Can a US president call a referendum?

Turkey or: the end of democracy

Just two and a half years lie between the election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as president and the transformation of Turkey into an autocratic presidential state. With the plebiscite of April 16, 2017, the country said goodbye to the principles of the parliamentary republic that its state founder Mustafa Kemal, known as Ataturk, once enshrined in the constitution. In order to bring about this historic turning point, the government pulled out all the stops: it split society, intimidated the Kurdish population by means of a war and decisively weakened the opposition through repression.

But even under these circumstances Erdogan and the ruling conservative Islamic AKP were only able to mobilize a very narrow majority of Turkish voters to support the presidential system. According to official information, only around 51 percent of citizens voted for the constitutional amendment. The opposition itself doubts this figure, also because the electoral authority allowed invalid ballot papers. The Kemalist CHP and the left, pro-Kurdish HDP immediately announced that they would challenge the result in court. However, their chances are slim. Erdogan has categorically rejected all criticism of the referendum, and the judges in Turkey know only too well about the consequences of undesired decisions.

Because the authoritarian swing did not come overnight, on the contrary: the referendum was preceded by a steady increase in repression over the past four years.

The autocratic restructuring of the country was triggered by a moment of Erdogan's weakness: The outbreak of the Gezi protests in the summer of 2013 made the AKP realize that there were resistant actors in society that they could not control and that fundamentally exercised their claim to power Asked a question. While the parliamentary opposition remained largely ineffective at the time, the extra-parliamentary movements developed an incalculable dynamic. The government under the then Prime Minister Erdogan failed in all its attempts to divide the movements apart or at least to channel them. In the end, the protests could only be put down with massive state violence.

Tightening the thumbscrews

From this, however, the AKP drew a momentous conclusion: from then on it increasingly relied on repression to maintain its power. Erdogan's government upgraded the security apparatus and expanded its legal scope. The police were given more powers to deal with protesters, and a revision of the telecommunications laws allowed increased censorship of social networks and the persecution of their users.

When Erdogan was elected president in August 2014, the government even questioned the parliamentary system: Turkey is in a difficult historical phase and is threatened by internal and external enemies. Such a time called for a strong and unified political leadership, which could not be achieved within the framework of the inadequate parliamentary system. In contrast, the AKP leadership set up a presidential system in which political power is concentrated on one office.

But neither in parliament nor in the population there was enough support for it. All opposition parties were against the presidential system, and the AKP alone did not have the two-thirds majority necessary to amend the constitution. The parliamentary election in June 2015 also worsened Erdogan's prospects. Under the motto “We will not make you president”, the HDP managed to jump over the ten percent hurdle, whereby the AKP lost an absolute majority for the first time since 2002.

The parliamentary path to the presidential system was thus blocked for the time being - unless the general political situation in Turkey were to change radically.

This radical change brought about the war against the Kurdish PKK, which flared up again in July 2015. The AKP took the opportunity: It marginalized the HDP and with it the civilian voice of the Kurdish population, called new elections and again won a majority in parliament in November 2015. In addition, the war led to rapprochement between the AKP and the ultra-nationalist opposition party MHP, which had previously criticized the supposedly moderate course of government towards the Kurds and called for a military solution. The rapprochement between the AKP and the ultra-nationalists gave the government the assurance of the MHP leadership in the winter of 2016 to support them in introducing the presidential system. The votes of the MHP were not enough for a two-thirds majority to change the constitution, but they were enough to call a referendum.

In the election campaign for the referendum, the president and the AKP government then used all means. The crushed coup in July 2016, which Erdogan immediately - and disarmingly honestly - described as a “gift from God”, offered them many opportunities to do so. Since then, a state of emergency has been in force in Turkey, which provided a welcome pretext to fight the campaigns of the various opponents of the presidential system with great severity. Hundreds of activists and opposition politicians were arrested in the run-up to the referendum, including the leaders of the HDP. Numerous journalists have been imprisoned or exiled since the attempted coup. At the same time, the AKP used the state apparatus and the media close to the government without hesitation to advertise the presidential system.

The conflict with various European governments over the election campaign appearances of Turkish ministers clearly played into Erdogan's hands. Support for the constitutional amendment was significantly greater among the Turks in the Netherlands and Germany than in the country itself, albeit with little participation.

The defeat before the battle

The victory of the yes camp was not only due to the unfair election campaign and possible election fraud. Two other, lesser-considered factors also played an important role. On the one hand, the opponents of the presidential system unanimously expected that Erdogan and the AKP would by no means simply accept a no. Rather, the opposition reckoned that in this case the government would have relied more on domestic political escalation, for example by banning the HDP and imminent new elections. In a parliament without the HDP, it is feared, the AKP might be strong enough to amend the constitution and could have established the presidential system despite the plebiscite it had lost. On the other hand, some members of the opposition were convinced that the referendum results would be manipulated and falsified anyway. From their point of view, the victory of the yes camp was already certain - regardless of the actual result of the vote.

Since many members of the opposition believed that the government would push through their plans one way or another, some stayed away from the polls. In a way, part of the population gave up the vote before April 16th.

The consequences, however, are fatal: For Turkey, the victory of the yes camp means first and foremost that the government's autocratic and violent course has been confirmed. The referendum de facto legitimizes the repression against the opposition that has been going on for years. It supports the war in the Kurdish areas, which has claimed thousands of lives, as well as the military interventions in Syria and Iraq. Ultimately, it provides Erdogan with backing for his confrontational line towards Europe and will thus also contribute to the further division of the German-Turkish community.

In addition, the new constitution ensures an unprecedented increase in power for the president. In future, he will take over governance from the Prime Minister, whose office will be abolished, and can issue decrees on this basis. He appoints his vice-presidents as well as ministers and senior officials without having to seek approval from parliament. From now on, the governors of the provinces will also be appointed directly by the central government.

Parliament, on the other hand, is weakened considerably. If, for example, the budget does not agree, the president can simply adjust the last budget to inflation and increased spending and use it temporarily. Parliament thus effectively loses a decisive power over the executive: budget sovereignty. Even a permanent reign seems possible: Officially, the president may only serve two terms of five years each. However, if the parliament passes new elections in its second legislative period, he can run again.

Critics fear that this step can be repeated almost indefinitely. The Turkish presidential system is based more on the standards in Egypt or Azerbaijan than on the classic presidential democracies in France or the USA, for example.

With all this, what options do the Turkish opposition still have?

It can either turn to non-democratic means and push Erdogan out of office with a coup. This would not be the first time in recent Turkish history. Or the opposition continues to try to use democratic and civil methods to at least slow down the path to open dictatorship. In doing so, however, it risks becoming a democratic fig leaf for an increasingly autocratic system.

Nevertheless, the democratic and civil approach - especially from a left and emancipatory perspective - is undoubtedly the right one. Many are already placing their hopes in the next parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019; Only then does the new constitution come into force. However, do not fool yourself: In view of the already immense power of the president and the limited possibilities of the opposition, the chances of success against Erdogan are currently rather slim.