Boston University

The Turkish Referendum: What This Drastic Political Change Means for Democracy by Emily Masse at Boston University

How could a democratic institution, such as a referendum, potentially signal the downfall of democracy? Turkey may provide the answer.

After a long history of military coups, Turkey adopted its current constitution in 1982, declaring the country to be a parliamentary democracy. Under this system, the directly-elected President is the largely ceremonial head of state. Yet, the President has many duties such as appointing the Prime Minister as well as 14 out of 17 judges on the Constitutional Court and four out of 22 Supreme Court members. The President is also endowed with veto power and the ability to call referenda on proposed constitutional amendments. Presidential terms are seven years. The Prime Minister, the head of government, leads the Council of Ministers, or cabinet, which consists of ministers nominated by the Prime Minister and appointed by the President. This Council of Ministers serves as the main executive office in Turkey and publishes decrees which are then reviewed by the Grand National Assembly, a one-chamber parliament made up of 550 members.

However, the recent referendum passed on April 16, 2017 completely alters Turkish government, issuing the change from a parliamentary system to a presidential system. The 18 part reform to the constitution abolishes the office of prime minister, making the President both head of state and head of government, and establishes the office of Vice President. Additionally, the President can now be affiliated with a political party. The referendum also expands presidential powers by giving the President the ability to draft the state budget, the right to declare a state of emergency without permission from parliament, and the authority to publish decrees, a power which was formally held by the Council of Ministers. It is important to note that these decrees cannot concern human rights or eliminate pre-existing laws. Presidential terms are reduced to five years, and there is a limit of two terms per president.

The judicial branch will also face changes. The Constitutional Court, the only body permitted to try the President in the event of wrongdoing, will now consist of 15 judges, 12 of which are appointed by the President. The Supreme Court will be made of 13 members with five being selected by the President. The Grand National Assembly will grow to 600 members. The parliament will lose much of its ability to check the executive, but it will be able to open investigations and impeachment procedures with a majority vote, and send the President to trial with a two-thirds vote.

The referendum calls into question the quality of Turkish of democracy. The current President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, entered the political arena in 2003 as Prime Minister, a position he held until he was elected to the presidency in 2014. He was very popular as Prime Minister and carried that public support over into his new office. President Erdogan, under the new constitutional amendments, can now lead the AKP, the majority party in the Grand National Assembly, further consolidating his power. With the constitutional amendments, Erdogan could potentially be elected twice more and serve for over another decade.

Since a failed coup attempt in July of 2016, Turkey has been in a state of emergency, which allows the cabinet, and now the President, to bypass constitutional restrictions and procedures. Recently, Turkey has experienced a brutal number of extremist attacks, with number of deaths accumulating to over 500. The state of emergency has been extended numerous times and is currently still in effect.

Under the state of emergency, public media outlets have been drastically reduced. In his efforts to eradicate those involved with that attempted coup, Erdogan has shut down over 160 media outlets, jailed over 120 journalists along with 47,000 other people, and suspended over 100,000 civil servants.

Clearly, censorship and suppression of opposition are running rampant in Turkey. According to Robert A. Dahl, a key component of democratic systems is the ability for constituents to receive information from a variety of sources. This extreme censorship is a red flag, as it interferes directly with two of Dahl’s other criteria: right to compete for support and free and fair elections. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has stated that the elections took place on an “unlevel playing field.” Opposition opinions and leaders were withdrawn from the media and parties within the opposition had previously been linked to terrorism by the government, hindering the opposition’s ability to gain public support.

The fairness of the voting itself has also been questioned, as rules for confirming the validity of a vote were changed in the midst of voting. Toward the end of the voting period, votes were counted even if they were unstamped – stamping was used as a method of preventing ballot stuffing – which proved dissatisfactory to the OSCE and the opposition.

Yet, the referendum only narrowly passed, with 51.4% voting “yes”. While the voting certainly seems to have been unfair, the strength of the opposition cannot be overlooked when examining such as divisive issue. Despite lack of representation in the media and questionable vote counting, the opposition still managed to put up a fight with 48.6% of votes being “no”. This impressive showing musters up some confidence in the Turkish democracy; people are still making their voices heard, and even after the vote the opposition protested the outcome.

