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.

Fore­gone con­clu­sion

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.

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