This coming Sunday, Turkish citizens will partake in a national referendum, set in motion by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, over several constitutional amendments that would augment his powers as president.
At hand are a series of technical adjustments, primarily geared toward granting Erdogan the authority to declare a state of emergency and dissolve the Turkish parliament, as well as appoint the prime minister and cabinet. These changes would shift Turkey from a parliamentary system of government, similar to Israel and Europe, to a presidential system, similar to the United States, in which the president wields considerable power. We must keep in mind, however, that Turkey is not the United States and does not have the same tradition of democracy; nor does it have the same organized system of checks and balances to limit the president’s power.
By all indications, Erdogan has waited for this moment since first embarking on his political path. To realize his goal, he has worked to secure a majority in the Turkish parliament, to approve the proposed amendments before they are brought to a referendum. As a reminder, Turkey held two parliamentary elections last year — in June and November — because in the first round in June Erdogan had failed to attain the desired majority to do his bidding.
The general perception in the West is that Erdogan aspires to restore Turkey to the glory of the Ottoman Empire, when it controlled large swathes of the Middle East. Erdogan’s immediate goal, however, is to sever the country from the legacy of Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, who sought to make Turkey a secular Western country with incredibly deep ties to Europe.
In retrospect, the national referendum is a legitimate step in the overall initiative Erdogan has spearheaded, intended to solidify his power. More blatantly, however, he has methodically expunged his political enemies and detractors from the public sphere. To this end, Erdogan exploited the attempted military coup against him last summer to persecute his adversaries and critics, sending many of them to prison and dismissing many others from their posts under suspicion of supporting his overthrow.
In past election campaigns, Erdogan has employed anti-Israel rhetoric and used the Jewish state as a punching bag to scrounge more votes. This time, the countries are in the midst of normalizing diplomatic relations. Consequently, Erdogan has chosen to target Europe. The decision by several European governments to prohibit him and his ministers from attending rallies in support of the proposed constitutional amendments — which the Turkish government had organized across Europe for the millions of Turkish immigrants living there — sparked Erdogan’s wrath. The Europeans, unlike Russian President Vladimir Putin, don’t hit back very hard.
Other national referendums held in Turkey — insofar as referendums under a battered and menaced press can be trusted — have shown an equal balance between Erdogan’s supporters and detractors. It still comes as little surprise, however, that his most impressive victories have stemmed not just from the depth of the support for him, but also, mainly, from his weak and splintered opposition. In a bid to weaken his enemies even further, Erdogan jailed the leader of the Kurdish PHD party, which did very well in the most recent elections, accusing him of aiding the underground Kurdish PKK.
Losing the national referendum would be a harsh personal blow for Erdogan; some even predict it would mark the beginning of his political downfall. Erdogan, however, has already encountered similar setbacks, which never stopped him from recovering and plowing forward.
With that, the challenges facing Turkey, even if Erdogan emerges from the referendum victorious, are many. The economy is sputtering; Kurdish terror, not to mention Islamic State, has reared its head; while in Syria, Turkey has been unable to advance its interests against Bashar Assad, Islamic State, the Iranians and primarily the detested Kurds. The manner in which Erdogan confronts these challenges will determine his legacy, especially if he is able to end the Ataturk era and usher in his own.