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Death by Water: Why the Referendum’s Outcome Might Not Matter

By Abraham Thicke

Sometimes a ship has so many holes in it that sinking is inevitable. In such circumstances no changes of course or captain, no hands on the pump can save the stricken vessel. Only one question remains, ‘How deep is the water?’

Has Turkey crossed this threshold? Do any roads lead to Rome’s triumphal arches from here, or do they all reach down, into the depths?

A referendum on a new constitution is coming soon. The public will be asked to endorse a shift from a parliamentary system to an executive presidency, one in which checks and balances on the president’s power are conspicuously absent.

Proponents of the system laud it as a universal panacea. Similar claims followed the first general election in 2015, which failed to return an AKP majority. A second election duly propelled the AKP back to power. Since then things have not gone well. Partly in consequence of this, even elements of the AKP faithful view the proposed changes with suspicion. Opposition circles, meanwhile, see the vote as a last chance to save what remains of Turkish democracy.

In fact, the referendum’s outcome might not matter much. An executive presidency would merely formalize the status quo. President Erdoğan has used an ongoing state of emergency, introduced following 2016’s unsuccessful coup d’état, to effectively rule by decree. His advisors in the palace have been characterized, by uncharitable observers, as thugs, egomaniacs and fantasists with a shared talent for brownnosing. What could possibly go wrong?

To answer that question it is instructive to consider Turkey’s recent progress. The correlation between Erdoğan’s ever increasing grip on power and the country’s ebbing fortunes is unmistakable. Tellingly, ‘good’ news regurgitated these days by the frenetically pro-government media is mostly hypothetical ― numbers of terrorists supposed to have been neutralized in airstrikes, billions of dollars worth of investments soon to pour into the country and the like. Concrete good news consists of little more than stories about puppies rescued from wells.

A further marker indicating Turkey’s direction of travel is the decline in the talent pool. Anecdotal evidence suggests that white collar workers, largely opponents of the current government, are heading for the life rafts. Many former exiles, lured back to Turkey by the impressive reforms of the AKP’s early years, are having third thoughts.

This raises the issue of who will be left behind to salvage the wreck. The capacity of the Turkish education system to produce new generations of skilled workers offers scant encouragement. Recent PISA test data shows alarming declines in school standards. Some university departments have effectively ceased functioning due to mass firings of faculty members. Talented students, and those rich enough to afford it, are also scrambling for the exits. Neither of the referendum’s possible outcomes will likely change this.

Another issue is how the economy will react to an executive presidency. Supporters claim it will make Turkey more business friendly. But international capital, on which the economy depends, is in flight mode as the lira burns, credit ratings are slashed to junk, growth stagnates and companies are expropriated on flimsy legal grounds. It is unclear how the wooly arguments and reassurances emanating from the palace and the central bank can stem this tide. To many investors, efforts to drum up investment look more like drowning than waving.

Despite protestations to the contrary, the referendum seems little more than an attempt by Erdoğan to gather up the few threads not already connected to the palace. If Erdoğan gets the outcome he desires, Turkey will be ruled by a bad-tempered man with absolute power. Should a ‘no’ vote prevail he will be even angrier and scarcely less powerful. The state of emergency might be extended indefinitely. Hosni Mubarak used a similar ploy to rule Egypt for decades.

So opponents of the executive presidency might ask themselves what is to be gained from a ‘no’ vote? Even before the election campaign had begun government officials were equating opposition with treason. İrfan Değirmenci, a presenter on one of Turkey’s more moderate TV channels, was fired for announcing he would vote ‘no’. Süheyl Batum, a constitutional law professor at Bahçeşehir University, was removed from his position for similar reasons. Naturally, media figures and academics advocating a ‘yes’ vote have not faced similar sanctions. Out on the streets ‘no’ campaigners are routinely threatened, beaten and intimidated. Whatever the outcome, they will be lucky to escape with just cuts and bruises. But they will probably agree with Erdoğan’s frequent pronouncements that Turkey is not a second class democracy: like trains, democracies have more than 2 classes.

How deep is the water?

Is Turkey becoming a country like Kazakhstan, a kleptocracy that divides whatever wealth it has amongst the president’s men? Or will turn into something akin to Somalia, more an idea debated in faraway corridors of power than a reality? Or a country like Yugoslavia, its bones picked to whispers by the currents of history?

How deep is the water? Take a deep breath.

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