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People fill an open market in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. Times have been hard for Turkey, buffeted by bombings, violence between government forces and Kurdish rebels, refugee flows from the war in neighbouring Syria and a failed coup attempt that unleashed a huge crackdown under an ongoing state of emergency. On April 16, 2017, Turks will decide whether to make the post of president more powerful in a constitutional referendum that is a big gamble for tough-talking president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
People fill an open market in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. Times have been hard for Turkey, buffeted by bombings, violence between government forces and Kurdish rebels, refugee flows from the war in neighbouring Syria and a failed coup attempt that unleashed a huge crackdown under an ongoing state of emergency. On April 16, 2017, Turks will decide whether to make the post of president more powerful in a constitutional referendum that is a big gamble for tough-talking president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

opinion

Turkish referendum could signal Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s move toward authoritarianism Add to ...

Aslan Amani teaches politics at the University of Toronto at Mississauga. Robert C. Austin teaches the politics and history of Central Europe and the Balkans at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

Not that long ago, then-U.S. president Barack Obama referred to Turkey as a “great Muslim democracy.” There are two things that statement asks: Is a Muslim democracy the same as a democracy? Is Turkey even a democracy any more given what has transpired since the failed coup attempt last year? The answer to both questions is no.

Turkish democracy has always been flawed. But as of now, the challenges are far bigger and the implications for the region and the world are more serious. Regardless of just where you see Turkey headed – to stability and democracy, or to dictatorship – the protagonist in the story is the current Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In power since 2002, with his undeniably successful Justice and Development Party (AKP), Mr. Erdogan’s impact on Turkey now approaches that of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish state. Starting in 2002 as a pro-European Union politician, Mr. Erdogan set about to totally remake Turkey. A referendum, set for April 16, asks Turks to consider 18 amendments to the constitution, which some say creates a system more akin to Vladimir Putin’s Russia than the U.S. variant the current government upholds.

Read more: Turks in Germany sharply divided over referendum to expand presidential powers

His first reforms, unlike the ones under consideration now, suggested that Turkey was becoming a real democracy, not just a Muslim democracy. Mr. Erdogan can be credited with eliminating the influence of the military in Turkish life, long an important condition for EU membership, and lessening Turkey’s militant secularism as established by Ataturk. He was undeniably positive in the then-attempts to bring peace to Cyprus. His opponents argued the process was Islamization under the guise of Europeanization. He also brought extraordinary economic well-being to many Turks.

In any case, no matter what he did, it seemed clear that the European dreams of many Turks were simply out of reach. Using all kinds of technical ploys and obfuscation, the EU managed to effectively derail talks. Time and time again, European leaders made it clear that Turkey’s 80 million Muslims were not quite the right fit. Many countries, especially Austria, railed against the very idea of Turkey in the EU. Turkey’s major supporter, Britain, can no longer help. Turks no longer seem to care.

A privileged partnership was all that was on offer and a once pro-EU Turkish population gradually went the other way. Mr. Erdogan, once thought of as a bridge of sorts between East and West, is now considered just another dictator with more cards in his hands than most.

If one is to define success in electoral terms, there is no doubt Mr. Erdogan has been the most successful Turkish politician of the past 70 years. But what exactly explains his electoral success?

In Anatolia’s semi-urban heartland, Mr. Erdogan’s electoral stronghold, being identified as a pious Muslim gives politicians an edge over their rivals. Here, Mr. Erdogan’s religious credentials outstrip those of any other politician in Turkey’s recent past. Having graduated from the state-run imam hatip high-school system – vocational religious schools that train imams – Mr. Erdogan went on to serve a prison sentence for reciting an Islamic poem in a political rally.

For the past four decades, uninterruptedly, he has been a member of the movement to reintroduce religion into a public sphere radically secularized by Ataturk’s revolution. All of this has cemented his reputation as a “man of the people” and endeared him to the pious Turks, who probably represent the largest electoral block in Turkey.

However, to try to explain Mr. Erdogan’s electoral appeal exclusively in terms of religious identity would be a mistake. His rise to pre-eminence has also been aided strongly by his country’s populist political architecture. It is no mystery that populism favours politicians of Mr. Erdogan’s style and temperament – simple, committed, ingratiating toward insiders and aggressive toward outsiders. As his recent conflicts with European politicians make clear, he is also thin-skinned.

In Turkey, populism is not a mere counter movement à la Donald Trump – together with nationalism and statism, it is among the pillars of the founding Kemalist ideology. Leaving the important question of secularism aside, Mr. Erdogan has not departed from this state-centric, collectivist and illiberal line that has been prevalent in Turkey for decades.

