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Looking ahead at Turkey’s referendum

By: Vanessa Kamberis, Research Associate, HALC

On Wednesday, April 5th, the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and emerging threats highlighted the current state of affairs in Turkey during a hearing, where it was unanimously agreed upon that Turkey continues to decline in regard for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and human rights. The hearing — “Turkey’s Democracy Under Challenge” — reiterated that Turkey is in a state of chaos and panic following the failed coup attempt. With Turkey preparing to head to the polls in a crucial referendum, social cohesion in Turkey is at the brink of falling apart, as the government continues to disregard the rule of law.

Erdogan’s paranoia has led him to believe the only way Turkey can move forward from the traumatic events of this summer is for its people to grant him absolute power. On Sunday, April 16th, the Turkish people will vote on an 18-article constitutional package that, if passed, will ultimately eliminate any system of checks and balances, ensuring Erdogan’s unchallenged rule over Turkey.

What the Turkish people are voting on

If the referendum passes, the Turkish government will shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system. The role of Prime Minister will be abolished. The President — Erdogan — would then have the power to appoint all cabinet ministers and two-thirds of the country’s senior judges without parliamentary approval. Through these changes, the parliament would lose a substantial amount of its power, including the authority to monitor the executive branch — the president, vice presidents, and ministers. Finally, if a yes vote prevails, Erdogan will also be able to run for two more five year terms, potentially remaining in office until 2029.

According to the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s Advisory Board, the proposed constitutional “amendments would introduce in Turkey a presidential regime which lacks the necessary checks and balances required to safeguard against becoming an authoritarian one.”

Similar concerns were echoed by David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-Building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights during Wednesday’s hearing. Phillips testified to Congress that if the referendum passes, “the date will mark the death of Turkey’s nascent democracy.”

Effects on the region

The outcome of the vote will not only have a direct impact on the Turkish people, but will also trigger a ripple effect throughout the region. The referendum has already negatively impacted Turkey’s relations with the West, primarily with Europe and the US. Senior fellow and strategist for the Atlantic Council, Naz Durakoglu identified four key areas in which US-Turkey relations will be affected by decisions made after the referendum: transatlantic security, energy cooperation, economic prosperity, and democratic values.

In regards to the rest of Europe, tensions are already high. Beginning with the German Bundestag vote to recognize the Armenian genocide roughly one year ago, Turkey has ramped up its anti-European rhetoric. Erdogan consistently threatens to scrap the migrant deal and flood Europe with refugees and migrants. He attempts to export his version of “press freedom” to Europe, demanding Germany charge comedians who satirize him. After a number of European countries refused to allow Erdogan and his ministers to campaign for the referendum in their countries, Erdogan lashed out calling them “Nazi remnants”. Additionally, if the referendum passes Turkey’s attempt to gain membership to the European Union is all but over.

The climate in Turkey

Polls are currently showing that the yes and no vote are nearly tied, predicting a tight race. While Erdogan’s campaign has the full backing of the government apparatus and the self-censored or government controlled media, the no campaign is at a distinct disadvantage. No campaigners constantly face acts of intimidation and harassment as police limit their activities and government officials deny them access to public facilities. Most crucially, however, their ability to present their case to the people of Turkey is limited. The government’s crackdown on free speech means few in the media are willing to openly criticize Erdogan and his policies for fear of losing their jobs.

Turkey’s increased denial of freedom of speech and the press has lead many to wonder whether voting conditions will be free and fair for the Turkish people. According to Human Rights Watch, since July of 2016, over 150 media outlets and publishing houses have been closed, over 120 journalist and media workers are in jail. Additionally, over 100,000 civil servants have been summarily dismissed or suspended without due process, and over 47,000 people have been jailed pending trial.

Regardless of the outcome of the vote, it is likely that Erdogan’s authoritarianism will remain unchecked. Time and again, Erdogan has demonstrated that popular decisions against him are merely setbacks in his grand plan for power and his vision for Turkey — a vision that is not rooted in the democratic values and traditions of the West.

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