Is Turkey Heading Toward Autocracy?

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Views from the Region

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken a big step toward his goal of turning the Turkish Republic into a presidential system of government (and, with term limits reset, potentially remain in power until 2029). Turkey’s parliament has approved a series of constitutional amendments that are aimed at strengthening the office of the president while doing away with the office of prime minister. The proposed amendments will now go before Turkish voters in a referendum scheduled for the middle of April. Turkish commentators, at least those still active following the purges that followed the failed coup attempt last year, are keen to emphasize Turkey’s credentials as a democratic state. But some regional commentators harbor doubts about the strength of such claims, wondering whether Ankara has the institutional strength to resist Mr. Erdogan’s determined efforts to get his way.

Daily Sabah’s Markar Esayan cautions against a premature fear of what the constitutional amendments may mean for the future of Turkey’s democracy, since Turkish voters will still have the final say: “The CHP and the HDP claim that the amendments put an end to the supervisory powers of Parliament. They base their claim on the abolition of a vote of confidence and motion of censure. However, by its very nature, in a presidential system government comes from the ballot box, not from Parliament. By forming the government in the ballot box, people give a vote of confidence. Since the government does not come from Parliament, no motion of censure is tabled, either….The presidential system is not an issue of today. It has been on the country’s agenda since the early 1970s. All elected leaders who hit the wall of appointed officials and bureaucratic tutelage have talked about the necessity of this system….Lastly, as the constitutional amendments passed in Parliament, our people will make the final decision in a referendum two months later. As opposed to the hollow, ideological and elitist arguments of the opposition, the process proceeds in a quite democratic manner. People will have the final say.”

But in an op-ed for Al Ahram, Hany Ghoraba presents a very different perspective on the changes Turkey has undergone in the recent years, and is likely to experience in the near future should the constitutional amendments be approved: “Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the latest in a long line of megalomaniac and mad dictators who have plagued the Middle East region for decades. His rise to power in 2003 as prime minister marked a turning point in the history of Turkey and the Middle East in general….Aided by Erdogan’s ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), which dominates the Turkish parliament, the legislature approved Erdogan’s proposed reforms amid opposition anger. Should they be approved in the upcoming April 2017 referendum, Erdogan as president will have all the powers that were held by the prime minister and will even have the power to install and depose ministers of the cabinet. The new constitution will guarantee Erdogan’s power grab up till 2029 at least. It would also annul the position of prime minister, enabling Erdogan to be a complete dictator with unlimited powers…. Edogan’s Turkey is a far cry from the modern and secular Turkey established by its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in 1923.”

A recent Gulf News editorial expresses a similar sentiment, fearing that the proposed changes do not contain sufficient checks and balances to rein in the president: “Opposition Members of Parliament fear that the new powers for Erdogan will effectively turn Turkey into an authoritarian state. Their fears are based on the gradual concentration of powers around him, first during his terms as prime minister and now with his election to the presidency in Ankara….When it comes to voting on the referendum, Turks should consider there is a difference between the strict political science of constitutional reforms and the holders of that office. In essence, experts in comparative political science will say that there is nothing inherently wrong in an executive-style administration as long as there are sufficient checks and balances through an independent judiciary and parliament with robust electoral processes. The events since the coup show Erdogan has targeted anyone who has spoken out against his administration. And that’s the worrying thing in these changes.”

Turkish commentator Ali Murat Yel, meanwhile, writes in an op-ed for the Daily Sabah that Turkey is in fact protecting democracy itself: “People are becoming more and more convinced that security – both in physical and economic terms — is …more important than freedom; the age-old dilemma. This feeling of insecurity has resulted in a decline in the hope that democracy provides. In other words, economic crises and feelings of insecurity have brought about a deeper crisis in democracy….In such a world exhausted by democracy, a country called Turkey has been trying to defend its democratic accumulations against all sorts of attacks that are being posed under the guise of terrorist organizations….Perhaps, Turkey should not expect any assistance and support in its arduous journey of achieving a healthy democracy with the assistance of those states that consider themselves to be the cradle of democracy….They should be warned that storm clouds are gathering and the world they have created will not endure these fallacies and inequalities for very long.”

For some, like Yeni Safak’s  Erdal Tanas Karagöl, the changes to the constitution may be a means to unlocking Turkey’s true economic potential, by limiting the power of financial interests: “Turkey has desired to implement changes in its economic system, its usual structure and, most importantly, its production base. It is exerting strong willpower and determination to ensure this change takes place. However, it isn’t really possible for change to transpire in a day, especially with the current system we have….The new Constitution offers a great opportunity to prevent the plans to create chaos within our economy that has been going on systematically since 2013. Therefore, while the Constitutional amendment allows us to move on to a new administrative system, it will enable the economic field to strengthen itself against such attempts, and even close the economy field to tutelage circles….Therefore, the Constitution amendment will bring with it an end to the days in which banks and financial institutions determine the future of Turkey’s economy.”

But the referendum is not a done deal, and may prove to be a risky move even for a political leader as skilled as Mr. Erdogan. In fact, Kemal Öztürk, writing for Yeni Safak, believes that the vote may prove unpredictable: “One factor that will strongly influence the referendum is the economic crisis. Those at the top of the pyramid are now being affected by the crisis, but we should also see that it is slowly trickling down and nearing the budget of ordinary people. If the dollar exchange rate, market stagnation, the decline in exports and the stagnation in the world economy are soon reflected onto ordinary people, it means the situation is grave….I see uneasiness in and complaints from the AK Party’s conservative, religious base at every conference, meeting and television program I join, and in the messages I receive….Some 5 percent to 7 percent of AK Party voters are tending toward voting no. I think this is a big figure, just like it was in the June 7 elections….it is very difficult to predict the votes of Kurdish citizens. They are not usually revealed in polls. They do not reveal their votes due to security and various other concerns….President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s referendum rallies will especially affect many things. Still, it is useful to be cautious. Erdoğan held rallies before the June 7 election, but the AK Party fell from power.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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