Turkey's Referendum Could Create 'One-Man Rule,' Threaten EU Ties
RFE/RL April 15, 2017
Turkish voters are going to the polls on April 16 for a referendum that will decide whether the country changes its constitution to create a presidential system of government – a move that would give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sweeping new powers and allow him to stay in office for up to 10 more years.
The future of already strained relations between the European Union and Turkey also are at stake with analysts predicting that a victory for Erdogan could lead to an outright break in relations between Ankara and Brussels.
The 18 constitutional amendments being voted upon in a simple "yes" or "no" vote also would weaken Turkey's parliament, eliminate the post of prime minister, and give the president more control over the judiciary.
A simple majority of votes is needed for the referendum to pass.
Opinion polls published just days ahead of the vote suggested a narrow majority of Turks would vote in favor of the amendments – which would lead to the biggest change in Turkey's system of governance since the modern republic was founded in 1923.
Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have argued that an ongoing insurgency by Kurdish separatists, an attempted military coup last July, repeated terrorist attacks in the country, and the influx of more than 2 million refugees fleeing the war in neighboring Syria have created the need for a strong presidency that can streamline its decisions and better steer the country through its challenges.
Erdogan made a last-minute appeal for support on the eve of the referndum, telling an April 15 rally in Istanbul that a "Yes" vote would "finish the work we initiated on July 15th" -- a referrence to the failed coup attempt.
The leadership of the opposition National Movement Party (MHP) also has called for a "yes" vote after reaching an undisclosed deal with the ruling AKP.
However, five lawmakers in the MHP have campaigned against the proposed amendments and polls have shown that as many as two-thirds of the party's support base were opposed to the measures.
Turkey's second largest party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), has campaigned against the amendments, which would take effect in 2019 if approved.
CHP lawmaker Silina Dogan has charged that the authoritarian nature of the amendments would bring an end to Turkey's hopes of ever joining the European Union.
A pro-Kurdish opposition group, the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) also has campaigned against the proposed amendments, saying they are undemocratic and violate the principle of judicial independence.
Critics in Turkey have gone as far as to say the new system of government would be a kind of "elected dictatorship" without any separation of powers, leaving the parliament without legislative authority and unable to hold the president accountable for misdeeds.
Western critics also have said the amendments would concentrate too much power in the hands of the president.
Human Rights Watch has said the proposals pose a huge threat to human rights, the rule of law, and Turkey's democratic future because, if passed, they would "concentrate unchecked power" in Erdogan's hands.
The Council of Europe has said it is deeply concerned about whether the amendments would guarantee the separation of powers in Turkey, proper checks and balances between the different branches of government, or the independence of the judiciary – adding that all are a "prerequisite for democratic societies."
European Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks issued a report on April 12 expressing "grave concern" that the constitutional revisions would reduce the autonomy of Turkey's already week judiciary.
Muiznieks said the proposed amendments also do not address "serious shortcomings" in Turkey's constitution on human rights and freedom of expression.
Earlier in April, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during a visit to Ankara that the proposed amendments would amount to a "profound political transformation."
Merkel also urged that "everything should be done to ensure that separation of powers and plurality of opinion are guaranteed in Turkey."
The campaign ahead of the April 16 vote also has been marred by controversy.
The OSCE's election monitoring group, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, noted on April 7 that the campaign and vote itself are taking place under a declared state of emergency following the failed coup attempt of July 2016.
The OSCE monitors also noted that fundamental freedoms have been curtailed under that state of emergency with thousands of citizens detained or dismissed from their jobs – including civil servants, judges, journalists, and opposition party members.
Opponents of the amendments allege they have faced state suppression while supporters of the "yes" campaign have been able to use state media, facilities, and funds to organize campaign events.
Attempts by Erdogan and his allies to stage campaign rallies targeted Turkish voters who live in the EU faced restrictions or cancellations in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Switzerland – leading to diplomatic disputes with Ankara.
On April 13, Erdogan described Europe as a "rotting continent" that was "no longer a center of democracy, human rights, and liberty but of repression, violence, and Nazism."
Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Ankara who is now an analyst with Carnegie Europe, says Erdogan's Nazi jibes have outraged EU leaders to the point that he may have "burned his bridges" with Brussels "when it comes to personal relations."
Pierini told RFE/RL that if the constitutional amendments are approved by Turkish voters, a complete break in relations between Ankara and Brussels would seem inevitable.
"We will have a system that has no equivalent in the Western world," Pierini said. "It is more power concentrated in one man than anywhere" in the West, "a hyper-presidential system without much checks and balances. This will be really the one-man rule system and clearly in contradiction with EU norms."
Other European experts say the optimistic scenario in terms of relations between Turkey and Brussels is that the rejection of the amendments by voters, or a narrow victory for the "yes" vote, might lead Erdogan to temper his combative attitude toward the EU and try to improve relations.
With reporting by RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz in Prague, Reuters, and AFP
Copyright (c) 2017. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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