Since Turkish voters narrowly approved the expansion of the powers of the president, protesters have been out on the streets of several cities, and some have been evoking the memory of the country’s founder to rally opposition.
Arguably, however, the changes in Turkey’s governing system merely extend tight state control and national polarization that can be traced back to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the former army officer who founded a nation from the crumbling Ottoman empire in 1923.
Although Ataturk introduced a parliamentary system, multi-party politics did not take hold until after he died in 1938. While Turkey, a Western ally with a mostly Muslim population, has a long record of elections despite periodic military coups over the decades, a culture in which the interests of the state dominate those of the individual has prevailed.
Strong currents of nationalism, as well as both hardline secularism and religious piety, have also shaped Turkey through the generations, bolstering leaders whose strongman postures belied a nearly constant struggle to hold together the country’s factions in a region prone to violent conflict.
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The culmination of this trend is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose populist drive to expand his powers as president exposed increasing rifts in a nation hosting several million Syrian war refugees, enduring militant attacks and navigating tense ties with the West.
The constitutional amendments that were approved in the referendum abolish the post of prime minister and give the right to issue decrees and other powers to the president. Erdogan says the changes, most of which would officially take effect after a presidential election set for 2019, remove the rivalry inherent in a system with both a president and a prime minister, and will help Turkey deal with its many challenges; opponents believe Turkey’s democratic aspirations are in sharp decline and won’t recover anytime soon.
For some analysts, the weakening of Turkey’s parliamentary system follows naturally from a 1982 constitution that was crafted after a military coup two years earlier and emphasized the power of the state over its citizens. Parts of the constitution have since been amended as Turkey sought to join the European Union, but the referendum measures that just passed mark a turning away from Western-style governance.
“What we are seeing is actually an attempt to consolidate state power in Turkey,” said Halil Karaveli, a Sweden-based senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program. He described the referendum partly as a reaction to a fracturing of the state during a murky, internal struggle that culminated with a failed coup attempt last year.
The contest pitted Erdogan and his backers against followers of a Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric who Turkish officials say infiltrated the police, judiciary and other state institutions in a bid to take control of the country. Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan, has denied involvement in the botched uprising by some military units on July 15, 2016.
About 100,000 people have been fired from their jobs in a crackdown following the attempted coup, and tens of thousands have been arrested or imprisoned, including lawmakers, judges, journalists and businessmen. At a protest in Istanbul, demonstrators said Turkey’s new presidential system was part of a broader campaign to quell legitimate dissent.
“They want to silence the citizens of this country,” said 30-year-old Sertac Babat, who believes, along with many “no” voters, that the referendum result should be voided because of voting irregularities.
To his supporters, Erdogan has brought freedom. A former Istanbul mayor who became prime minister in 2003, he represents a class of pious Muslims, many in rural areas, who chafed under a hardline secular order that was set in motion by Ataturk during his nation-building project.
During the referendum campaign, however, Erdogan cast himself as a kindred spirit with Ataturk, declaring that Turkey’s first president would have supported a stronger presidential system to overcome political gridlock that he faced at the time. Erdogan made the remark after the Bild newspaper in Germany published an article containing speculation that Ataturk would have opposed the changes, quoting an academic who said the national founder was authoritarian but not totalitarian.
Modern Turkey is a flawed project that has achieved prosperity, regional influence and other goals since its foundation, but has also been “nondemocratic, repressive, and sometimes violent,” Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in Foreign Policy, a U.S. publication
“Erdogan is simply replacing one form of authoritarianism with another,” he wrote after the referendum.
In Turkey, symbols of power abound. Ataturk’s grandiose mausoleum in Ankara draws foreign dignitaries, tourists with selfie sticks and schoolchildren who gaze at honor guards in steel helmets.
Elsewhere in Turkey’s capital is the 1,000-room presidential palace, built under Erdogan — on land once owned by the national founder.
Torchia was Associated Press bureau chief in Turkey from 2007 until early 2013, and continues to cover Turkey periodically.
Follow Christopher Torchia on Twitter at www.twitter.com/torchiachris