Backgrounder on President Erdogan and Turkey’s April 16th Referendum

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been at the helms of power in Turkey for well over a decade. And his grip on power was challenged during a massive attempted coup in July of 2016.

Since then, the BBC reports that 140,000 people in Turkey have been arrested, or dismissed from their jobs, as a fallout of that coup. The EU, and the world, are uneasy with Erdogan’s intolerance of people opposing him; he has jailed and deported journalists, reprimanded academics, and even arrested a teen who spoke against him.

But his supporters laud Turkey’s economic growth under his reign, and feel Turkey’s political system is holding it back from being a greater country. Erdogan has a referendum scheduled for April 16th, so people can vote on whether or not Turkey should switch from its current “Parliamentary Republic” style of government, to one just like the USA’s Presidential System.

The switch would give Erdogan more power than he already has so the new draft constitution has been extremely contentious. If they switch to this system, Erdogan would be head of state and the executive, have sweeping powers to appoint ministers and senior judges, and enact laws by decree, etc, much like the world is watching Trump do.

The difference being the US enjoys more freedom of the press and general rights to decry Trump’s actions, relative to Turkey. Erdogan’s treatment of people who oppose him has the world very wary of him getting more power. His slide into authoritarianism has earned him the title of the world’s bigger jailer of journalists. Turkey’s main opposing party, the CHP, say a Yes Vote on the referendum would “entrench dictatorship” in Turkey.

Parliament would also lose its power to question ministers and impose enquiries, and the president would no longer have to contend with the elected prime minister to enact laws, because the prime minister would be replaced by a Vice President.

Why Erdogan Just Threatened The Netherlands

People living in the European Union really get around, so there are millions of Turks able to vote in the forthcoming Turkish referendum who are living in places like Germany and The Netherlands, and Turkish ministers, to the discomfort of other countries, are trying to hold rallies in support of a Yes vote outside of Turkey.

The Netherlands had security concerns about such a rally causing strife in their streets, plus they were about to have their own elections and didn’t want to stoke any tensions (One Dutch candidate, the far-right Geert Wilders, has gone a step further than Trump in promises to ban Muslims from the country) so they asked Turkey to cancel those rallies in their country.

Erdogan didn’t listen. So the Netherlands turned two ministers away, not allowing them entry into their country to run their rallies. One minister who drove to The Netherlands was police-escorted across the border into Germany. The other who flew, was turned around at the airport. It lead to protests in the streets, with Dutch police using water canons on crowds, and Turks throwing rocks at riot police.

Erdogan’s response was a pretty venomous declaration that The Netherlands will “pay the price” for having done that. He also likened The Dutch to Nazis, and called the move an act of Islamophobia, which wasn’t received well given that German Nazis bombed The Netherlands in WWII, and occupied the country for years.

“I have said that I had thought that Nazism was over,” Erdogan said, “but I was wrong. Nazism is alive in the West.” The Turkish president went on to blame The Dutch for a massacre of Muslims in Bosnia in 1995, even though the UN charged Bosnian Serb forces for the massacre.

A shocked Dutch prime minister called the remarks a “vile falsification” and others are likening it to yet another divisive and truth-fudging political move in a year where many world leaders are going there. Because Erdogan creating racial conflict with The Netherlands is being called tactical fuel for Erdogan’s campaign, given Turkey is primarily a Muslim country, and there’s rising islamophobia in the EU right now.

Erdogan retaliated to The Netherlands forbidding those rallies by not allowing the Dutch ambassador into Ankara, and in general, not allowing planes carrying Dutch diplomats in their airspace. There is also talk about economic sanctions against the Netherlands as well, which is surprising given that last year alone, the two countries did $6.6 billion in trade.

When EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini asked Turkey to calm itself down, Erdogan called her plea “worthless.”