functioning of the President conferring him with unbridled power. Exploiting people’s fear of political instability, Erdogan lured them to vote for constitutional reforms promising strong and stable government. Republic of Turkey in 94 years of existence had 65 governments. Coups and terrorism marred modern political history of Turkey. Erdogan even campaigned that a “No” to constitutional reforms essentially meant supporting terrorism. Enjoying the unstinted support of people who rallied behind him after a failed coup attempt Erdogan was confident of a victory from the beginning. Overpowered by hubris he picked up tiffs with Dutch and German governments. He even made outlandish comments against Germany as he campaigned in Europe to woo Turkish diaspora. Being in power, he used all the resources at his behest to promote himself.
Many observers allege that referendum wasn’t free and fair. A sizeable majority of the bureaucrats and officials in administration already lodged in jails, opposition voices are effectively muzzled. Just bare minimum eligible voters voted on Sunday. There was significant polarization in voting patterns with three major cities of Turkey-Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir voting for a NO while the country side went for an YES. Opposition demanded review of the results and alleged that the decision of allowing unstamped ballots on the last day reversed the outcome of the referendum. Though European governments initially supported the arguments of opposition, they bowed down when Erdogan agreed to restore death penalty. This move will decimate Turkey’s chances of getting into EU.
As per the new constitutional reforms, President would be the modern-day Sultan with limited term. He will have sweeping powers to make all appointments including the judges, cabinet declare state of emergency, dissolve parliament and pass new laws through decrees. The Parliament can no longer scrutinize actions of President. New term limits will be set. If Erdogan wins elections in 2019, he will continue as President till 2029 unopposed.
Many international organizations and European governments expressed serious concerns about Turkey’s future and its commitment to democratic principles. The referendum had undoubtedly emboldened Erdogan who will crush the residual opposition with iron hand. In 1963 Turkey was an associate member of European Economic Community, forerunner of EU. In 1995, Turkey signed Customs Union agreement with EU. After four years, it was considered for full membership of EU. But both parties failed to come to common terms later. With his inimical attitude, Erdogan had already ruffled feathers with Europe and now Turkey’s chances of getting into EU are almost zero. Turkey’s relations with US are already diving South over US’s support to Kurdish rebels. But NATO can hardly afford to disown Turkey since it is strategically important ally. Turkey with 620,500 armed personnel has the second largest armed forces in NATO after the US. More so, with situation in Syria deteriorating further US had to keep Turkey on board. Erdogan will now strengthen its defence and security cooperation with Russia. Turkey indeed collaborated with Russia and Iran to bring the Syria rebels and government officials for peace talks in January at Astana. Turkey might now openly consolidate ties with Russia. With an authoritarian President at the helm of affairs, observers allude that Turkey will be ushered into an era devoid of Kemalist ideas..