Turkey, Erdoğan’s Referendum and One Kent Student’s Opinion
Referendums, it seems, are the current big fashion in politics. We’ve had the Brexit Referendum, the Italian Referendum and a Scottish Independence Referendum with now calls for a second independence referendum – you wouldn’t be blamed for rather losing interest in the things. The one in Turkey is set for the middle of next month, however, it is something that should be paid attention to. Essentially, Erdoğan (current President of Turkey) has orchestrated this referendum up to increase the executive powers of the President. This would be fine, and may in fact be good for future, less extreme presidents, but Erdoğan lately has not been the sort of person the West would want greater power entrusted to – this is the man who last July may or may not have set up a coup against himself to increase his popularity. So, there is good reason that this referendum is being carefully watched over here. However, as always with these referendums, there are many different, complex issues to be discussed.
One of the most obvious issues is that this may not be a blatant power grab. Erdoğan is not banning opposition parties. He is not making himself a king. Erdoğan supporters will quite fairly claim that none of the amendments proposed in this referendum are ridiculous – in fact, our PM will still have more national power than Erdoğan will in Turkey, even if this referendum passes. Its changes are a long way from extreme. The referendum only becomes more of a serious issue when looked at as a wider trend rather than on its own, because Erdoğan has for some time now been gradually attempting to change Turkey from a secular, relatively Western state into a less democratic and more Islamic country. This is very worrying for the West because Turkey is the border state between Europe and the Middle East. It has never been a European country, but it has never been a Middle Eastern one either – in the twentieth century Turkey became a democratic country with old Muslim traditions. It was what the Republic of Turkey was set up to be, in fact; the founder of Turkey Mustafa Atatürk, still very much revered in his country, wanted his republic to be a modern, secular state. Erdoğan threatens this. He has an Islamist past, formally being a member of a party now banned for putting the secularism of the country at risk, and his policies often have their roots in conservative Islam. For example, he has stated that he believes men and women to be unequal because of his religion. He has also shown exceedingly authoritarian tendencies, particularly since around 2013 when a police crackdown ordered by him led to the death of twenty-two Turks. That triggered national protests, but things have hardly improved. He has repeatedly been attacked for human rights violations and interfering with the free press, as well as launching devastating attacks on the judiciary, which opponents argue interferes with the institution’s independence. With all of this, the charges of corruption against him seem almost irrelevant.
So Erdoğan is a Turkish president with a past in conservative Islam and a present in authoritarian tendencies. This is the context that makes this referendum worrying. More power for Erdoğan appears to be mean more power for a non-secular Turkey – something Europe has not dealt with since the days of the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish people, however, do not seem entirely sure they want this either though – despite relatively blatant suppression of the ‘No’ campaign for the referendum (students aboard a ferry campaigning for the no vote were arrested for ‘insulting the president’, for example), polls remain extremely tight. This referendum appears to be a coin flip, and both the West and the Middle East wait with bated breath. Erdoğan surely waits nervously too – victory for him here consolidates his power, while defeat seriously undermines it.
A final interesting quirk of this referendum is that it is open to all Turkish citizens, living in Turkey or not. This means that thousands in Europe and elsewhere have the opportunity to vote – and in a race this tight they might even sway the vote. So which way might they choose to swing it? Well that’s the fun part – nobody really knows. Polling is extremely hard to do on citizens living abroad because they are so spread out, so we don’t really know how they might vote. Opinion from the University of Kent though is definitive, and it is definitively against the changes – one recently graduated student told me ‘I would not even give him (Erdoğan) the keys to my bicycle let alone the country’. For now though, like with all votes, all we can do is sit back, watch the polls, and wait for voting day. It is set for Sunday the 16th April, if you want to jot it down in your diaries.