Turkey Referendum: another death of democracy?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a visit to Ordu on Thursday, April 13, 2017 to participate in the 'Army Encounters' program organized by the 'Yes Platform'.

In Turkey, a referendum was held in which the President — former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — called for sweeping constitutional reforms. The referendum remains highly controversial. If it comes into power, it would grant him numerous unchecked powers and lead to the death of democracy. An analysis of our international editor Shambhavi Chouhan.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s face is neatly plastered all over the streets of Istanbul, his unfaltering and unforgiving gaze is lauded with the caption, “For Security, For Stability”. On Sunday, a referendum was held which proposed comprehensive constitutional reforms. This referendum remains in the wake of last year’s failed military coup against Erdogan, where he jailed journalists, members of judiciary and other elements of civil society. Those in favour claimed the reforms would allow the nation to become more politically and economically assertive; those against argued the referendum was nothing but a ploy to increase Erdogan’s power. Either way, the significance of the referendum is not disputed.

Understanding the referendum

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The proposed amendments will essentially structure the nation from being a parliamentary democracy into a presidential republic. Erdogan’s campaign was far reaching and it equated Hayir (No in Turkish) with terrorism.

The camp that voted strongly in favour of this referendum believed it would lead to the foundation of a more stable political system, which would be devoid of the mess that often results from a coalition.

The opponents remain highly skeptical: they say this referendum would transform a democratic regime into a possible dictatorship, with Erdogan in power till 2029. More power in Erdogan’s hands would, according to the critics, lead to more civil unrest — Erdogan is infamous for jailing opponents and civilians since the failed coup against him last year. Thousands of people were fired from universities, the judiciary and police; one hundred and fifty journalists were incarcerated on dubious charges of terrorism.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a visit to Erzurum on Wednesday, April 12, 2017 to participate in the 'Erzurum Meetings' program organized by the 'Yes Platform'.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a visit to Erzurum on Wednesday, April 12, 2017 to participate in the ‘Erzurum Meetings’ program organized by the ‘Yes Platform’.

An overwhelming number of citizens participated in this referendum, with 86 percent voting. The result was 51.3 percent evet (yes) and 48.7 percent hayir (no).

Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir — the three largest Turkish cities — firmly voted no, though the rural areas largely voted for it, which paved way for Erdogan’s victory. Looking back, this trend is eerily similar to the Brexit referendum and the US election.

Hundreds of youth protested on the streets of Kadikoy, a neighbourhood in Istanbul known for its liberalism: “Erdogan, you thief, Erdogan, you murderer,” they chanted with remarkable resolve for a nation which may soon clamp down on democracy.

Similar to the Brexit referendum and the US election, the largest cities voted ‘no’ and rural areas voted ‘yes’


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a visit to Giresun on Thursday, April 13, 2017 to participate in the 'Giresun Meeting' program organized by the 'Yes Platform'.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a visit to Giresun on Thursday, April 13, 2017 to participate in the ‘Giresun Meeting’ program organized by the ‘Yes Platform’.

Though the results would need few more days to be officially confirmed, the main opposition party demanded a recount of 37 percent of the votes which is close to 2.5 million votes.

The protest ensues from the fact that the High Electoral Board accepted ballots which were not officially stamped. The ballots in Turkey are stamped before they are distributed to the voters but the board through a last-minute decision accepted unstamped ballots unless they could be proven to be fraudulent.


One of Erdogan’s main promises was that Turkey would not get sucked into the EU. But the proposed changes are more worrying for Turkey’s domestic future:

  1. The new constitutional system will abolish the role of the prime minister, and the president would be granted a powerful position: he would be the head of the state as well as the government.
  2. It is also worrying that the President holds various other powers which are primarily unchecked in nature, as the President can dissolve the parliament, declare an emergency as well as issue or abolish new laws.

These changes will not be implemented until after the 2019 elections, but let us remember: Erdogan has never lost an election in his political career. His proponents empathize and maybe identify with him as he sold lemonade in his youth, and he was the who overturned the rule of the ‘White Turks’, who repudiated the traditions of Islam. The supporters can today wear their Islamic identity with pride without any fear, and hope for a future where their children do not get shamed or spat on for being Muslim. Turkey holds an interesting future ahead with Erdogan bequeathing himself unparalleled power and is indeed a turning point in its history.


Shambhavi Chouhan

Shambhavi Chouhan (1997) is our international editor from New Delhi, India. She is deeply passionate about human rights and dreams of working with the United Nations one day, in the hope of delivering solutions to world conflicts. She currently studies Law at the Amsterdam University College and greatly enjoys writing as well as debating at Model UN Conferences. She has previously been published in news dailies and blogs in India as well regarding matters of contemporary youth issues. Amsterdam holds her in awe and the longing for a broader perspective on culture drew her there from the land of sun and spices. She can be very vocal about the significance of studying law and the brilliance of Haruki Murakami (her favourite writer) more often than not.

Latest posts by Shambhavi Chouhan (see all)