Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seems to have a knack for the unprecedented, a desire to chart his own path and challenge previously established norms, formalities, and laws. Well before his current swath of controversy — when the words “attempted coup” and “purge” did not yet dominate Turkish politics — Erdogan was already pushing the country’s political boundaries. In 1997, he was imprisoned due to comments fueled by religious fervor during a political rally in an officially strictly-secular country, a charge that would have rendered him legally unable to become Prime Minister. This law was conveniently changed directly prior to his assumption of the role in 2003 — undoubtedly an effort to accommodate Erdogan within Turkey’s highest ranks. Then, in 2014, after serving the Prime Minister office’s three-term limit, he became the first Turkish president chosen through a direct election rather than a parliamentary vote. Ever since, he has fundamentally altered the balance of executive power in Turkey, rendering the presidency, previously a primarily symbolic position, a more powerful and influential office than that of the Prime Minister, which typically oversees governance and holds greater prominence in a dual executive system.
Now, in the wake of last July’s botched coup, Erdogan is poised to push not only the limits of his own power even further, but also the boundaries of Turkey’s political foundation: its Constitution. The upcoming April 16th referendum, if it passes, will see a remarkable increase in the presidential seat’s power, arguably allowing for a transition to an authoritarian system within a legal framework by eradicating existing checks on the presidency and eliminating the position of Prime Minister entirely. Erdogan’s AK Party argues that Turkey’s alleged instability after the coup attempt requires this sort of strongman structure to confront a multitude of threats.
With its massive implications, the referendum has not only garnered attention all over the world, but has also seen Erdogan and his aides travel abroad to campaign amongst diasporic Turkish communities, an uncommon strategy that has raised eyebrows and caused diplomatic spats. Erdogan’s campaigns abroad have emphasized the irony of his desire to take advantage of an increasingly globalized, modern, and inter-connected world to further his authoritarian agenda.
Presidential candidates traveling abroad is no oddity. Many of those who have vied for office in the United States, for example, have ventured beyond the US’s borders throughout the duration of their campaigns. In 2008, Barack Obama delivered a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. 2012 saw Mitt Romney spend time in London during the Olympic Games. Even Ben Carson decided to take a break from stars and stripes and visited Jordan to examine refugee issues. These candidates used their travels to project themselves to the world, court allies, and provide Americans at home a sense of their worldviews and foreign policy positions. They did not scout votes abroad amongst American expat communities, much less hold raucous rallies in town squares.
But Erdogan’s voyages are different. His campaign events in Europe have been full-scale, massive rallies, attempting to gain the votes of millions of voting-eligible Turks who live abroad. Venturing into a foreign country to project a rhetoric at odds with the policies of the “host nation” is a legally, ethically, and diplomatically dubious activity that has become synonymous with Erdogan himself.
Campaigning abroad is illegal under Turkish law, but Erdogan has followed his signature trajectory of making his own rules by campaigning in Western Europe throughout much of his political tenure. Campaigning for the referendum has now put this unique tactic in the spotlight. He has sought to either campaign personally or enlist the efforts of one of his top colleagues or ministers in four Western European countries: Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Austria. With over 1.5 million eligible Turkish voters residing in Germany, it is easily his most important overseas campaign destination.
Germany has never explicitly condemned these campaign rallies. Indeed, several big ones have been held in the past, but most recently, two were cancelled by German police due to security concerns. Mr. Erdogan immediately fired back, claiming Germany was still employing Nazi tactics to restrict free speech or squash dissenting opinions, immediately intensifying an already tense relationship. Now, amidst controversy, the Union of European Turkish Diplomats (UETD) has stated that it will not campaign further in Germany, but has clarified that they “cannot dictate what Mr. Erdogan does.” France, too, permitted a rally in Metz. The Netherlands, on the other hand, ignited a near diplomatic crisis after they decided to disallow previously planned events, while Austria preemptively issued a warning that they would not permit any to take place within their own borders.
All four nations have seen roiled public opinion. Many German and French citizens are livid that a perceived authoritarian strongman is allowed to champion his policies in their countries, while supporters of Erdogan have taken to the streets across Europe to protest what they feel are restrictions on his exercise of free speech. However, the one thing that is clear are Erdogan’s motives: he is taking advantage of the globalized inter-connectedness of diasporic Turkish communities worldwide, particularly in Western Europe, to campaign for his own interests.
