Now that two obese men with bad hair and nuclear weapons didn’t end the world over the weekend, let’s talk about Turkey. Maybe keeping up with the former focal point of the Ottoman empire hasn’t been on the top of your to-do list. All well and good. But you may want to know they voted to weaken or even obliterate—depending on who you ask—their democracy over the weekend.
So what does this referendum of theirs mean? Only give the Turkish president hitherto unprecedented control over the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Now that the Turks have voted “Yes” to these constitutional reforms, they’re signing up for a form of government in which parliament’s monitoring of the executive branch is removed from the constitution and the judiciary is even weaker and less independent than it already was beforehand.
It’s a complex case though. Turkey’s government is different than America’s and, in some ways, they’re actually embracing a system more similar to the one US citizens are used to. The main transition is one from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential one, albeit a strongly authoritative one. Traditionally, the Turkish president is more figurehead than enforcer. They’re intended to be more Queen Elizabeth than Vladimir Putin or even Donald Trump.
As head of state, they act as the public face of the country, acting in times of emergency but largely delegating the business of lawmaking and government-running to their appointed prime minister. Until April 16, 2017, the president was mandated to cut ties from his party and maintain a largely neutral and apolitical stance, regardless of personal attachments or viewpoints. Now the office of prime minister is kaput and the president will have way more control over all branches of government. Parliament will still make laws and the judiciary will still try cases. But they’ll do little else and even those duties are capable of being bypassed by the president pretty easily.
The changes don’t go into effect until 2019 but when they do, the Turkish president can pass decrees as effective and codified as any parliamentary law, dissolve parliament, call for new elections, set the budget, declare a state of emergency, make unilateral national security decisions, appoint and remove all VPs and ministry heads at their own discretion and more. Don’t worry! If the president does something illegal, they can still be investigated if there’s a simple majority in parliament and a 60% vote to be tried then convicted by presidentially appointed judges.
And it’s so completely unconcerning the person who’ll most likely have all this unchecked executive power in 2019 is current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Just think of his inspirational and relatable backstory—he sold lemonade as a teenager in a rough part of town, played soccer for a while and wrote, and directed and starred in a play called Maskomya about how Freemasonry, Communism and Judaism are evil forces hellbent on destroying the world. Presidents: they’re just like us!
One has to applaud Mr. Erdogan’s impeccable timing. Turkey has never been in a better position to embrace a strong, nearly unfettered executive branch. Pre-referendum, the country was already polling worse than Russia in terms of press freedom, sitting at a comfy 151st place out of 180 countries. It’s a damn shame the 100+ journalists he threw in jail were probably too huffy—or imprisoned—to make the clear and right decision to vote “Yes” on his further ascendancy. After all, the “No” voters were clearly all terrorists anyway. At least, according to Erdogan they were.
To be fair, the guy’s paranoia toward his opposition is at least somewhat justified. His greatest abuses of power came in the wake of an attempted coup. If I were an aspiring despot, I’d probably do my best to consolidate power too. Not to mention, said coup is something most Turks—the Yeses and the Nos alike—can agree was masterminded by either the CIA or the Obama White House, alongside Erdogan friend-turned-enemy Fethullah Gulen. Call me a crazy conspiracy nut but it’s not like the US hasn’t done stuff like that before.
But, you know, the guy is still an aspiring despot. Applying any standard of grace to him is unsavory and ultimately unhelpful. Purging tens of thousands of judges, teachers, military officials, civil servants, police, etc., is not really a quality anyone should want in a leader, even if these purges were potentially instigated by American imperialism. And they certainly shouldn’t be rewarded by expanding that leader’s powers to an even greater degree. All I’m trying to say is: if the guy’s trying to be a savvy, Putinesque autocrat, at least have a little more grace under pressure.
As myopic as it is, it’s hard to read about all this happening in Turkey as an American and not see the parallels here. Populism, authoritarianism, polarization and fear are as on the rise here as they are there. Of course, the Turks have more reason than Americans or anyone in the West to hope a strong leader can stop the rapid influx of violence and terrorism. The country is bombed and attacked with horrific regularity.
But there are still unavoidable similarities between how they’re handling their issues and how we’re handling ours. Erdogan was operating outside the bounds of his allowed powers well before this referendum and so has pretty much every US president, from Lincoln and FDR to Bush, Trump and Obama. On that same list from earlier, the US ranks at 41 out 180 countries when it comes to press freedom. Better than Turkey by a mile, but for a country constantly patting itself on the back for its Bill of Rights, coming in 41st is pretty cringeworthy.
Just this week, Trump’s CIA head Mike Pompeo made a big stink about WikiLeaks publishing classified and embarrassing documents about our government. Trump wants to open up libel laws so it’s easier to prosecute journalists and press outlets. Then you have your usual free-speech-in-America-is-a-joke suspects: the PATRIOT Act, the NSA revelations from Snowden, Obama threatening journalists with jail time for not revealing sources, yada yada yada.
This is being experienced by Turks in a unique way but they can now join a club peopled by the UK’s Remainers and the US’s Never Trumpers. Brexit, Trump, now Turkey: each of these votes were more based in fear—of terrorism, of economic stagnation, of difference, of change—than in progress. But if this sort of harmful populism is becoming globalized then that means the discontentment with it is too. Never forget all of these referendums, this latest one included, were won by slim margins. That’s enough reason to keep a shred of hope alive. A shred may be too hyperbolic. Maybe a sliver?