Turkey just became… France?

In a constitutional referendum on Sunday, the Turks overwhelmingly decided to make Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the incumbent president, a permanent dictator. That’s at least is the impression one gets when scrolling the headlines this morning. Does Turkey have a problem with authoritarian governing? Absolutely. Are the changes made in this referendum constitutionally worrying? Not really.

The vote that will determine the fate of Turkey’s democracy. The Economist made sure that we get it: Turkey is at the brink of becoming a complete dictatorship. The yes-vote will transform the enormous Eurasian country from a parliamentary to a presidential system, in which the president holds the sole executive power. Key changes in this system are:

  • Instead of being a representative figure, the Turkish president is elected and holds executive power
  • The president can now be involved in a political party or even be its chairman
  • The presidential mandate is limited to five years and can only be renewed once
  • The parliament can be dissolved by the president
  • The president can decide on decrees (which are only to allowed to administer fundamental rights, apart from those taking during a state of emergency, in which Turkey finds itself since July 2016) and veto legislative bills
  • The president can name some (not most) of the members of the council that names and revokes judges

Some students who took French constitutional law might have lifted an eyebrow by now, intrigued by a notable factor: this is literally the French constitutional model. A president who holds the sole executive power while exercising massive pressure on a parliament which all so often finds itself in total agreement with this same president, that sounds like a definition of the French 5th Republic if I’ve ever heard one. Even the standpoint on the state of emergency is comparable, as France has maintained its extra-constitutional legal situation since November 2015, which has since lead to almost 4,500 irregular house searches.

Now obviously I’m not claiming that Turkey doesn’t have a very obvious problem with authoritarianism. Banning songs or jailing political opponents doesn’t roll with liberal democracy, neither does a clear media advantage:

“That outburst was a reference to national news coverage of the referendum, in which “Yes” vote supporters were getting significantly more airtime than their counterparts. A recent study of TRT Haber, the publicly owned and financed national broadcaster, found that President Erdogan and officials from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had been given 4,113 minutes of coverage in the first three weeks of March. During the same period, opposition advocates with Republican People’s Party (CHP) were on air for 216 minutes while the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) had just one minute of coverage.”

Erdoğan is also a popular authoritarian, as many Turks seem convinced that he’s to be thanked for the country’s economic growth and its status on the world stage. A military-style authoritarian who’s beloved and supported by the population: one might almost suggest that we’re drawing a caricature of Charles De Gaulle… But let’s not be too cynical.

If anything in Turkey needs to change first, it’s the perception of the role of government of everyday people, before we pretend that every dictator just falls out of the sky. And that is the essence of this referendum: Dear Economist and especially dear Foreign Policy (you guys really wanted to do that RIP headline, didn’t you?), you’re not dealing with a country that constitutionally gave up on checks and balances, you’re dealing with a population that is unwilling to check and balance their political personnel themselves. You guys don’t defend forms of constitutional governance that actually limit the power of the executive, you favour them whenever they suit your purpose. If Queen Elizabeth could overthrow the Brexit vote tomorrow, your news rooms would celebrate the return of the absolute monarchy and you’d grin at the thought of the red faces working at the Daily Mail.

And while we’re mentioning Brexit: you rightfully bash Erdoğan for Nazi comparisons made towards European nations when they banned Yes-vote rallies, but did you condemn pro-EU demonstrators who called eurosceptics fascists and hurled death threats at Leave-supporters on Twitter? When the Turkish president compared No-voters with terrorists you were right about calling him hysterical, but when David Cameron said leaving the EU might lead to war, did you call him polemic?

Had your critique been that all presidential regimes support governmental overreach, I’d have been on your side. But as quite some European nations, quite notably the République, has an identical system, you took a constitutional change and mixed it up with criticism of an authoritarian leader. And that’s where you lost me.

Pictures are Creative Commons.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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