Cradled between two continents, Turkey has long been a polarized country. It stands at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, divided between secular government and religious dominance and the promise of democracy and the threat of autocratic rule. On April 16, with Turkey’s vote to expand the president’s powers through 18 constitutional amendments, the country took a decisive step away from the freedom it has spent decades building.
The referendum Turkish voters narrowly supported will create a strong presidency through abolishing the Prime Minister position, lengthening possible presidential tenure, instituting greater executive control of judges and significantly limiting legislative oversight in Parliament.
While many saw President Erdogan’s actions, intimidating dissenters, jailing journalists and controlling the state run media, as having authoritarian tendencies before the referendum, these actions were considered more permissible norms than official practices. This actively signaled approval and encouragement to continue with practices that withdrew Turkey from its modern democratic goals.
Those in favor of the referendum largely cited stability as the motivating factor. Before President Erdogan came to power, Turkey was known for regularly having divided coalition governments that were prone to infighting and had difficulty achieving very much. Since Erdogan’s rise, the country has seen governmental unification behind the President, but at the expense of free speech, free expression and freedom to live without fear of one’s government.
The country already lives in a state of emergency, which started as a response to a failed coup d’etat last summer. The government’s vast authority to undermine its population under the rationale of increased security is the latest in an unfortunate trend of decaying liberal norms.
The problem with the argument that democratic norms and freedoms should be sacrificed in favor of stability is that systems without liberty ultimately lead to regimes who must exist in fear of their own people. Once citizen participation in government is diminished, a regime’s primary focus must be self preservation above all else. Short term gains in unity behind Erdogan’s party may occur, but citizen complacency cannot be forever counted on.
Removing the very rights that were pulling Turkey toward potential European Union accession and establishing its place as a model for the Middle East are unlikely to succeed in adding the security the supporters of the referendum seek. The suppression of dissent, free press and the oppression of Turkish citizens will continue for as long as Erdogan’s grasp on public life remains.
Moreover, division in democracies is a feature, not a bug. Democracy is not easy or for the faint of heart, but instead, a challenge we should meet with open arms and a backbone of steel. Governments with disorder and an unwieldy number of viewpoints come from citizens who are viscerally divided, but such division must unfold in legislature, rather than a battlefield.
Coalition governments who barely hold it together are often a sign of dysfunction, but are also a sign of the debate and fervor surrounding the political life in a country. For as much as we complain about Congress’s inability to pass anything here in the United States, having such a diverse body of freely expressed opinions represented in government is a sign of democracy doing exactly what we want it to do.
The rise of Turkish nationalism, scepticism of the purpose and goals of the European Union, visceral hostility toward the Kurds, and a potential move away from Turkey’s current status as a secular state has meant a suppression of the democratic norms, once strong in the country. Formalizing these trends with the constitutional referendum means a departure from moderation and an embrace of a slow march toward autocracy.
Turkey’s fate is not sealed. The country had a choice to move toward authoritarianism or to choose democracy, and it chose poorly. This vote, by no means, propels Turkey into a state of dictatorship akin to Saudi Arabia or Iran. Erdogan must run for re-election in 2019 and many of the country’s democratic institutions are intact, yet still weak.
The consequences of cementing Erdogan’s strong presidency, assuming he wins an all but assured re-election in 2019, will mean greater suppression of Turkey’s 75 million citizens and a more entrenched regime power. It also means one less Middle Eastern power to look to as a leader, in what is one of the most turbulent and troubling regions relevant to our foreign policy today.