The narrow win for the pugnacious Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the national referendum on constitutional reforms marks the country’s transformation from a parliamentary democracy to an unbridled autocracy. Though the outcome of the referendum is contested by the opposition and international observers called it as flawed in the absence of a level-playing field, it has pushed Turkey into an uncharted territory strewn with unpredictable consequences for Europe and beyond. Nearly 51% opted for ‘yes’ vote, giving nod for handing sweeping powers to the President in what is seen as a throwback to the Sultanate era. Erdogan, who has been ruling with an iron hand and a ruthless approach towards critics, has abandoned the secular ethos of country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and embraced political Islam as a form of governance. He came to power in 2002 and after serving 11 years as Prime Minister became the country’s first directly-elected President in 2014. The new executive powers that the 18-point referendum bestows on Erdogan include abolition of the post of Prime Minister and the transfer of that power to the President, unquestioned authority to appoint judges without parliamentary consultation, control budgets, issue binding orders, decide all senior appointments in the Army and civil services, and even dissolve parliament. This will mean a decisive slide towards authoritarianism and a virtual reboot of the Turkish Republic. Significantly, the referendum reflected a deep urban-rural divide with three major cities — Ankara, Izmir and Istanbul—opting for ‘no’ vote. Post-referendum, the prospects of Turkey’s membership of the European Union appear very bleak while relations with western allies are expected to deteriorate further.
The referendum was held under a state of emergency against the backdrop of an unprecedented political repression following a failed coup in July 2016 that claimed 265 lives. Over the last year, the President has carried out large-scale purges in the bureaucracy, delegitimised the opposition, jailed journalists and eroded judicial independence. About 1.3 lakh people have been dismissed from their jobs and over 45,000 imprisoned. There are fears that an emboldened Erdogan would go all-out, targeting his critics and dissidents. Untrammelled executive power is a recipe for tyranny and excesses. By nudging his country towards total autocracy, Erdogan runs the risk of exacerbating internal turmoil and also hurting the old western allies. The wary reaction in Brussels, Berlin and Paris reflected this new discomfort. In particular, Erdogan was warned that if he reintroduces the death penalty in his country, he would immediately end all prospect of rapprochement with the European Union. Turkey, a gateway linking Europe and Asia, is now more divided than ever before in its history. Turkey’s referendum should serve as a wake-up call for democratic governments around the world.