The Turkish Referendum and the Elusive Truth
On 16th April 2017, the people of Turkey voted in a referendum in which they were asked to approve a set of constitutional reforms. The highlight regarding this in the international press was that it was to decide whether or not Turkey was to change from a parliamentary to a presidential system. In reality, it entailed much more.
The basic difference between a parliamentary system and a presidential system is who chooses the executive branch of power. In the first of these the electorate’s votes usually serve to establish legislative power, that is, fill parliament. It is then this institution’s responsibility to choose an suitable president to lead executive power. This is the system which holds in most of Europe, Canada or Australia. In presidential systems the executive is more often than not chosen directly by the people, separating this figure from the legislative power. This is the system which exists in most of Central and South America, the USA and Russia. There are of course more differences, related to the figure of the head of state and the actual power of the executive branch, generally determined by the history of each country.
In the western media the Turkish referendum was often portrayed as a power-grab on the part of the current president, Recep Erdoğan. However, careful inspection of the constitutional articles that are to be modified may not lead one to this conclusion. The proposal includes some very democratic ammendments, such as submitting the acts of president to judicial review, abolishing military courts unless they apply to soldiers, or stating that the judiciary is to act impartially. Some powers are transferred to the president and parliament, but at first glance the reform does not seem suspicious. And the idea of a presidential system is not a new one, in fact as stated above it is common in modern democracies. Is the western media offering a biased image of Turkey?
On the other hand, Erdogan’s government doesn’t need external negative portrayal a lot of the time. It manages to do fine on its own. On 15th July 2016 Turkey suffered a military coup d’etat attempt, with the intention of overthrowing the government and other institutions. After only one day the coup had failed, and a great purge began: tens of thousands of military officers, as well as teachers, judges, governors and civil servants were removed from their posts or arrested. Does this chain of events seem odd? The ease with which the coup was defeated, and the government’s later reaction could be seen as suspicious without resorting to conspiracy theories. Other behaviours, such as the systematic invasion of Greek airspace or the reported suppression of journalists in Turkey are more characteristic of an aggressive dictatorship than a modern democracy.
Could this referendum be Erdogan’s attempt at undoing the sins of the past? Is it really a power grab as reported by Western media? What of last year’s coup? It is easy to judge other countries from the comforts of home, and it is a far too common tendency in the modern world. The U.S.A and Europe also behave in unexpected ways for democracies. From bombing and invading foreign nations, or the manipulation of their governments, to actually signing an agreement with Turkey to help stop the inflow of refugees from Africa, the western world has a tendency towards inhumane and immoral policies when it comes to interactions with other countries. At times, these regions show dictatorial tendencies in their own backyards. In Spain people are being incarcerated for tweets and fined for protesting; in the UK Brexit is threatening to legitimize racism in the public eye; the USA is showing its military might at every chance under the orders of a president who mistreats the press. These are just some obvious examples. Democracies are usually the reign of subtle dictatorial characteristics: manipulated media, limitation of freedom of speech, sneaky votes in the representative chambers and excessive (but always justified in the eyes of politicians) police repression, to name just a few.
We must resist judging other countries’ policies based on uncorroborated or manipulated news. The media sadly doesn’t exist to show us the truth, but to show us the fraction of truth that the powers that be need us to be conscious of on a specific day or week. George Orwell’s double truth is a very valid concept in the 21st century. While in Spain the news publishes almost daily reports about government repression in Venezuela, at home people are sentenced to prison for expressing themselves. While Turkey is a useful ally in keeping the fleeing people of Africa away, the country’s president is portrayed as a potential dictator due to a referendum which would make Turkey look like almost any modern democracy. I don’t mean to say that Erdogan is a saint. But today information is abundant, complex and full of subtleties, and we must be careful with what we read, and what we believe.