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Sunday’s referendum in Turkey, which will give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vastly greater powers, is likely to diminish democracy in the country and allow Islam to influence social life in a greater way, says a former State Department official who was based in Ankara.
Turkish voters narrowly agreed to a change in the constitution that establishes an executive presidency in the country, abolishing the role of prime minister. Until now, the role of president was more ceremonial, taking a back seat to parliament.
“He now has authority to declare a state of emergency without parliamentary consent,” said Edward G. Stafford, who served as head of the political-military section at the U.S. embassy in Ankara, 2011-2014. “Parliament can override that—and that’s true of any presidential decree. He can rule by decree, and parliament still has the authority to reverse his decisions—the difference being that in the past parliament would pass a law and the president would implement it. Now it will be that most of the laws or decrees will be coming from the presidency, and parliament will have the obligation to cobble together a majority to overturn it.”
That may be fine in theory, but Turkey’s electoral system tends to favor the larger political parties, Stafford points out. “So if you get 46% of the vote you’re likely to get a majority of the seats” in parliament. Erdogan’s ruling party did not win a majority of votes for parliament but does have a majority of seats in parliament, Stafford said, “so the likelihood that his party would join with others to overturn his future decrees is not very high.”
According to the New York Times, the change in the constitution will allow the winner of the 2019 presidential election to assume full control of the government.
Under the proposed measure, the president would appoint 12 of the 15 judges on the constitutional court, the body with the ultimate authority to scrutinize the legality of his decrees. He would appoint six of the 13 members of the country’s higher judicial authority, which oversees the appointment of Turkey’s 14,000 judges and prosecutors. Three of the rest would be selected by Parliament, making it likely that he and his party would appoint most of the members of the two most important judicial bodies in the land.
Stafford said that Erdogan wants a Turkey that “first, glories in its Ottoman past, a Turkey that sees itself on a par with the greater powers of Europe and one that is seeking to be on a par with the leading powers of the world. He is going to continue to try to forge a foreign policy that could be summarized, to borrow a phrase, as ‘Turkey First,’ that will be non-interventionist, except in places like Syria, right on the border.”
In domestic policy, Stafford predicts, Erdogan’s victory is likely to increase pressure on civil liberties for people in the opposition. “It is going to strengthen the hand of the Islamist-leaning members of the political system and also of the religious system, the so-called Diyanet, which is the ministry for religious affairs. They will be further empowered to push their particular vision of religious observance in the country.
“The question is ‘Will he allow the kind of Islamist-leaning supporters within his party to exercise undue influence on social behavior?’” Stafford continued. “For example, restrictions on consumption of alcohol, restrictions on activities on Friday during prayer time. Will it move from ‘Go ahead and wear a headscarf if you want to’ to an increased expectation that a woman must wear a headscarf?… The people who are going to feel the kind of religious pressure most are the non-observant Muslims, who are probably about half the population, or close to half. They’re going to find increasing expectations that they pray during the day, that they interrupt what’s going on at the workplace, that on Friday they give themselves to community prayer.”
Turkey is 99.8 percent Muslim (mostly Sunni), but there are small pockets of Christians and Jews. Istanbul is the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople, to which the Eastern Orthodox world looks as a spiritual father. Stafford doesn’t foresee problems growing for these communities because of the change in the constitution. “They’re going to be allowed to pretty much go about their business and police themselves,” he said.
But if Turkey’s work week, currently Monday through Friday, changes to be in conformity with most other majority Muslim countries, where it runs from Sunday to Thursday, making the Muslim sabbath the primary day of rest, it could cause difficulties for Christians who want to attend Mass on the first day of the work week, Sunday, as it has for Copts in Egypt.
In general, though, the larger problem will come from a growing authoritarian rule.
“One of the arguments in the Yes campaign was that this will establish an executive presidency like they have in the United States and France,” Stafford said. “But this will be a presidency without the kinds of restraints we have with one, a federal system, and two, an independent judiciary, and three, a very long and well established power of the press. Those constraints do not exist in Turkey. This really is a dramatic concentration of authority in one office. He will have essentially all the power and authority to implement whatever he wants to do.”