The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Turkey is about to take another step toward dictatorship

People walk past a large banner showing the portrait of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Taksim Square on March 13 in Istanbul. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Seyla Benhabib is a professor of political science and philosophy at Yale University.

On April 16, Turkish voters — some 58 million of them — will take part in a constitutional referendum proposed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Though the referendum will have all the appearances of democratic legitimacy, the reality could not be more different. At issue is a sweeping program of constitutional changes that, if passed, will establish a new form of autocracy with Erdogan at its top. Parliament gave its approval to the referendum this year, albeit by the narrowest of majorities, with only nine more votes than were needed for the required two-thirds majority. That result came only after a long and intensive campaign of government-sponsored intimidation. (The leaders of one of the main opposition parties, which appeals to a mainly Kurdish constituency, are still in jail.)

Now Turkish voters find themselves confronting an even broader system of state-orchestrated pressure and coercion as they prepare to go to the polls. If the referendum passes, the effect will be to transform a multiparty, parliamentary democracy into an authoritarian presidential regime in the model of Kazakhstan or Russia. It is no exaggeration to say that the vigorous if flawed parliamentary Turkish republic founded in 1923 by Kemal Ataturk — one that long granted me and millions of other citizens wide-ranging rights and freedoms — will be no more.

If the referendum passes, the office of prime minister will be abolished. The number of representatives in a newly powerless National Assembly will increase from 550 to 600 (a cynical bit of democratic window-dressing). In a stark break with the republican principles of the past, which dictated that the head of state should remain politically neutral, the president will be permitted to retain direct ties to a political party — in Erdogan’s case, the ruling Justice and Development Party, which first brought him to power in 2003. The referendum plan will give the president the power to appoint and remove ministers and exert even greater control over the judiciary than he does now.

Parliament will lose its ability to scrutinize ministers or to initiate a vote of confidence in the government. In short, if the referendum passes, the Islamist Erdogan will secure his iron grip over Turkey for the foreseeable future. The secular democratic republic of Turkey will start down the path to a religiously inclined presidential dictatorship.

Erdogan’s dismantling of Turkey’s democratic institutions has been many years in the making. But the process accelerated dramatically last July, when groups within the military staged an abortive coup that prompted Erdogan to place the entire country under martial law and to rule by executive decree. Since then, Turkish society has been reeling in fear, buffeted by reprisals and denunciations.

The authorities have suspended or fired hundreds of thousands of civil servants, military officers, university administrators, schoolteachers, even bank employees. Those affected by this purge have seen their passports revoked; in some case, their property and assets have been confiscated without compensation. There is no apparent recourse to these career-ending decrees, no possibility of appeal.

The Erdogan government has used the failed coup as pretext not only to attack and purge its erstwhile partners and collaborators in the Gulen movement (founded by the influential cleric Fetullah Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania). It has also penalized opposition intellectuals, journalists and academics with no ties to the Gulenists at all. The government has gone as far as detaining and imprisoning a dual German-Turkish journalist, Deniz Yucel, of the influential German daily Die Welt. The state has banned as many as 179 press and media outlets and jailed 131 journalists since the coup. By some recent estimates, Turkey now accounts for one-third of all journalists imprisoned around the world.

Not only politicians and journalists but also Turkish academics are subject to increasing harassment and intimidation. On Feb. 8, the Council of Ministers removed 330 academics from their jobs at universities across the country. Those expelled from public service included a prominent scholar of constitutional law and former head of the Turkish human rights council, the founder of Turkey’s first neuropsychology laboratory, and a renowned professor of economics. On Feb. 10, police fired tear gas at peaceful protesters at Ankara University, beating some and arresting several more faculty members. Social media circulated photographs of police in combat gear trampling on academic gowns that professors had placed at the university’s entrance to protest the firings.

Before this latest wave of persecution, the government had already issued decrees expelling some 4,000 other academics on terrorism charges. Their offense: signing a declaration, titled “Academics for Peace,” that urged the government to suspend operations against Kurdish civilian populations in the Turkey’s southeastern provinces.

Erdogan has been able to crack down with impunity on Turkish political institutions, civil society and academia partly because European leaders, unable to face their own demons of racism, Islamophobia, human rights violations and sheer egotism, concluded an agreement with Turkey early last year to stanch the flow of Syrian refugees across the Aegean Sea. The agreement likely contradicts the 1951 Refugee Convention, since Turkey can hardly be considered a “safe third country” as required by international norms governing the rights of asylum-seekers. Nevertheless, even in the face of protests by Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders, this agreement was presented as a panacea for Europe’s migrant crisis.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, facing a reelection challenge in the fall, is vulnerable to any resurgence of refugee flows into Europe. The continuing chaos in the Trump administration’s foreign policy has also freed Erdogan to ignore democratic standards at home and abroad.

Can Turkey’s path to a potentially dictatorial presidential system be stopped? Most polls are suggesting a narrow margin for the “no” vote, which has led the Turkish government to step up pressure on critics at home as well as intensify the fight for eligible Turkish votes abroad. The militant pro-referendum demonstrations and campaign activities among the large Turkish diaspora in Germany and the Netherlands have recently led to severe diplomatic tensions with these countries.

A well-coordinated worldwide campaign is needed to awaken Turkish voters to the dangers posed by this referendum. There must be guarantees that the vote will take place under free and fair conditions, and third-party observers must be permitted to prevent voter intimidation. The Turkish government must free all jailed journalists and parliament members, open banned media outlets, and restore expelled professors and civil servants to their positions. And it must stop intimidating those who have already announced that they will vote “no.”

Unless these conditions are fulfilled, no one will be able to claim that this referendum embodies the will of the Turkish people. Instead, we will witness a bitter end to the Turkish republic that is now only six years shy of celebrating its centennial in 2023.