The recent constitutional referendum in Turkey does not seem important enough for most Americans to notice, but it will be big for the future of Europe and the Middle East. The referendum, which passed at approximately 51 to 48 percent, redraws much of the power in Turkey’s government. The reason it is important is that whether Turkey helps the rest of the west defeat ISIS and becomes a good, upstanding country is very much dependent on Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
In general, the constitutional referendum redefines Turkey’s government from a parliamentary system with a weak president (as compared to the United States system) to a presidential system with an executive with (presumably) more power than the president of the United States.
Specifically, the Turkish constitutional change will remove the office of Turkey’s prime minister and grant executive powers to its president. It creates new offices of vice presidents and transfers control over the cabinet to the president. Most of these changes are moving the country closer to a United States-like structure.
The concern from the opposition to the referendum is that some of the changes reduce the checks and balances previously set forth against Turkey’s president. In particular, the change to allow the president to be the head of a party (which decides who will run for specific governmental positions), in combination with Turkey’s simultaneous elections, could mean that the president can now hypothetically control who from his or her party is elected, thus making the president a de-facto authority over the parliament. Think of it this way: With the president in control of the parliament, he or she could limit additions to the government to include only the individuals who comply with his or her own agenda.
Fortunately, there is an added provision for judicial review of presidential actions. How much this judicial review will do, however, is presently unclear; after all, another change to the constitution gives the president the power to appoint Turkey’s judiciary. Regardless of whether one deems the concerns in the preceding paragraph as legitimate, the current fears Turkmen have over President Erdoğan’s corrupt government are objectively very real.
President Erdoğan is from the Turkish Justice and Development Party, which is more religiously-oriented (Islamist) than other parties. Turkey established itself as a secular state under its modern constitution, which even temporarily gave the military the power to enforce that secularism.
In the immediate response to the 2016 failed military coup d’état (when various parts of the Turkish military began defying orders and attempting to seize key Turkish cities in a failed attempt to overthrow the government and President Erdoğan), some people believed that the Turkish military was, by the coup, trying to further assert its secularism.
The exact reason for the coup d’état is still disputed; President Erdoğan’s official stance remains that the coup was started by the Gulenists, a movement named after Fethullah Gulen, a former imam and former ally of President Erdoğan. Gulen was living in the United States in Pennsylvania at the time of the coup, and he vehemently denounced it.
There even exist accusations that President Erdoğan organized the coup himself in order to gain more power, as immediately after the attempt, Erdoğan called a state of emergency. Importantly, in a Turkish state of emergency, the president inherits the authority to make arrests. Over the course of the several months since the coup and declared the state of emergency, tens of thousands of Turkmen have been arrested (most, but not all, were affiliated with the military or were politicians who were either involved or believed to be involved in the coup attempt). Furthermore, Amnesty International claimed that the government of Turkey was torturing prisoners and denying them adequate access to food and water.
In addition to all of the people arrested as a result of the coup, The Guardian reports that the Turkish government shut down three news outlets, 16 TV stations, 23 radio stations, 45 newspapers, 15 magazines, and 29 publishers. Taking drastic action against the press is concerning in an apparently democratic society where the freedom of the press is established, and the preceding statistics suggest that President Erdoğan intends to silence as much of the press as he can. This year was not the only time that President Erdoğan has arrested journalists, as American media have boomed with countless reports of media contributors’ arrests in Turkey.
Overall, Turkey has a higher number of journalists in prison than any other country: The Committee to Protect Journalists put Turkey’s number of journalists currently in prison for attempting to expose corruption at 81. The country with the next-highest number, with 38 journalists currently imprisoned for their careers, is China, which is typically seen as the most restrictive country against media efforts. In other words, during Turkey’s state of emergency, President Erdoğan has imprisoned nearly twice as many journalists as the country that is most associated with doing so.
Ultimately, the Turkish coup d’état attempt of 2016 and the subsequent Turkish constitutional referendum draw questions about President Erdoğan’s goals. If Erdoğan sticks to maintaining moderate secularism for his country, he could be very valuable to the West, as he is currently fighting against ISIS. However, if the public’s fears that Erdoğan intends to move his country closer to a theocratic state are true, he could end up becoming another problem for the West.