Regardless of whether Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan succeeds in bolstering his increasingly authoritarian clout in Sunday’s constitutional referendum, one thing is clear: despite a crackdown on his critics and the media, the country is deeply divided, with signs that the gap is growing.
That is bad, not only for Turkey, but for just about everyone with interests in the region, given the country’s economic power and historically strategic location as a bridge between East and West – particularly with Syria’s civil war and the fight against so-called Islamic State raging on its border.
Despite the government’s efforts to severely limit campaigning against the changes that could extend Erdogan's rule for a decade or more, polls show the election too close to call. That raises the possibility of violence no matter what the final results are, particularly with last July's military coup attempt fresh in the public’s memory.
Only a few years ago, Turkey seemed well-entrenched as a flourishing democracy and well on the way to joining the European Union. It has huge potential with Europe’s youngest population: 19 million of the 75 million people are ages 15 to 29.
Today, it stands accused of human rights abuses that have included imprisoning more than 45,000 people, among them the leaders and nine other legislators from the second-largest opposition party in parliament, for alleged links to Kurdish terrorists.
Meral Aksener, a former interior minister, makes a speech during a "Hayir" ("No") campaign meeting for the upcoming referendum in Ankara, Turkey, April 8, 2017.
Rallies for the “No” camp are banned due to possible terrorism; coverage of its arguments is severely limited. In fact, almost any opposition to the changes proposed in the referendum carries the risk of being labeled as terrorism.
The once-vibrant media have seen their freedoms severely curtailed, with many of journalists jailed. The judiciary’s power has been eroded. Unemployment is at 10.7 percent and up to 25 percent among the young who embody the future.
A shift from America’s sphere of influence to Russia’s seems possible, and the prospects of joining the EU are stalled, if not dead.
Still, Erdogan stands poised to further enforce his will with the proposed reforms, which would change the government from a parliamentary system to what opponents describe as a dictator-like executive presidency, extend presidential power over the judiciary, allow rule by decree and create a loophole in the limit of two five-year terms for the president.
The checks-and-balances system would essentially be gone.
“Erdogan has pursued this greater responsibility despite an increasingly disastrous record of governance,” Freedom House wrote in an analysis of the election.
“For nearly four years, Turkey has been trapped in a cascade of crises - protests, terrorist attacks, crackdowns, a coup attempt, purges and war. The only blow the country hasn’t suffered is an economic crash, but that too seems imminent, as tourism and foreign investment have cratered and Erdogan has subordinated fiscal and macroeconomic management to his short-term political agenda.”
Analyst Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy was equally harsh.
“The country’s deep social chasm gives even the most ardent optimist grave cause for concern,” he said.
Others say they have never seen the country more unstable despite the president’s growing authoritarianism.
After serving as prime minister for 11 years, Erdogan was elected president in August 2014. Despite having no clear mandate – opponents received 48 percent of the vote – he began changing the political landscape quickly, leading to the coup attempt. Since quashing it, he has further consolidated power with those who would choose a near-dictatorship over uncertainty and the rise of terrorism, which has hit Turkey hard.
Crises, including an estimated 3 million refugees from Syria’s civil war, have not undercut his position as Turkey’s most popular politician, based on the early successes of his party and bolstered by his argument that only a strong leader can deal with the country’s problems.
"I have been voting for Tayyip Erdogan for 17-18 years, and he never failed me," says retiree Ibrahim Yazka, explaining why he will vote “yes.”
"If he wants, he can just sit in the presidential mansion and sign papers; but, this man loves this country so much that he can't stop. He believes he should do more. That's why I believe in him."
The European Union and Council of Europe have voiced concern over the fairness of the campaign, highlighting the fact that it is being carried out under emergency rule introduced after July’s failed coup. Armed troops are prominent in opposition strongholds, creating an air of intimidation.
“Legitimate dissent and criticism of government policy are vilified and repressed,” Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, warned about the impact of emergency rule ahead of the campaign.
The friction with Europe has led to open animosity from Erdogan, who said German and Dutch leaders were using “Nazi practices” by resisting his efforts to have his deputies campaign for “yes” votes among the sizable expatriate communities living in neighboring countries.