Turkey's democracy is in peril

Turkey's democracy is in peril

Turkey’s slide to authoritarian rule has been hastened with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan scoring a victory in the just-concluded constitutional referendum. A draft constitution that will transform Turkey’s parliamentary democracy to a presidential system has been approved in the referendum. It vests in the presidency enormous powers. The president will be the head of the executive and the state, and have the power to appoint ministers, declare emergency and dismiss parliament. The victory in the referendum paves the way for Erdogan to entrench himself in power; he can potentially rule the country until 2029.

Turkey’s nascent democracy is in peril. For decades, the country has struggled to shake itself free of the military. Sadly, it is a democratically elected government that has acted to deal a death blow to democracy.  The executive presidency envisaged by the draft constitution is hardly democratic. There are no checks and balances. The prime minister’s post will cease to exist, parliament reduced to a rubber stamp and the independence of the judiciary compromised as most of its judges will be appointed by the president.

The opposition has alleged irregularities in the vote. The ‘no’ campaign had little access to the media and opposition politicians were subjected to intimidation by ruling party members with backing from the police. Despite this, the ‘yes’ campaign won by a narrow margin only; it secured just over 51% of the votes. That 48.7% of Turkish voters opposed the draft constitution indicates deep polarisation of Turkey’s polity. The ‘no’ campaign dominated Turkey’s main cities, including Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir. Thus, a sizeable number of voters are opposed to Erdogan’s power grab. Should they turn out on the streets, they could create trouble for the Erdogan government.

Erdogan’s victory in the referendum signals the demise of not just Turkey’s democracy but its secularism as well. Erdogan is unlikely to have emerged confident from the referendum; his wafer-thin win despite manipulation of the vote is sure to have unsettled him. Insecure autocrats often use religion to justify their actions and the Islamist Erdogan, a master at mixing religion with politics, can be expected to accelerate the Islamist agenda. Over the past 16 years, his Justice and Development Party has brought religion into every aspect of public life. Such efforts will gain momentum now. But he is playing with fire.

Neighbouring Syria is wracked in civil war and the Islamic State (IS) group is said to have put in strong roots in Turkish soil. Turkey’s Islamisation could provide a shot in the arm to the puritanical version espoused by the IS. A modern secular democracy, Turkey under an all-powerful Erdogan is heading down a perilous road.

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