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.