Without question, this referendum sparks concern about Turkish democracy, especially when one considers Varol’s “Stealth Authoritarianism.” With the referendum, Erdogan consolidates his power and severely diminishes horizontal accountability on the executive.  His influence will be felt heavily in the judiciary due to the high number of appointments, which reduces judicial independence. While there are now term limits, the President can dismiss parliament at anytime, calling for early parliamentary and presidential elections which could allow the President to run for a third term. However, it is Erdogan’s constitutionally granted power to issue a referendum on amendments, and under a state of emergency his tactics are legal.

The conditions for declining democracy are present in Turkey. A young democracy, the country has been under the threat of terrorism for well over a year now and a shaky political history leads the people to place a lot of trust Erdogan, a consistent leader who claims the goal of the referendum is to end political gridlock. According to Linz, this time of crisis and vulnerability makes it possible for leaders to seize more control.

Overall, the recent Turkish referendum is cause for concern. Erdogan now has a lot of almost completely unchecked power, and many are apprehensive that this democracy will quickly slip into authoritarianism. However, the opposition still remains relevant, creating some hope that democracy will endure. The full extent of the referendum will not be experienced until the next round of elections in 2019. Even still, many election cycles will need to pass before we can determine if this referendum will lead to the decline of democracy in Turkey.


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  1. Matthew Jarrell

    October 12, 2017 at 4:04 pm

    Your analysis of Turkey’s devolving democracy is spot on—Turkey is an excellent example of stealth authoritarianism, as little by little President Erdogan has consolidated power by wielding the nation’s well-developed democratic institutions as weapons of an increasingly dictatorial order. You’re also right to point out that the use of an at least somewhat legitimate referendum signifies that those democratic institutions still have some autonomy, not to mention the fact that Erdogan barely broke the 50 percent threshold to win it. An effective opposition should absolutely be commended for its impact on the outcome.
    All this being said, I don’t think the simple numbers and the to-date slow pace of change in Turkey should be misconstrued as reasons for optimism. Erdogan is a master populist, employing the tenets of Müller’s definition arguably more effectively than any other leader on earth. As Müller mentions, Erdogan has cast himself as the “plucky underdog…the street fighter from Istanbul’s tough neighborhood…bravely confronting the old Kemalist establishment of the Turkish republic” (42). He faces off against the Turkish “elites,” even after having been in power for 14 years, and has successfully constructed a straw man of the previous secular order. His eternal worldview, with the moniker “Turkey First” (oddly familiar to us Americans), has made scapegoats of exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, the Kurdish minority, and most of the outside world. Appealing to the Muslim middle class, Erdogan has consolidated a real base of support (again, a familiar story). If Turkey’s democracy takes major steps back over the next few years, it won’t simply be the result of a wily authoritarian gradually chipping away at the core of a strong democracy to the chagrin of its citizens. It will be a large bloc of those same citizens carrying a terrifyingly effective populist on their own shoulders, much the same as has been done right here in the United States.


    March 15, 2018 at 7:24 pm

    Hi! I really enjoyed reading your article and totally agree with the arguments you made. Turkey is a great example of using a country’s developed democratic institution as a shield for Presidents, like President Erdogan, to cover up their corrupt ambitions to consolidate power. I also found your point about the Turkish government trying to use the unsuccessful coup as a scapegoat for it’s authoritarian agenda very interesting. Throughout modern day politics, we see a lot of this use of scapegoating to justify the actions of a government. The argument you made about scapegoating also correlates to the argument you made about a “Stealth Authoritarianism.” This idea of a “Stealth Authoritarianism” exemplifies the President Erdogan’s use of a present day executive coup, to try and consolidate power for himself by making changes to the power of the President, as well as including the change of less power in the other branches. While reading your article, specifically the part about the arrest of journalists and the suspension of media outlets, I was reminded of the same actions being taken during the Arab Spring. Do you think Turkey’s proximity to country’s that were affected/ involved in the Arab Spring may have had an influenced or been the example that the Turkish government based its own actions on?

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