The Turkish Parliament passed constitutional amendments last weekend that could allow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to amass unprecedented power. Amidst terrorist attacks by the so-called Islamic State and Kurdish militants, Erdogan and his far-right allies are presenting the deal as a way out of chaos, promising that terrorism will cease once the constitutional amendments are approved in the upcoming referendum in April. But with an 80-million-strong population comprised of more than 20 ethnic and religious minorities, the further centralization of decision-making will only exacerbate the country’s ills.
With the proposed amendments, Erdogan seeks to consolidate all powers – executive, legislative and judicial – in one office: his palace. The Parliament will have little power to hold the president and his cabinet accountable. Erdogan will also appoint two-thirds of the country’s most senior judges, further undermining checks and balances in a country with the world’s worst record of press freedom. He will now be able rule by decree and even declare a state of emergency unilaterally. In short, Turkey – already one of the most centralized systems in the world – will turn into an over-centralized regime.
Turkey’s political instability, chronic security problems and economic volatility have as much to do with power-hungry leaders as with the burdens of top-down and undelegated policy-making. For a country already marred by economic slowdown and secular-Islamist polarization, at the brink of civil war with its Kurds, over-centralized rule is the worst course to follow.
“Ankara – paranoid of delegating any authority to local governments – is crushed under the burden of micromanagement.”
Turkey entered 2017 with a devastating, ISIS-claimed attack at an Istanbul nightclub that killed at least 39 people. But the jihadists are but one group that has been targeting the country. In December alone, Kurdish militants conducted two suicide bombings in Istanbul and another in central Turkey, killing 58 citizens. Between ISIS and Kurdish militants, there have been more than 30 bombings over the past year and a half.
The economy is suffering, too. Despite a whopping 24 percent increase in government spending in the last quarter, in December, the economy contracted for the first time since 2009 – interrupting 27 quarters of continuous growth. Even the Turkish Statistical Institute’s highly questionable accounting failed to find a way to paper over the slip in third-quarter economic indicators. As global markets reacted to news of contraction, Turkey’s five-year bond yields hit 11.51 percent, the highest since the 2009 crisis. Meanwhile, the lira fell to 3.80 a dollar, a record low.
Turkey is caught in a downward spiral and needs an urgent reversal of its political and economic course. But leaders in Ankara are pouring gasoline on the fire instead.
In July 2015, the Turkish government’s peace talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) ended after a two-year respite. More than 300 people lost their lives in resumed clashes since then. But Ankara’s response has been to crack down not only on the PKK but also on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Incidentally, the HDP – formerly a fringe party ― became Turkey’s second largest opposition last June, a success hinged on its vociferous opposition to Erdogan’s presidential designs.
“Decentralization would strengthen governance, boost the economy and improve inclusion of Kurdish citizens.”
In the run-up to the constitutional debates in Parliament last month, Turkish authorities detained hundreds of HDP local executives countrywide. As of today, 11 HDP lawmakers, including the party’s co-chairs, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, are in jail. After vandalizing the HDP’s Istanbul headquarters, the police also spray-painted threatening graffiti on the walls. Such retaliation, reminiscent of the extrajudicial methods of Turkey’s “Dirty War” against Kurdish insurgents in the 1990s, only alienates moderate Kurds while also playing right into the hands of the militants. Punishing the HDP for the PKK’s sins is destined to backfire: The more Ankara pushes the HDP out of the political system, the more disenfranchised Kurdish youth will turn to extremist groups like the PKK.
Erdogan and his far-right allies in Parliament are presenting the draft constitution to the public as the only solution to Turkey’s terrorism problem, arguing that a powerful presidency is the best way not only to help secure the country but also to resuscitate its economy. But further consolidation of power in one office and person is not what the country needs. Ankara – paranoid of delegating any authority to local governments – is crushed under the burden of micromanagement. A 2013 study shows that up to 60 percent of the cabinet decisions concerned real estate and zoning issues.
Turkey’s politics and economy could benefit immensely from subsidiarity by handling decisions at the lowest possible level of competence. Decentralizing a country as populous as Germany, and twice as large, would not only strengthen governance and boost the economy, but also pave the way for the political and socio-economic inclusion of Kurdish citizens and the resolution of internecine bloodletting. Remedying gross inequality in regional income – which hits majority Kurdish areas hardest – requires more than generous incentives and handouts. It necessitates effective governance that allows locals to partake in decision-making and implementation.
“An overly centralized polity, a weak legislature and Erdogan’s authoritarianism have brought Turkey to the brink.”
This is easier said than done in a country where the public is highly skeptical about decentralization, seeing it as a threat to the country’s national unity and territorial integrity. The French, however, have proven with the 1982 Decentralization Act and 2003 constitutional amendments that the unitary state model – which the Turks hold dear – can go hand-in-hand with decentralization. Moreover, the Council of Europe’s Charter of Local Self-Government, which Turkey has been party to for nearly three decades, provides a roadmap for delegating power to local authorities.
Turkish voters will head to the polls in April for possibly the most consequential referendum of their lives. An overly centralized polity and a weak legislature unable to hold the executive accountable, combined with Erdogan’s reckless and authoritarian style, are exactly what have brought the country to the brink. Any steps towards de jure one-man rule would only accelerate Turkey’s downward spiral.