The primary concern for a ruler usually is not how to develop the wisest rule, but often how to keep ruling. Hence the attempts to lower the amount of people who can hinder the work of the government are a recurring feature of many political movements, as Turkey’s authoritarian drift that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan and his party, the AKP,  accomplished via a constitutional referendum they won in April. However, he could not have succeeded in this venture without bargaining international connivance and negligence on the matter and ultimately had still a hard time deceiving Turks into agreeing. In fact, although so many conditions played in his favour, he won by a meagre 51% of the vote.

Turkey has not become North Korea, but the reform strengthens the executive control too much and rips apart the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary.

No ruler rules alone. They need to keep some essential individuals and organisations loyal to run the country, the military and the administration. An autocracy is a form of state where the number of these individuals is reduced to the fewest possible, whereas democracies greatly enlarges these numbers.

In the most democratic systems, leaders ought to also keep an electoral coalition loyal to them, that – supposing that elected MPs mirror the opinion of their parties – should roughly correspond to the loyalty or at least neutrality of more than 50% of the population in the ideal proportional systems, or a theoretical 25% in first-past-the-post ones. Shifting from the latter to the former is extremely undesirable for the people, yet this is a common desire for many leaders.

How Turkey changed

Turkey became a presidential system, abolishing the prime minister office and making the President of the Republic (head of the state) head of the government too with the power to appoint and sack ministers. Despite presidential and semi-presidential systems may always raise concerns about the concentration of power they put in a single person and its democratic nature, as the Venice commission observes, “presidentialism carries an intrinsic danger of degenerating into an authoritarian rule”, the major democratic flaw of the reform lies in the change to the judiciary.


The Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors which is the body that appoints judges and prosecutors and oversees their work, becomes entirely nominated by the president and the parliament: six by the president and seven by the parliament, granting a very likely majority in favour of the president as the parliamentary and presidential elections are synchronous. At the same time, 12 of 15 members of the new Constitutional Court will be chosen by the president, while the remaining 3 by the parliament. This substantially assures the loyalty of the judiciary to the president, no matter what his actions may be.

It is true that this is a rather nuanced way to control the judiciary, far more subtle than those power grabs of the 1920s, and thus it shows how Erdoğan should have been subtle to make the Turks agree with him. However, it still makes the single man in power far less bound to the judiciary than any other Turk, thus opening autocracy.

Of course, many systems in Europe have their judiciary in the hands of a few persons. For instance, before a 2008 constitutional revision, French Fifth Republic had the Constitutional Council made up by willing former Presidents of the Republic and other members nominated by the President of the Republic, the President of the Senate and the President of the National Assembly without any parliamentary approval, thus it was effectively chosen by no more than six-seven persons. Likewise, the government appointment of the judges of the Supreme Court of Sweden for life but with mandatory retirement at 67 is, in principle, easily hijackable. Although, at the end, the existence of partially flawed systems is not an excuse for Turkey to further make its system flawed.

International involvement: aid and treaties

External polities may play a crucial role in preventing the ruler from taking these steps, as well as it could accelerate the process, depending on the aim of their actions. The main reason a country or an international organisation would give foreign aid away is mostly convenience, not charity. The receiver gets the money or a convenient trade deal in exchange for the enactment of policies that either are beneficial for the giver or for both. Post-WW2 aid, like the Marshall plan or the Molotov plan, are well-known examples of this and, albeit under a cynical light, the ECSC, precursor of the EU, too was born with these premises. In turn, plentiful foreign aid money with little conditions on how to employ it is a gift from heaven for many rulers: free money, so useful to purchase the loyalty of your supporters.

However, the latter is not the case for the EU treaties: an enormous amount of money and goods flows in and out of each European country as long as it abides by the EU treaties and their requirements for democracy and rule of law. This brings much good to every country and in return is a pretty heavier requirement than most foreign aid of many countries. Turkey is benefiting from a bilateral agreement that makes it mostly as if it were a member of the European Customs Union, so it should be an unlikely candidate for a drift further away from European democratic values. Unless there is willingness on both the EU and the Turkish side to overlook Turkish autocracy: the signals of this attitude are all there.

The creation of the enemy : fear as foreign help

Inside Europe, the opposition to migration is more and more widespread. Initially, it was an issue about migrant workers from neighbouring regions or countries brought up by political forces that were more preposterous noise than number of votes, like James Schwarzenbach in 1970s Switzerland, but the post 9/11 anti-islamism in Christian countries, together with the refugee crisis, made a xenophobic rhetoric somewhat necessary for the greedy ruler who wanted to be sure of being able to keep ruling.

Remaining in power no matter the nature of the required compromise is a valuable skill that tends to be an outstanding feature of historical EPP parties, and perhaps of the newer too.

So, in the 1990s, a two decade long attempt to second anti-immigration instances slowly begins, but supposedly with gradual moderation. It ends with Fidesz that becomes full on nationalist-protectionist stance, building fences around Hungary.


Once your party draws consensus mostly feeding on fear, getting rid of its cause is dangerous while increasing it keeps you in power. So, to the refugee-phobes, a fearsome Turkey is useful, hence they put no obstacle on Erdoğan’s path. Boris Johnson portrayed Muslim Turkey’s EU accessions talks as dangerous for the Brits, while the UK was and, to some extent, is one of the fiercest advocates of Turkey’s admission into the EU. Eastern European nations argued against sharing refugees via quotas, forcing the EU into an agreement with Turkey. Such agreement empowered Erdoğan, who became internationally more frightening, thus empowering even more the fear that enables these parties to gather votes.

The parties of the EPP whose strategy is not fear based, as Germany’s CDU-CSU, still do not try to oppose this phenomenon to the full extent of their capabilities: do they perhaps still need the votes of these refugee-phobic MEPs? Is not such a willing silence guilty?

The outcome in Turkey

Meanwhile, the fear enforcement was working in Turkey too, albeit instead of refugees, the easy target was directly terrorism. Mirroring the 1970s strategy of tension, some willing or unwilling police negligence suffices to make some of the terrorists schemes possible. The empowerment of terrorism means more consensus towards the government that supposedly fights this trail of death and makes room for more radical changes to the nation’s structure with the excuse of national security, as Erdoğan wishes. In turn, an autocratisation of Turkey is even more a source of worry for the EU, thus another opportunity to seize frightened voters in Europe, leaving no more obstacles to the eclipse of Mustafa Kemal’s parliamentarian dreams.

Following this interpretation, it should come perhaps as a surprise that Erdoğan won with only 51% and should make us wonder how he failed to portray himself as the patriotic defender of Turkey from terrorists to the 49%, as usually patriots are loved everywhere. A daring speculation could be that Turkey, contrarily to what it seems, has a strong democratic culture and even when all the odds are stacked for a power grab, still such power grab wins with very little margins and should be nuanced and subtle to be agreed. Thus, this should make the European society and its opportunist parties even more guilty of leaving Turkish democracy alone.

A striking parallel could be established with the referendum that surrendered the Venetian republic, left alone by the great powers of Europe, surrounded by French forces, to a Napoleonic bargain with Austria and was won by a few votes on Oct 28, 1797, marking the end of the republic and making these Venetian citizens fall from a plutocratic oligarchy to an absolute monarchy.

The sleep of reason produces monsters.

Nicolo Ancellotti
Math student at the University of Padua, Nicolo Ancellotti loves to play cello in free time. A person of diverse and multifaceted interests, he is a committed Europeanist and a mostly inactive Wikipedian.

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