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Recep Tayyip Erdogan | Via Wiki­media Commons

While Amer­icans fret about the potential for author­i­tar­i­anism in the form of Pres­ident Donald Trump, the Turkish people face a ref­er­endum this Sat­urday with the all-too-real potential to enable and legit­imize a truly author­i­tarian pres­ident in their own nation.

After an attempted mil­itary coup last July, Pres­ident Recep Tayyip Erdogan took drastic action to strengthen his grip on the nation. In the imme­diate aftermath of the coup, his admin­is­tration had more than 6000 people arrested, among them many jour­nalists and mil­itary officers. Three months later, more than 30,000 people had been arrested, and roughly 100,000 civil ser­vants had been either dis­missed or arrested. In that same time span, more than 160 news outlets were shut down by Erdogan’s gov­ernment.

Turkey has been in a state-declared state of emer­gency since then, which in itself grants Erdogan addi­tional powers beyond his ordinary con­sti­tu­tionally-limited duties. But, evi­dently, Erdogan wants more. On Sat­urday, the Turkish people will vote on a series of con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments that would all but establish Erdogan as the supreme leader – à la Iran – of Turkey. These con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments would, among other things, abolish the position of prime min­ister, remove par­lia­mentary over­sight over the exec­utive branches of gov­ernment, allow the pres­ident to affiliate with a political party, abolish mil­itary courts, and de facto allow Erdogan, elec­tions per­mitting, to rule Turkey until 2029.

Needless to say, these pro­vi­sions left oppo­sition parties scram­bling to prevent the passage of this ref­er­endum. Though he is tech­ni­cally unaf­fil­iated with any party, Erdogan calls the shots in the ruling Justice and Devel­opment Party (AKP), which pro­posed the current reforms and is only 13 seats short of a three-fifths majority in par­liament. Between the pres­ident and the par­liament, those in favor of a ‘yes’ vote in this ref­er­endum are accused of doing whatever is nec­essary to sup­press those who oppose them. A prominent nation­alist politician opposed to the ref­er­endum had the power cut off during a rally at a hotel whose owner is close to Erdogan, an oppo­sition MP was arrested for sup­posedly blas­phemous tweets from 2010, a union head who called on cit­izens to vote ‘no’ was shot at, and two women handing out flyers were pub­licly attacked and told that they were under­mining the state. Mean­while, a popular photo on Turkish social media shows Erdogan, his allies, a Turkish flag, and a child on one side under­neath a “yes” banner, and shows oppo­sition leaders, the head of ISIS, and an American flag on the other side under­neath a “no” banner.

Erdogan’s rhetoric has been no softer than the actions of his sup­porters. He has com­pared those who vote no to ter­rorists, called Germany out for “Nazi prac­tices” when German offi­cials shut down Turkish political rallies over security con­cerns, and accused the Nether­lands of “mas­sacring” 8000 Bosnian Muslims in 1995, an attack per­pe­trated, in actu­ality, by Bosnian Serbs. Turkish cit­izens abroad – some three million of them – are allowed to vote in the ref­er­endum, but Turkey allows no postal votes, so Erdogan’s gov­ernment has been can­vassing votes across Europe as well as setting up polling sta­tions in those areas, many of which have already voted.

Despite all this pressure, until just recently polls were pre­dicting a ‘no’ vote in the ref­er­endum. But that margin fell from 58 – 42 in January to 51 – 49 in late March. But the latest polls have Erdogan winning a narrow race, a margin no doubt aided by the con­stant fear of arrest, loss of job, and what oppo­sition parties describe as foul play by the AKP. Turkish democracy hangs on a knife’s edge, and some­thing — whether this ref­er­endum passes or not — is likely to push it off that edge in the not-too-distant future.

Mr. Thackston is a senior George Wash­ington Fellow studying pol­itics.

  • Jonny-O

    And then Trump con­grat­u­lates him on his ride towards absolute power…