Europe and Turkish opposition worried by Erdogan's constitution and totalitarian threat
by Luca Galantini

The row between Berlin and Ankara gets worse after Erdogan’s Nazi comparison. The pro-government newspaper Güneş published a photo of a Hitler-like Merkel. Turkish authorities arrest a thousand Kurdish activists on the eve of Nowruz ahead of the 16 April poll. A scholar and academic offers his thoughts about the reform and its consequences.

Milan (AsiaNews) – The row between Turkey and some members of the European Union is intensifying, in particular Germany. In fact, Turkey and German are involved in real diplomatic standoff.

Yesterday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded to new attacks by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who accused Germany of “Nazi practices” for banning a Turkish minister from holding rallies in Germany (as did the Netherlands).

The controversy revolves around Turkey’s upcoming constitutional referendum on 16 April, which would give the president virtually unlimited powers, radically challenging the state’s power structure.

Yesterday, the pro-government newspaper Güneş published a Hitler-like photo of Chancellor Merkel, moustache included, reiterating President Erdogan’s charges against Germany. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel immediately called the attacks absurd, saying that a line had been crossed.

German authorities have also indicated that they would not allow Turkish leaders to take part in pro-Erdogan rallies in Germany. In a statement, the German government said that it reserves the right to reconsider permits.

Meanwhile, some 30,000 people yesterday took part in a pro-Kurdish rally in Frankfurt, shouting opposition to the referendum. Turkey responded immediately by calling the German ambassador to condemn the rally. For his part, Turkish President Erdogan said that Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel would be tried on terrorism charges and for inciting public violence.

Finally, Turkish security forces have recently carried out mass arrests against Kurdish activists in southeastern Turley ahead of Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year (21 March). At least a thousand people are in jail, officially to prevent possible new PKK attacks. In reality, the detainees are human rights activists and officials with the pro-Kurdish Democratic People's Party (Demokratik Halk Partisi, DEHAP).

Against this backdrop of repression and domestic violence, as well as of international tensions, Turkey is moving closer to the 16 April referendum. AsiaNew proposes reflection by an analyst and academic on Erodgan’s constitutional changes and the radical shift in the state’s balance and power.

The growing diplomatic rift between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey and many EU countries reflects the stormy domestic political debate in Turkish society. On 16 April, Turks will be asked to vote on a constitutional package that would make Turkey a presidential republic. President Erdogan has strongly backed the reform, which parliament approved last January.

However, the president’s party, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi), AKP) together with the ultra-rightist Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, MHP) do not have the two-third majority needed in parliament to push through constitutional reform. This explains the drum-beat referendum campaign, which prompted Erdogan to send his ministers to obtain the vote of millions of Turkish immigrants living in the European Union, a move that sparked a strong reaction among European governments.

The crux of the constitutional reform revolves around the new, huge powers vested in the Office of the President. The ruling AKP claims that a stronger presidency is needed to cope with the threats to the country’s security, like the failed military coup of July 2016, Kurdish separatist terrorism, and the Islamic State (IS). So the official “justification” for the reform is public order and security, to guarantee Turkey’s full sovereignty, a leitmotif of pan-Turkic nationalism.

At present, Turkey is a parliamentary republic like Italy, where the president plays a ceremonial role. Power is vested in parliament, to which the government is responsible. This system was established by the reforms of Kemal Atatürk, who was inspired by Western political systems after the First World War, and has remained more or less the same, albeit with some changes over the decades.

The pillars of this system are the separation and independence of the three branches of government, namely the legislative, the executive and judicial. In addition, by Atatürk’s will, the constitution has always recognized the Armed Forces as the institutional watchdog of the state’s secular nature, "guardian" of the Constitution against any Islamist or authoritarian temptations.

What are Erdogan’s main constitutional changes, and what advantages could the current president derive from them?

First, the Turkish president would be both head of state and head of government with the power to appoint ministers, dissolve parliament, issue decrees affecting civil and political rights of citizens if national security and public order so required, and finally declare a state of emergency.

As one might guess, such a concentration of power in the hands of a single leader like Erdogan who has already shown authoritarian and autocratic tendencies raises many concerns at the international level and among Turks. Proof of this is the fact that Erdogan felt the need to get the votes of Turkish immigrants in Europe, playing up the patriotic card.

The reform also delivers a blow to the basic democratic principle of separation of powers because the judiciary would be directly subject to the presidency. In fact, the president would have the power to appoint the judges of the Constitutional Court, the highest judicial body in the country. The Armed Forces would also be further weakened since the reform involves the abolition of military courts and judges, who would be placed under presidential control.

This would eliminate the check and balance between the three branches of government: legislative, executive and judiciary. At the same time, the Armed Forces would be substantially stripped of their historic constitutional role of guarantor of the secular nature of the state.

Contrary to current law, the reform would also the president to keep his post as party leader. This would lead to a tighter fusion between one faction and the state, creating a de facto authoritarian, religious and nationalist party-state, a danger cited by the few domestic commentators not silenced by censorship and by the Kemalist Republican opposition in parliament.

Finally, impeaching the president would require almost impossible super majorities so that bringing the head of state to justice would be virtually impossible.

A presidential system only works in mature democracies, where majority and opposition parties in parliament are not tempted by authoritarianism or totalitarianism, but instead respect each other’s role as government and watchdog through the independent branches of government.

The scepticism expressed by European governments and the fear of large segments of Turkey’s population is entirely understandable in the face of Erdogan's autocratic arrogance.