Why the Turkish Referendum Matters to the U.S. and to the World

Turkey Referendum
A billboard carrying a picture of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and a slogan that reads: "Yes. It is for the people to speak and to decide" is seen on a building ahead of the constitutional referendum in Istanbul. Turkish people vote on April 16. Murad Sezer/Reuters

A campaign for constitutional changes will come to an end on Sunday April 16, when millions of Turkish people will decide whether they want their country to adopt a presidential system to replace its parliamentary democracy.

The simple "yes" or "no" vote represents the climax of a hard-fought battle for the Justice and Development (AKP) party of ruling president Tayyip Recep Erdogan to resume formal control of the country.

Erdogan, who founded the party in 2001, became the country's first directly-elected president in August 2014, having served a maximum three consecutive terms in office as prime minister for 11 years between 2003 and 2014.

The constitutional changes proposed in the referendum would consolidate power in his hands. This would be a significant change for Turkey, a key member of NATO. Newsweek looks at what is at stake in the vote.

What are the proposed changes?

Under the present constitutional arrangement, Turkey's parliamentary republic concentrates executive powers in the hands of the prime minister and his cabinet, while the role of the president is largely ceremonial. But Erdogan's influence on his party, on the government and on the country as a whole has not waned since he took on presidential duties in August 2014. The constitutional changes will make official Erdogan's role at the helm of the country.

The Turkish parliament already approved the constitutional changes in January, but they need a final stamp of approval from a popular referendum to become official. The reformed constitution would give Erdogan the power to make government appointments, take back the leadership of the ruling party, and stay in power until 2029, pending presidential and general elections in 2019, with a maximum of two five-year terms. The 2019 vote would also abolish the office of the prime minister.

The changes would limit the ability of the parliament to hold the president to account. Though the number of parliamentary seats would increase from 550 to 600, the legislative assembly would no longer be able to introduce motions of no confidence in the government and its officials. Vice presidents and ministers, but not the president, could still receive written parliamentary questions.

The ruling AKP argues that bestowing power on the presidency would strengthen the country's governance. Despite winning a large majority in parliament in the election rerun of 2015, the AKP's 330 seat majority was not enough to ratify the constitutional changes, so it secured the backing of a nationalist party to push the changes through parliament with the necessary vote.

Read more: Why Turkey's referendum is causing havoc in Europe ​

The opposition parties voted against the changes, fearing an authoritarian turn for the country—a concern that legal experts share. According to the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe's advisory body on constitutional law, the changes would bring the country's form of government closer to that of an authoritarian regime. In an opinion published on March 31, the body warned the changes would "lead to an excessive concentration of executive power in the hands of the president and the weakening of parliamentary control of that power" and "would introduce in Turkey a presidential regime which lacks the necessary checks and balances required to safeguard against becoming an authoritarian one."

Can Erdogan lose?

A recent poll gives the "yes" vote a victory above 51 percent with turnout close to 90 percent. A victory for the "no" vote would be a devastating defeat for Erdogan, who has stifled opposition in the country since the failed July 15 coup attributed to a dissident, U.S.-based cleric named Fethullah Gulen.

The government declared a state of emergency after the coup and hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs or been imprisoned in the ensuing purge. Freedom of expression has been restricted in the post-coup clampdown, with the country currently detaining at least 81 media professionals, the highest number in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. By the end of July 2016, more than 130 media outlets had closed down following the coup attempt, with some writers and reporters facing charges of spreading terrorist propaganda.

The government's control of the referendum campaign reached "seemingly absurd levels", in the words of BBC Turkey correspondent Mark Lowen, who documented the demonization of the word "no" ahead of the vote.

In a speech delivered in February, Erdogan said those voting "no" would be siding with "those who want to divide the country" and the Ministry of Health's anti-smoking leaflets bearing a bright red "hayir"—Turkish for "no"—in capital letters disappeared from circulation. TV presenter Irfan Degirmenci told the BBC he was fired from presenting his breakfast show after he tweeted support for the "no" vote.

Despite the government's efforts to suppress public manifestations of dissent, the Turkish people have been ready to fight—in some cases literally—against the reforms. On January 9, when the parliamentary debate over the changes began, the police had to fire tear gas and use water cannons to disperse protesters who had gathered outside parliament. On January 11, a parliamentary session debating the changes ended in a brawl.

Another fight erupted in March at the Turkish embassy in Belgium between supporters of opposing sides after voting began for Turkish citizens residing abroad.

The vote for Turkish citizens outside Turkey was central to Erdogan's campaign, and led to tension with Austria, Germany and the Netherlands when those countries refused to allow Turkish government ministers to campaign in their countries for a yes vote. The abrasive campaign strained the relationship between the European Union and Turkey, despite Erdogan's hopes that Turkey will one day become a member of the bloc.

Erdogan has gambled both his and his country's future on this referendum. Irregularities permitting, it is now up to Turkish people to decide whether to their president wins or loses.