Erdogan must use his new powers wisely

The Turkish leader narrowly won a referendum to expand presidential powers, but how that’s put into practice will be watched closely by friends and foes alike

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 April, 2017, 12:56am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 April, 2017, 12:56am

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is celebrating a win that could keep him in power as Turkey’s president for the next 12 years, perhaps more. The “yes” campaign to change the constitution so that the strategically, economically and politically important country can adopt an executive presidential system passed by a slim margin. But the leader and his policies have polarised society and terrorism has further destabilised the nation; the closeness of Sunday’s vote makes for only deeper divisions. Victory has to be less about amassing greater powers than trying to bring about unity and stability.

Stability was certainly on the minds of conservative supporters of Erdogan who voted to abandon the decades-old parliamentary system. Terror attacks by Islamic State and Kurdish extremists and leftist militant violence have claimed more than 500 lives over the past 18 months, each attack seemingly more audacious than the last. The new constitution vastly expands the president’s powers, giving the head of state control over the executive and budget and the right to appoint ministers and most senior judges and enact laws by decree. Neutrality will be swept aside along with the prime minister’s post; the leader will now be able to be a member of a political party.

Erdogan’s referendum win heralds huge changes in Turkey, but will thin margin humble him?

The referendum was framed in terms of democracy, the constitution being portrayed as making Turkey’s system of government similar to that of France or the United States. That would be true had Erdogan not done so much to widen his powers during 11 years as prime minister and the last three as president. A foiled military coup last July gave him reason to harden a crackdown on opponents, with 140,000 people jailed, detained or removed from their jobs. At least 160 media organisations have been shut down and that is why comparison with Western liberal democracies cannot be made – the checks and balances so important to those systems have been greatly eroded in Turkey.

Erdogan’s swing away from the European Union towards Russia and a dangerous Syria policy further worries opponents. As the referendum showed, almost half the country opposes his agenda. He has to use his new powers wisely.