Who is Erdogan?
He is the current President of Turkey and has been in that position since 2014. Before that, he was the Prime Minister (from 2003-2014). His Party is called the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
How was Turkey before Erdogan?
Turkey was a secular country. That is, there was a divide between religion and politics. Erdogan, however, has more Islamist views, which he has tried to implement. In other words, he believes that religion and politics should be intertwined and perhaps even that religious law should be applied.
Turkey as we know it is a fairly new Republic – only almost 100 years old. The Ottoman Empire was in place before the creation of Turkey and the Empire ruled over the region for a huge amount of time, about 700 years. In 1922, right after World War I, the Ottoman Empire was dissolved and Turkey, as we know it, was created.
Since then, Turkey became secularized and the monarchic system was eliminated. In particular, a secular – instead of religious – Constitution was implemented in the country. Soon thereafter, Turkey became very westernized: they quickly joined the United Nations, as well as the Council of Europe.
Even then, a few coups happened in the 1960s and 1970s, some of which ended with a dictator in power. In the 1980s, a violent conflict started between the Kurdish liberation movement and the government. The Kurds are one of the biggest minority groups in Turkey. They are a different ethnicity than the Turkish people, speak another language, and many of them want to have their own country. This conflict is still ongoing.
Nonetheless, Turkey’s Constitution established a democratic Republic. The Constitution says that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet are vested with the executive power and the President’s role (Erdogan) is supposed to be more ceremonial.
How has Turkey changed with Erdogan?
Erdogan has slowly become an authoritarian leader. In fact, the European Union offered Turkey in 2004 consideration for a membership in the Union, as long as the country met certain conditions, e.g. complying with democracy and European values. A few years later, Erdogan has implemented policies that are against the European Union’s views, which means that Turkey’s chance to become a part of the European Union are basically gone.
Turkey was a model of democracy and liberty in the Middle East… but not as much now with Erdogan. Ataturk (meaning “the father of the Turks”), the founder of modern Turkey, dreamed of secularizing and democratizing Turkey and the epitome of that dream would be belonging in the European Union. Ataturk’s dream seemed tangible and achievable – you could almost touch it then.
So how was Erdogan been able to dissolve the imminence of such a weighty dream? He has slowly centralized power around him. In 2010, for example, Erdogan advocated for and implemented a Constitutional amendment that allowed adding to the Constitutional Court more judges who are friendly with his party. The executive branch controlling the judicial branch is one of the typical first moves of an authoritarian regime. Not only has Erdogan tried to control the judicial branch, but also the legislative.
Erdogan has a strong base of supporters, however. This is mostly due to the fact that the rise in Turkey’s economy has been exponential under Erdogan. Whether this is due to his administration, or to other factors, is a well-debated matter. Others who believe that religion should be implemented as law are also devout supporters of Erdogan.
There was a failed coup d’état last year, in which the military tried to oust Erdogan. Erdogan found out about the coup before it happened and he declared all the people involved as terrorists. Repressions, torture, and other human rights violations followed. More than 100,000 people were arrested or fired from their jobs.
So what was the referendum about?
The Constitutional Referendum that Erdogan allegedly won this week shifts Turkey from a parliamentary republic to a presidential centered government, in which Erdogan will have more authority under the Constitution to take executive action.
Three legislative bodies will now be consolidated under the President’s command and the President will have the authority to appoint judges without Parliament’s approval. The President also now has the authority to dissolve Parliament. In other words, Erdogan is completely centralizing the power around him by eliminating the independence (or even existence) of the legislative and judicial branches.
No checks and balances are left.
How does this affect Turkey’s relationship with the West?
Erdogan’s actions and recent statements have alienated European countries and seriously compromised their relationship with Turkey. We still have to wait to see how the United States will react but it is unfortunate that President Trump called Erdogan to congratulate him right after he allegedly won the referendum, completely ignoring the legitimate concerns and complaints from part of the Turkish opposition that there had been irregularities in the voting process.
Erdogan had a taste of power and he couldn’t let go. He got addicted. He needed more… even if at the expense of his own people’s rights and liberties… even when democracy and freedom were peeking their heads and whispering, “don’t let me go.”