Referendum to determine extent of Erdogan’s powers
Turkish voters weigh radical changes
ISTANBUL | In a referendum watched closely across Europe and across the Atlantic, Turkish voters will decide on Sunday whether to remake the political fabric of their nation and grant far-reaching powers to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
If a majority of Turks vote “yes” in the referendum, Turkey’s government would radically change from parliamentary to presidential. The prime minister’s office would disappear, and the executive branch that Mr. Erdogan oversees — now nonpartisan and largely ceremonial — would absorb many of the powers of the legislature.
Mr. Erdogan could appoint government ministers and one-third of the nation’s judges and would have the power to declare national emergencies and dissolve parliament. He would be eligible to stand for elections for two five-year terms, potentially extending his grip on power until 2029.
Bordering Syria, Iran and Iraq, Turkey
occupies some of the most strategic political and geographic real estate in the world and is one of just two Muslimmajority NATO members. It has cultural and historic ties to a string of Central Asian states and is the home of Incirlik, one of the most valuable U.S. air bases in the world.
Mr. Erdogan’s backers believe a “yes” vote would improve the country’s security and stability in a time of deep dislocation, as Turkey faces regular terrorist attacks, a conflict against Kurdish insurgents, a massive refugee crisis and a brutal civil war in neighboring Syria.
“We need this for a strong Turkey,” said Burhan Berker, a middle-aged cafe worker in Istanbul. “It is good for the country to be in the hands of a strong man, for a strong Turkey.”
Polls show the “yes” vote is slightly ahead, but the result could be close.
Critics of Mr. Erdogan — who has dominated the political scene since his landslide election as prime minister in 2003 — contend that expanding the president’s powers will plunge Turkey into authoritarianism given the president’s recent abuses of his supposedly ceremonial position.
“This will become a permanent dictatorship in the hands of only one person,” said Rahmi Gultekin, a retired civil servant in Istanbul. “He will do whatever he wants.”
After turning back a brief attempted coup last summer, Mr. Erdogan cracked down on suspected coup plotters by purging civil society, the courts and the military. Some 100,000 journalists, academics, opposition politicians and others were stripped from positions of influence. The government accused many of having connections to Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric in exile in Pennsylvania who Mr. Erdogan claims orchestrated the coup. Roughly half of those purged are in prison.
The international community has condemned Mr. Erdogan’s tactics, while leaders of his former Justice and Development Party, which controls parliament, have defended the purge as necessary during a time of constant threats from terrorist organizations.
“The periods of coups shall be over,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said at an Ankara rally early this month.
Even as Turks debate the presidential question, analysts said in a sense that the result is a foregone conclusion.
A “yes” vote is merely a stamp of approval for what has become the status quo, said Ioannis Grigoriadis, an associate professor of political science at Bilkent University in Ankara and a visiting fellow with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.
“A ‘no’ vote won’t change anything in practice because in many ways the constitutional reform is already de facto implemented,” said Mr. Grigoriadis. “What’s being discussed is already effectively in operation.”
But a “no” vote would deliver a blow to Mr. Erdogan’s prestige and political legitimacy, said Ilter Turan, a professor of political science at Bilgi University in Istanbul.
“Obviously, the government will try to find ways to continue with what it wants to do,” said Mr. Turan. “But I think a ‘no’ vote may eventually serve as a brake. If this constitutional change fails, I think all actors may re-evaluate their positions. The president and his magic powers may come under challenge.”
Turkey has experienced economic prosperity in the 15 years that Mr. Erdogan has been in power, and its role in international affairs has grown significantly. That has provided the “yes” camp with an appealing campaign talking point.
“The economy will be stronger, growth will accelerate, there will be new jobs, we will cut the red tape, and the new system will eradicate terrorism,” Mr. Yildirim said in Ankara.
It has proved a powerful argument on the stump, Mr. Turan said.
“Many voters have essentially opted for the continuation of economic prosperity and benefits,” he said, adding that a “yes” vote doesn’t necessarily mean Turks are condoning authoritarianism.
But if Mr. Erdogan doesn’t make good on his promises of economic stability and domestic security, voters could turn against him, especially after having given him the powers he has sought for years.
“They may discover after the vote that the changes may have had political implications that they didn’t consider very much,” Mr. Turan said.
Other forces place constraints on Mr. Erdogan as well, he said. Turkey remains a NATO member and an ally in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State group. Meanwhile, Ankara has agreed to host refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, keeping them out of the European Union, in exchange for billions of dollars in aid.
“The additional effects of the referendum may not be as harsh as one may anticipate,” said Mr. Turan. “There is a significant need for cooperation between Turkey and the EU, and Turkey and the United States on other grounds.”
But Mr. Erdogan has inflamed those relations by making overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin and calling Germans “Nazis” for harboring Turks who he says are Kurdish separatists.
But that is unlikely to fracture the mutually beneficial relationship between Ankara and its traditional Western allies, even if voters opt for “yes” in the referendum, Mr. Grigoriadis said.
“Despite all this anti-Western, anti-Jew and anti-American rhetoric, the Turkish economy remains connected to the Western economy,” he said. “And the Turkish economy is becoming more fragile as a result of global and regional developments.”
POWER PLAY: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed supporters on Thursday before a contentious referendum on Sunday that could change the government from parliamentary to presidential.