Even Some Erdogan Diehards Flinch at Giving Him More Powers

  • Turkey referendum on wider presidential powers divides voters
  • About 10 percent of voters are undecided before April 16 vote

Ibrahim Cat, a supporter of the ruling AK Party, had never hesitated to vote for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Until now.

As Turks prepare to vote on a proposal to give Erdogan sweeping powers, people like Cat are signaling to the man who has never lost a major election that victory is not assured. Two months before the referendum, surveys show the ‘no’ side with a narrow lead. At least 10 percent of the electorate hasn’t made up its mind.

“I think too much power is being given to one man,” said Cat as he waited for patrons at the wedding gift shop he owns in Ankara’s old town. “We trust Erdogan but who will replace him when he passes away?”

Read: How Turkey’s Erdogan Might Get Still More Power: QuickTake Q&A

What Erdogan seeks to achieve is nothing less than overturning the parliamentary politics enshrined in the modern, secular Turkish state by founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk after World War I. The proposed constitutional amendments would make the presidency the center of power instead of parliament, abolish the post of prime minister and give the president greater control over judicial appointments.

Erdogan and his supporters say the stakes for Turkey have never been higher. In speeches, interviews and newspaper opinion pieces, they argue that giving the president more powers is the only answer to a wave of terrorist attacks, a raging conflict with Kurdish separatists, an economic slowdown and the turmoil that followed a failed coup attempt in July. 

“The constitutional change opens the way for a strong, great and prosperous Turkey,” Erdogan said in Istanbul on Feb. 11. “The nation needs this system, not me.”

Yet while the AK Party says parliament will still be able to curb the president’s authority, opponents say the changes would promote autocracy by weakening checks and balances.

Read: Turkey’s Power Struggles Stem From Erdogan’s Grip: QuickTake

“This is not an ordinary referendum,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition CHP party told faction lawmakers on Feb. 14. “Turkey will heave a sigh of relief if the result is ‘no’.”

A MetroPoll survey published Feb. 9 showed almost 51 percent of voters oppose the proposed constitutional change. Three survey companies say between 10 and 14 percent of Turkey’s 55 million eligible voters -- or some 5 million to 7 million people -- haven’t made up their minds.

Ilnur Cevik, a chief adviser to Erdogan, indicated that the president and AK party understand the challenge.

“There is a colossal change in Turkey that will have to be explained to the people, once they realize what is going on, I think the approval rate will really go up, increase,” he said in an interview.

Changing Fortunes

It wouldn’t be the first time Erdogan and his party trailed in the polls only to emerge as winners. In past elections, the AK Party he co-founded has nimbly changed tactics mid-campaign to adjust to public sentiment. In this race, it has already softened its tone toward referendum opponents, no longer calling them “terrorists” as it originally did.

Erdogan has also issued a slew of economic decrees, including tax breaks and cheaper health insurance, that have been welcomed by loyalists but disparaged by opponents as a blatant attempt to curry favor with voters.

Erdogan backer Soner Kurt, 38, said he had no reservations about the proposed constitutional changes.

“I’ve read the entire 18 article-package, I don’t see anything harmful in it,” Kurt said as he packed sugar-dusted cubes of Turkish delight, the country’s signature sweet, in a small shop in Ankara. “I like his leadership, his strong stance against the U.S. He starts everything with ‘in the name of God.’ He is an honest man.”

Growing Insecurities

In its appeal to undecided voters, the AK Party is zeroing in on the sense of insecurity that’s gripped Turkey over the past two years. One focus is the rekindled fighting with the Kurdish separatist PKK group, which has been battling for autonomy in the country’s southeast for more than three decades. The government also says there is opposition to a strong presidential system among Kurdish politicians and followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accuses of masterminding the July coup attempt.

That tack resonates with many.

“I will definitely vote ‘yes’ in the referendum for stability in the country, for economic development and security,” said 28-year-old real estate agent Bekir Karadavut in the AK Party stronghold of Pursaklar on the outskirts of Ankara. “There is a need for an authoritarian figure in this country to put things on the right track.”

For Kurds, who make up about 15 percent of Turkey’s population, the referendum is a red flag. Lawmaker Ahmet Yildirim of the pro-Kurdish, opposition HDP party predicted a high turnout among the party’s constituents to protest the jailing of their lawmakers on charges of terrorism.

“The people are aware that avoiding the ballot box would amount to saying ‘yes,’” he said.

Won Loyalty

Erdogan is banking on the support that he secured as prime minister by curtailing the power of the fiercely secular military and driving economic growth through massive infrastructure projects and a sweeping reform of the banking industry. Gross domestic product rose by an average of 5.9 percent since he first took office in 2003.

Turkey’s luster, however, has dimmed as Erdogan consolidated his grip on power, both as prime minister and then as president. A succession of corruption allegations, deadly militant attacks and a government crackdown on opponents have sparked accusations of authoritarianism.

The economy has also suffered, in part because of swings in global market and also because of investor concerns over Erdogan’s leadership. The lira has lost more than 20 percent of its value against the dollar since the end of 2015. Growth and foreign direct investments have also slowed.

Erdogan’s argument that a strong presidency will be good for the economy and draw in investors is a “bad joke,” said Paul McNamara, an investment director who oversees $4.5 billion in emerging-market debt at GAM in London.

“A less democratic system will always be institutionally weaker,” McNamara said by e-mail on Monday. “Without effective rule of law, Turkey will slide away from the standards of the strongest emerging market economies towards something more reminiscent of the CIS or Latin America,” he said, using the acronym for the commonwealth of Russia and some former Soviet states.

Erkan Ulker, a 36-year-old owner of a textile shop in Ankara, shares McNamara’s concern about the concentration of power in one man’s hands.

He voted for the AK Party in the last election “to stop the country from sliding into chaos” but wants a check on Erdogan’s powers.

“Now, I have concerns on whether the president will rule the country with an increasingly authoritarian style,” he said.

— With assistance by Onur Ant

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