Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu greets his supporters as he walks during the Justice March on July 6.

A Nation Divided

Turkey’s referendum gives president sweeping new powers amidst ongoing crackdown on opposition


Once upheld as a model of secular democracy in the Islamic world, Turkey today bears little resemblance to its former state. Under the increasingly autocratic rule of its president, mass detentions, persecution of minorities and the suspension of civil rights continue unabated more than a year after a failed coup led to a far-reaching crackdown on political opposition and ongoing state of emergency. Any remaining hope that Turkey would eventually return to the path of democracy disappeared following April’s controversial referendum authorizing sweeping new executive powers at the expense of the parliament. The result is that the nation is more divided than ever while the economy continues to suffer the impact of diminished foreign investment and tourism. 

Over the past twelve months, the government has detained without formal indictments 50,000 people suspected of ties to the failed coup and has fired or suspended more than three times as many civil service and private sector employees. Among those imprisoned in the purge are hundreds of judges, journalists and even senior opposition lawmakers, such as the leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) who was accused of having ties to terrorist organizations. Since then other members of the party have been repeatedly harassed, including outspoken human rights defender Turkish Armenian MP Garo Paylan, temporarily banned from the National Assembly earlier this year. 

April’s controversial referendum was widely seen as another attempt on behalf of the president to erode the powers of the opposition while solidifying his hold on power. The narrow victory transformed Turkey from a parliamentary democracy into a presidential system. Among several vastly expanded powers, the president will appoint ministers, prepare the budget, select the majority of senior judges and enact certain laws by decree. Further limiting checks and balances provided by a separation of powers, under the constitutional change the president will also assume the role of both head of the executive and head of state, while the position of the prime minister will be replaced by one or more vice presidents. 

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Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan celebrate in Istanbul.

Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan celebrate in Istanbul.
Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan celebrate in Istanbul. Photo by Huseyin Aldemir/Reuters

“This Parliament has been rendered obsolete and its authority removed,” said Kemal KiliÇdaroğlu, chair of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) who led a major protest march in July that brought together 1.5 million people in a final rally. 

Since the referendum result, President Erdoğan has shown no sign of letting up, recently dismissing 7,000 more police, civil servants and academics for suspected links to the Muslim cleric it blames for the attempted coup. “Nobody who betrays this nation can remain unpunished,” Erdoğan declared, promising to restore the death penalty if a vote passes in Parliament. If enacted, the law would jeopardize Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, but it may already be too late. In late July authorities arrested six human rights activists, including two top officials of Amnesty International in Turkey.

With a government by decree and a referendum victory that disables parliamentary opposition, the president is now able to pursue his political agenda unchallenged. 

In the absence of the rule of law, a strict separation of powers and an independent judiciary, citizens are becoming increasingly polarized amidst a state of fear and instability. As the president continues to consolidate his power, very little is left of democracy in Turkey.

Banner photo by Osman Orsa/Reuters

Originally published in the 2017-09-01​ issue of AGBU Magazine. end character

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