All this comes exactly as Turkey is witnessing an acute domestic political crackdown. Especially in light of the ongoing purge following the attempted coup over the last 8 months, it is ironic and troublesome that Erdogan should criticize the cancellation of a rally in Germany as a fascist action and an attack on free expression while Turkey jails more journalists than any country in the world.
Moreover, the contents of these rallies and campaigns are also worth a closer look. At the end of the day, Mr. Erdogan is conducting these events primarily as an attempt to gain “evet” (“yes”) rather than “hayır” (“no”) votes for his referendum. The meaning of an “evet” vote is an affirmation of a long list of amendments to the current Turkish governmental system. At the most basic level, it would shift the country from a parliamentary to a presidential system, eliminating the position of Prime Minister entirely. Besides the more procedural changes in the size of the parliament, timing of election cycles, and age eligibility for candidacy, the referendum’s underlying fine print is perhaps the most troubling, as it effectively eliminates all checks on presidential power. If the referendum is approved, Erdogan would become the head of state, head of government, and the head of his party — separate positions currently held by three different individuals. As if this consolidation of power isn’t enough, the president would be able to appoint cabinet members (and half of the highest judiciary body), create a budget, declare a state of emergency, and dissolve the Turkish parliament without any sort of approval or vote from advisors, ministers, or the parliament. Furthermore, removal of the president by parliament would become virtually impossible.
Erdogan has already shown that he abuses power. Well after it was necessary, he supported extending Turkey’s post-coup state of emergency on numerous occasions to circumnavigate laws and conduct purges and expulsions in his government. For him to be able to take such actions (and many others) without any input or restraint would be a disaster for already-unstable human rights and national security in Turkey. But his conservative, Islamist AK Party defends the contents of the referendum by stating that such a fortification of the presidency is necessary to safeguard and strengthen the country in the face of “threats” from Kurdish groups, ISIS, and suspects behind the coup attempt.
Furthermore, Mr. Erdogan’s accusations against Kurds, ISIS, Gulenists, and coup-inciters are vague and generally fueled by prejudice rather than any sort of solid foundation. Anti-Kurdish sentiment — always present to some degree in Turkey — has soared under Erdogan, and his constant labeling of the ethnic group as a national security threat neglects the disturbing civil conflict that is costing countless Kurdish lives in southeastern Turkey. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for several terror incidents in Turkey in recent years, but it is hard to take seriously Mr. Erdogan’s point that this requires a restructuring of the government when Turkish Intelligence has been found to have supplied arms and weapons to Islamists joining the Islamic State in Syria. And the allegation against coup-inciters is slowly turning into an excuse for Erdogan to purge his government further, eliminate dissenters, and incite a further crackdown on human rights and freedom of expression. This plethora of contradictions between Mr. Erdogan’s words and actions underscores the notion that his justifications for the referendum are merely a guise to charm or incite fear in Turkish voters; in reality, this referendum is a façade to solidify one of the world’s strongmen in a position of unprecedented power, establishing authoritarianism through legal means.
By focusing solely on “external” foes, this referendum indicates an attempt to move towards an increasingly isolationist and nationalist state policy, an excuse for Erdogan to reinforce his position and consolidate power as if heading to war. It is stunning, then, that, in order to advocate for its success, Erdogan has placed such an emphasis on recruiting support from voters abroad. This remarkable contradiction is saturated in hypocrisy and reveals the curious inconsistencies within the portrait that Erdogan has attempted to paint by depicting Turkey as suffering at the hands of the outsider.
But the threat to Turkey isn’t from outside. The threat is from within, and his face is on campaign banners everywhere. Turkey in 2017 is in a perilous situation, but the real menace stands in plain sight, disguised as a good-willed leader fighting for his people. The greatest danger to national security, the preservation of basic democratic and secular values, and human rights in this deeply divided nation is Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself and the potential success of his referendum. Erdogan’s maleficent plan to create a scheme by which his usurpation of absolute power is achieved by legal means is undoubtedly brilliant. But if his political career and campaigning habits have proven anything, it is that he will continue to defy expectations. And given the enormous scope of what is permissible within the realm of the referendum, the few actions that will remain unimaginable carry an extraordinary hazard. Neither Turkey nor the world can afford to indulge themselves in such a spectacle.