In a country that has never seen a large-scale liberal movement, Mr. Erdogan’s brand of anti-liberalism – accusing critics of espionage or minorities of treason, and encouraging the population to inform on one another, especially in the wake of the attempted coup in July, 2016 – does not signify a rupture with the past; in contrast, it represents continuity.

Where talk of national sovereignty and the popular will predominate in the moral language at the expense of discourses of rights, the simplistic messages of national unity and solidarity tend to ruthlessly crush expressions of dissent and discord. Politicians who can deliver these simple and familiar messages most loudly and clearly often outperform those who offer complex solutions in response.

Until recently, secularism guarded by an undemocratic military establishment had been, perhaps, the most important populism-constricting element in Turkey’s constitution. It was a foreign influence – one that had been imposed on the “people” by Westernizing elites that tried to artificially achieve a cultural and technological transformation. The de-secularization of the public under Mr. Erdogan, unsurprisingly, has ushered in an era of more populism rather than a stronger liberal democracy.

Under the current constitutional regime, which may well be living its final days, populism was constricted. An elaborate network of civilian and military courts, a functioning parliament and a strong and apolitical bureaucracy operated under the watchful eyes of the Armed Forces and provided a relatively level political playing field on which populists could compete against other populists.

This guaranteed a modicum of electoral democracy, which Turkey still has. Also, the official ideology of secularism prevented political parties and leaders from fully endearing themselves to the people, which in turn blocked the rise of a hegemonic party.

All of this began to change dramatically in 2010. The constitutional reforms of that year introduced a popularly elected, yet largely ceremonial, office of presidency, mostly demilitarized Turkish politics and transformed the judiciary by making it more amenable to politics and political pressures.

The new constitution would bear more leader-enabling and populist features than any other constitution in the industrialized world. First and foremost, it would transform the regime from a parliamentary republic to a presidential system with a very weak parliament. The president would begin to head the government and the state and carry out many of the functions previously performed by the parliament. Mr. Erdogan argues the changes are needed to bring stability to Turkish political life. If he wins in April, he could stay on as President until 2029, with two new five-year terms starting in 2019.

The reforms would limit the parliament’s power to scrutinize and oversee the operations of the state, running the risk of turning parliament into a sideshow. The parliament would find it practically impossible to carry out whatever representative functions it would retain, such as the power to pass revenue bills, because of the emergency powers and decree powers vested in the presidency, including the power to dismiss the parliament.

More troubling, the proposed constitutional amendments could mark the transition from democratic populism to populist authoritarianism. Given that the amendments have been meticulously designed to exclude any institutional measures that could potentially limit the presidency, the Turkish opposition has every reason to worry about the future of competitive elections.

The misrepresentation of a country’s diversity is a universal feature of populist movements. Populists like undercounting their opponents and exaggerate the number of their supporters. They pretend that there is a relatively united, homogeneous group of people, traditionally overlooked by the ruling elites, on whose behalf their populist movements fight.

Mr. Erdogan’s populism overrepresents the pious Sunni population at the expense of some other important demographic groups. The secular and Westernized Turks are not a mere relic of the country’s Kemalist past. They are the country’s robust, Westward-looking face – a product of five decades of pluralist, albeit flawed, democracy and the country’s hopeful yet tumultuous engagement with Europe.

Economically, the risks are great. Europe is still Turkey’s leading trade partner. Western foreign direct investment is still superior to other forms of international capital flows. If Turkey wants to continue to develop, it cannot radically reorient itself into an anti-Western economy. With the exception of extractive industries, the foreign capital in general has a democratic bias. Countries that have less stable rule-of-law regimes enjoy less per-capita foreign investment than countries that have more stable democracies. Mr. Erdogan’s engagement with the EU is very much the source of Turkey’s economic gains.

Mr. Erdogan’s success is by no means guaranteed in April. Recent spats with EU members over attempts to campaign in Europe for a yes vote reveal just how close the race is and how desperate the President is. Criticism of the changes inside Turkey, for its obvious authoritarian leanings, are deemed disloyal. International criticism is simply meddling. Moreover, EU leaders need to tread carefully with Mr. Erdogan as they need him to play ball on the refugee/migrant crisis. U.S. President Donald Trump’s messages to Turkey fret more about Islamic State than about any potential shortcomings in Turkish democracy. If Mr. Erdogan does win, he has likely ended Turkey’s on-and-off-again march West that Ataturk started in 1923.

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