Turkey free­doms un­bound

Pres­i­dent de­clares his pro­pos­als have passed with just over 51% of votes in favour while op­po­si­tion par­ties say they’ll chal­lenge re­sults

The New Age (Gauteng) - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - Al­paslan Oz­er­dem is chair in peace build­ing and co-di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for Trust, Peace and So­cial Re­la­tions at Coven­try Univer­sity. Ba­har Baser is a re­search fel­low at Coven­try Univer­sity

AF­TER a long and con­tentious ref­er­en­dum cam­paign, Turkey has voted to en­dorse a pack­age of con­sti­tu­tional changes that will turn the coun­try’s long-es­tab­lished par­lia­men­tary sys­tem into a pres­i­den­tial one.

Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Erdogan de­clared that his pro­pos­als had passed, with just over 51% of votes in favour.

While op­po­si­tion par­ties have said they’ll chal­lenge the re­sult, its sig­nif­i­cance of this re­sult should not be un­der­es­ti­mated.

This is a wa­ter­shed mo­ment in Turk­ish his­tory and it will fun­da­men­tally change the repub­li­can sys­tem es­tab­lished by Mustafa Ke­mal Ataturk in 1923.

Many in Turkey and be­yond view these con­sti­tu­tional changes as the build­ing blocks of an au­thor­i­tar­ian sys­tem.

Un­til now a largely cer­e­mo­nial role, the pres­i­dency will be­come an ex­ec­u­tive of­fice.

The Turk­ish pres­i­dent will now have far greater dis­cre­tion to ap­point and re­move min­is­ters, judges and other gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials; they will also be able to rep­re­sent a po­lit­i­cal party, rather than stay­ing in­de­pen­dent from pol­i­tics as head of state.

They will be able to dis­solve Par­lia­ment eas­ily and will en­joy power over all as­pects of Turk­ish pol­i­tics and so­ci­ety.

This will dra­mat­i­cally erode badly needed checks and bal­ances that have al­ready been slowly chipped away. While the coun­try’s var­i­ous op­po­si­tion par­ties con­front a very un­cer­tain fu­ture, Erdogan will be able to strengthen his power base by ap­point­ing a new gov­ern­ment, in­clud­ing deputy pres­i­dents and se­nior mem­bers of the state bu­reau­cracy.

To un­der­stand how Turkey got here and think about what comes next, it pays to re­mem­ber the con­di­tions un­der which the vote was taken.

Turk­ish vot­ers made this cru­cial de­ci­sion un­der a state of emer­gency that’s been in place since the failed coup at­tempt of July 2016. Ever since, many Turks have seen their ba­sic hu­man rights vi­o­lated, with op­po­si­tion groups – in­clud­ing aca­demics, jour­nal­ists, pub­lic fig­ures and politi­cians – var­i­ously dis­missed, si­lenced or ar­rested.

One of the strong­est op­po­si­tion par­ties, the pro-Kur­dish Peo­ple’s Demo­cratic Party (HDP) has seen its elected mem­bers of Par­lia­ment and may­ors in south­east­ern Turkey ar­rested and put in jail. Since the coup at­tempt, many civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions and me­dia out­lets have been banned and closed, deny­ing the No cam­paign cru­cial ac­cess to na­tion­wide au­di­ences.

This is the at­mos­phere in which the vote was con­ducted – and by al­most any im­por­tant mea­sure, it was far from a level play­ing field.

The Yes cam­paign was sup­ported by the rul­ing party and Erdogan, whereas the No cam­paign was sup­ported by the HDP, the Repub­li­can Peo­ple’s Party, and a rag­tag group of politi­cians from the right-wing Na­tion­al­ist Move­ment Party.

These groups were pre­vented from or­gan­is­ing ral­lies in var­i­ous parts of the coun­try and were smeared as traitors and ter­ror­ists by the rul­ing party and pres­i­dent – who was legally meant to stay neu­tral dur­ing the cam­paign.

As jour­nal­ist Pa­trick Cock­burn has de­scribed, the cam­paign’s un­fair­ness was plain to see in the air­time the dif­fer­ent par­ties en­joyed on the state tele­vi­sion. As of March 30, Erdogan and his rul­ing AKP re­ceived 4 113 min­utes of air­time; the CHP, which re­ceived 25% of the vote in the last elec­tion, got just 216 min­utes. The HDP, which won more than 10% of the vote at the last na­tional elec­tions, got just one minute. If it hadn’t been for so­cial me­dia, the No cam­paign might have had no voice at all.

More de­press­ing still are re­ports of out­right abuse.

In an in­terim re­port from its ref­er­en­dum ob­ser­va­tion mis­sion, the OSCE’s Of­fice for Demo­cratic In­sti­tu­tions and Hu­man Rights de­scribed the cam­paign as far from fair or free, point­ing not just to pro-Yes me­dia bias but to in­ci­dents of po­lice ha­rass­ment and even vi­o­lence against No cam­paign­ers.

The ref­er­en­dum re­sult lays bare Turkey’s se­ri­ous prob­lems.

This is a polity po­larised and a so­ci­ety deeply di­vided. Hav­ing robbed the pres­i­dency of any ve­neer of neu­tral­ity, Erdogan can make no claim to be a pres­i­dent for all Turks – but from now on, he won’t even need to pre­tend to be.

The core in­sti­tu­tions of Turkey’s on­ce­grow­ing democ­racy are set to be dis­man­tled. Civil so­ci­ety struc­tures, free­dom of speech and as­sem­bly, and the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers are all in mor­tal jeop­ardy. In their place will arise a new style of gov­ern­ment that could be called Pu­tin­is­tic, al­beit with a dis­tinctly Ot­toman flavour.

Erdogan will con­tinue to flaunt his sta­tus as a demo­crat­i­cally elected pres­i­dent, the gov­ern­ing in the name of the New Turkey he claims to be build­ing – and he will now have a free hand to be as un­demo­cratic as he likes.


FREE­DOM OF SPEECH: A woman dressed as Lady Jus­tice takes part in a demon­stra­tion in Ger­many on Wed­nes­day against al­leged elec­toral fraud dur­ing the re­cent ref­er­en­dum in Turkey.

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