The people of Turkey decided yesterday, 16 April, that they no longer wished to live in a democracy, and they voted to place more power in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Or did they? There is some dispute, since apparently the voting verification process of stamping ballots was skipped by officials on some 60% of ballots. In some countries, this would be enough to make the voting null and void, and a new vote would be scheduled. But Turkish officials have announced that they will accept the unstamped ballots as valid unless voter fraud can be proven.
The changes called for in the referendum would transform Turkey’s government from a democracy, though that term has been questionable for nearly a year now, to a near-autocracy. To recap, as I wrote last month, the referendum would enable Erdoğan to make all government appointments, take back the leadership of the ruling party, and stay in power until 2029, pending presidential and general elections in 2019, with a maximum of two five-year terms. The proposed amendments would entirely abolish the Office of the Prime Minister. One that threw up red flags for me is Article 84: The powers of Parliament to scrutinize ministers and hold the government to account are abolished. And Article 98: The obligation of ministers to answer questions orally in Parliament is abolished.
The accountability of Erdoğan and his top echelons of government is now gone. Erdoğan wasted no time asserting his new authority, announcing plans to immediately take steps toward re-instating the death penalty.
Since the failed coup in July, which many believe was at least partly orchestrated by Erdoğan himself, freedom of the press has become largely non-existent in Turkey, with some 230 journalists and media staff currently in prison. Additionally, 41,000 people have been arrested, more than 100,000 people dismissed or suspended from government jobs while hundreds of media outlets, associations, businesses have been shut down since Erdoğan declared a “state of emergency” almost immediately after the coup attempt.
Though the referendum abolishes the office of Prime Minister, Prime Minister Yıldırım delivered a victory speech, saying, “Our nation has made its decision and said yes to the presidential system. The ballot box result showed we will not bow to traitors and terrorists. Turkey has won; our nation has won.” This puzzles me. The man’s position was just abolished, yet he is praising the decision.
The vote was “won” by a narrow margin, 51.37%, at the end of a bitter and divisive campaign. The official results will not be final for over a week, and the opposition party claims that many votes were not counted, and they plan to contest as many as one-third of the ones that were counted.
Turkey, once eager to become a part of the European Union (EU) has long been straying away from the democratic freedoms that would have given them eligibility, but if Erdoğan successfully re-instates the death penalty, it will end any chance of Turkey joining the EU. Since July, it has not seemed to matter to Erdoğan, and I suspect he gave up the notion long ago, using it only as a bone of contention for the past year.
This referendum can only be seen as a loss of freedom for the Turkish people, but what is puzzling to me is that so many people willingly bought into it. I think there is a good chance that the actual ‘yes’ votes were less than a majority of 51.4% and that there was, in fact, some vote tampering. Even so, there were obviously many supporters of the referendum, as evidenced by the celebrations held last night, and comments from citizens. “This is our opportunity to take back control of our country,” said self-employed Bayram Seker, 42, after voting “Yes” in Istanbul.
It will remain to be seen if challenges to the vote are successful, but my guess is they will not be.
I have drawn parallels many times in the past year between the situation in Turkey and that in the U.S. I do so again today. On the surface, Erdoğan and Trump would seem to have nothing in common. Erdoğan is well-educated, well-spoken and intellectual, whereas Trump is the antithesis of all those things. However, both have a love of power and will do whatever it takes to acquire ever more of it. Both are threatened by a free press and will use whatever means at their disposal to squelch it. Both have extremely short fuses when opposed. Neither are willing to put the welfare of their citizenry before their own personal lust for power. Both have shown, in their blatant disregard for the people of their nations, that they believe ‘the end justifies the means’. And both have severely divided their nations without regard for what that may mean for the future.
As I write this, my heart aches for the people of Turkey, some of whom have yet to understand what the consequences of their decisions will be. And my heart aches, also, for the people of the U.S., for the same reason.