Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has engineered the path to his virtual one-man rule of Turkey.
A very small majority of Turkish voters approved a controversial referendum to amend the country’s constitution, converting the largely ceremonial post of president into a highly powerful chief executive. The amendments eliminate the post of prime minister and confer vast new powers on the president to issue decrees as law and make judicial appointments.
The changes will obliterate any semblance of a democratic republic with checks and balances among independent branches of government. They will take effect with the 2019 presidential election. Erdogan is expected to run for the newly empowered presidential office, which he could hold onto for at least two terms through 2029.
In the run-up to the referendum, opponents were physically assaulted and intimidated. Authorities prevented some opposition rallies from taking place. Opponents of the referendum have charged that the referendum results were fraudulent, complaining of last-minute changes in the rules that allowed ballots to be counted without the legally required official stamp.
Erdogan scolded opponents for challenging the results, declaring their efforts would be "in vain." He indicated an interest in restoring the death penalty, which would end Turkey’s ability to become a member of the European Union. As if on cue, Erdogan supporters assaulted some Turks who dared to protest what the opponents considered to be a fraudulent referendum vote, leading towards a dictatorship.
Erdogan’s opponents have good reason to be worried. The referendum is virtually the last nail in the coffin of a pluralistic democratic state with even a modicum of checks and balances.
Last month, the European Commission for Democracy through Law (known as the Venice Commission) issued a critical report on Turkey’s proposed constitutional amendments. The Venice Commission’s analysis found that the amendments would result in “an excessive concentration of executive power in the hands of the President and the weakening of parliamentary control of that power.”
The Venice Commission also questioned the process under which the referendum took place: “The whole process of parliamentary adoption and submission for approval by referendum of the constitutional amendments is taking place during the state of emergency, when very substantive limitations on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are in force.”
Taken together, the Venice Commission report concluded that the scope of powers conferred on the newly empowered presidency by the proposed constitutional amendments carries the “intrinsic danger of degenerating into an authoritarian rule.” It viewed the proposed amendments as “a dangerous step backwards” for Turkey.
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