EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

On April 16, the Turkish people voted in a constitutional referendum deciding whether to broaden the Presidential office’s influence at the expense of the parliament, further undermining the fragile Turkish parliamentary democracy and pushing it further towards authoritarianism. Erdogan’s razor-thin victory of (51,3%), allowed for the realization of his long-time effort to redefine his position as president. The result, however, has been met with stark critique from international election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), who report that it falls short of international standards. Does this vote signal the end of Turkish democracy?

The current Turkish government fails to meet the criteria of the four basic elements of a democratic regime. Likewise, this was neither the case during the pre-accession negotiations between Turkey and the EU, which started in June 2006. The longest application process ever faced by a candidate country saw the EU allocating sound financial aids to the Turkish government in order to enhance democracy and improve public administration. Despite little occasional progress, however, the outcome has overall not proven desirable.

 

Since 1923, Turkey has been reluctant in recognizing full rights of different minorities. The thorniest issue in this context concerns the recognition of the Kurdish minority, which witnessed severe human rights abuses and judicial prejudice due to intense ‘Turkification’ campaigns. The situation worsened after the failed coup in July 2016. Under the state of emergency introduced only 5 days later, fundamental freedoms, essential to a genuine democratic regime, were systematically curtailed.

Some 140,000 people have been arrested, dismissed or suspended. The majority hang in a judicial limbo, facing a legal nightmare including, but not limited to, farcical charge sheets and maltreatment without any formal indictments. In the midst of political chaos, curtailing of fundamental media freedoms by the Turkish government, who already owns 90 percent of the Turkish media, has essentially abolished the concept of plurality, ensuring only one strong voice. Emboldened by the failed coup, the government has intensified its already strict scrutiny of social media sites in an effort to curb any criticism of the government.

 

The assumption of media bias is reflected both in the content of the recent referendum and in the way it was carried out. As pointed out by Tana de Zulueta, head of the international observation mission, “the referendum took place in a political environment in which fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed under the state of emergency, and the two sides did not have equal opportunities to make their case to the voters.” According to opposition officials, “the oppressive media environment has limited the debate around the referendum and masked many problems in the country, including a worsening economic crisis, high youth unemployment, spiralling tensions with the PKK, terrorism and foreign policy woes.”

 

The referendum’s result opens the door to a new model of governance represented by an obedient society supporting conservative values, spearheaded by an authoritarian “strong-man” and government. This new system clearly gives the president too much power, thereby dismantling the separation of power fundamental to a democracy and taking legislative authority away from the Parliament.

Considering that Erdogan will have the possibility to stay in office until 2029, or even longer, due to a loophole included in the constitutional amendments, there is a chance for Turkey to be regarded as the new caliphate of Sultan Erdogan.

 

For Erdogan, however, the result and the future is not necessarily all rosy; the referendum has shed light on how fragmented the Turkish political landscape is. Its outcome was a shock for many political parties, including Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) who expected a much stronger mandate for Erdogan. Other parties such as the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) came out of the referendum with broken bones. Its electorate split among Devlet Bahçeli’s supporters, favouring a ‘Yes’ vote, and those of Meral Akşener’s, supporting the ‘No’. Aside from political groups, Erdogan has received opposition from millions of Turks who openly oppose the referendum. He lost great cities, such as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, the largest contributors to the Turkish economy. This result highlights the growing divide among urban population, arguably the largest benefactors of ‘modernity’, and rural population. Such a divide is visible in Europe as well, where current political developments seem to suggest an increasing propensity for empowering “strong-men” at the expense of democracy. It will be necessary to bridge this divide, not only in Turkey but in Europe as well, if we want to avoid the continuation of similar developments.

Patrick Zingerle

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