Turks will be asked on Sunday if they trust Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to run the country on his own or want to preserve at least a pretense of democracy.
Of course, that’s not how it’s put on the ballot paper. Nominally, Turks will be asked to approve or reject constitutional changes that would transform the country from a parliamentary into a presidential republic.
With the compliance of his party men in the cabinet and parliament, Erdoğan has already turned what what used to be a ceremonial post into a de facto executive presidency.
Should the referendum go his way, Erdoğan would also get the power to suspend parliament and appoint prosecutors and judges.
The Council of Europe has called these proposals a “dangerous step backwards” for Turkish democracy. A presidential regime, as desired by Erdoğan, “lacks the necessary checks and balances to prevent it from becoming an authoritarian one,” according to the human-rights body.
The Venice Commission, which is comprised of constitutional law experts, has similarly warned that the reforms would give the Turkish leader “unsupervised power” to appoint and dismiss high officials “on the basis of criteria determined by him alone.”
If the reforms pass, they would put a rubber stamp on the ugly reality Erdoğan has created. His Turkey has for all intents and purposes become autocratic already.
A state of emergency has been in effect since a failed military coup attempt last summer. The two leaders and ten more parliamentarians of the second largest opposition party, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), are in prison.
So are nearly 200 journalists. 178 news outlets and publishing houses have been shut down. Few independent newspapers remain in circulation. Television has become one big Erdoğan show.
The crackdown has recently been extended to academics and teachers. Those who speak out against the regime are called terrorist sympathizers and fired.
Erdoğan’s education minister boasts that over 33,000 administrators, teachers and staff have been purged since the coup attempt.
The website Turkey Purge reports that as many as 134,000 state officials have altogether lost their jobs and nearly 95,000 have at some point been detained.
The failed coup has become the foundational myth of Erdoğan’s “New Turkey”.
Less than a year old, the putsch, which took only a day to suppress, has given name to streets and squares throughout Turkey. Erdoğan refers to the events of July 2016 as the country’s “Second War of Independence”.
The first one was fought against the remnants of the Ottoman Empire and its allies in Europe from 1919 to 1923 and led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
For decades the moral compass of the Turkish republic, the secular Atatürk is now losing prominence in the school curriculum. The Ministry of National Education has proposed to reduce coursework about the father of the nation and entirely eliminate classes about Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Turkey has changed in other ways.
Thousands of mosques have been built since Erdoğan came to power. At the beginning of his tenure, in the early 2000s, only 71,000 young Turks attended religious schools. Last year, 1.1 million did.
Headscarves, once banned in public spaces, have become omnipresent. The sale of alcohol is restricted. Antisemitism is commonplace.
At Erdoğan’s behest, the courts have decriminalized religious marriage ceremonies for couples without a legal civil marriage, opening the door to child marriages.
The military, once the self-declared guardian of Turkish secularism, has been defanged in show trials.
Erdoğanist agitprop denounces everybody who opposes the strong-armed Islamization of Turkey as either an acolyte of Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan’s nemesis, and a traitor — or a Jew.
By leaving no room for compromise, Erdoğan has polarized Turkish society.
Gülen’s mildly Islamist movement, far from pro-Kurdish, has expressed support for the beleaguered HDP.
So has the Kemalist Republican People’s Party, which once refused to recognize the Kurds’ very existence as a separate people.
Turkey expert Soner Cagaptay writes for The Atlantic that Erdoğan’s Syria policy has exacerbated the chasm. It has made an enemy out of both the self-proclaimed Islamic State and Kurdish nationalists, who otherwise fight each other. Each is intent on widening Turkey’s political divide.
The Islamic State targets groups opposed to Erdoğan: liberal Turks who frequent nightclubs, foreign tourists in Istanbul, Kurds and leftists in Suruç and liberal Muslim sects like the Alevis.
It is sending pro-Erdoğan nationalists a message: that the jihadists do not pose a danger to them; that they are focused on “cleansing” the country of the same kind of Western influence Erdoğan’s followers despise.
Kurdish militants like the PKK reciprocate. By targeting police and military targets, they send a message to the anti-Erdoğan bloc: that as the Turkish leader tightens his grip, the PKK, however unpleasant, is their only hope against “Erdoğan’s troops.”
Government policy is hastening this trend. Victims of PKK attacks are valorized as “martyrs”. Victims of Islamic State violence do not receive the same recognition.
Erdoğan can’t lose
Even if Turkey pulls back from the brink and a majority votes against Erdoğan this weekend, he is unlikely to back down.
When Erdoğan lost his parliamentary majority in 2015, he simply called another election. His Justice and Development Party won the second time. He could do the same if he loses the referendum.
With its leaders under arrest and the movement associated with terrorists, the HDP could struggle to cross the 10-percent electoral threshold.
The fourth opposition party, the Nationalist Movement Party, is on the verge of a split. Hardliners accuse their leader, Devlet Bahçeli, of selling out to Erdoğan. If the far right breaks into two, it too would struggle to clear the 10-percent threshold.
That, in turn, could give Erdoğan the two-thirds majority he needs to rewrite the constitution without consulting voters.