Turkey Set To Vote On Referendum For Constitutional Changes NPR's Ari Shapiro speaks with Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, about the upcoming referendum for constitutional changes in Turkey.

Turkey Set To Vote On Referendum For Constitutional Changes

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This Sunday, voters in Turkey will choose whether they want a new constitutional system. If they answer yes, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will get sweeping control over the country. Earlier today, I spoke with scholar Henri Barkey, who was born in Turkey. He's the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. And I asked him what exactly Erdogan would be able to do if the vote turns out his way.

HENRI BARKEY: The president will have tremendous powers. He will appoint his vice presidents. He will appoint his Cabinet. None of these people will be responsible to the Parliament. Parliament will not have the right to approve them or even question them, in fact. And the president will also be able to, in many circumstances, issue laws and in effect will also decide when there will be elections. So - and there's also actually a loophole. Even though the constitutional changes say that the president is limited to two terms, there's a loophole that will allow the president to run for a third term. So Erdogan is trying to create a system whereby he will be in power for another at least 14 years starting in 2019 when the new system comes into existence.

SHAPIRO: What reasoning does Erdogan give for Turkey's need to move away from democracy towards this more authoritarian form of government?

BARKEY: First of all, he will not say that they're moving towards an authoritarian system - on the contrary. What the Turkish government and Erdogan keep saying is that this is actually an improvement, that the Turkish political system was very erratic and unstable, and this will bring stability. And the government claims that with a more stable system, they'll be able to bring in much more coherent economic policy, more coherent foreign policy and so on and so forth.

SHAPIRO: What do you expect is going to happen on Sunday?

BARKEY: That's going to be very interesting. I think the polls at the moment show - and you can't really believe any of the polls at the moment or any of the newspapers in Turkey, but the polls show that it's a close call. I think there might be a surprise. I'm not 100 percent sure, but I think the fact that the referendum polls show that this is a very, very close contest to me is an indication that there is a secret no vote that has not yet materialized. That is to say, with all this pressure on citizens, constant propaganda in television and newspapers, speeches, et cetera - that there still is such a large no vote to me indicates that there is something that's not right.

SHAPIRO: Turkey, of course, shares a border with Syria and has been an important U.S. ally in the region. How does this vote stand to change the U.S.-Turkish relationship?

BARKEY: The Turkish-American relationship is going to be stressed only because even if it's a yes vote, the fact that this has become a very, very oppressive system should be a problem for the United States. The United States cannot be very friendly with and have a NATO ally that jails journalists right, left and center, has fired 7,000 people from universities. If you send a tweet that the president doesn't like, you end up in jail. I mean, these are gross, gross violations that so far have not been met with great criticism from the United States. I think the U.S. has been waiting for the referendum to take place.

And I would also argue that the Turkish political system may be more stable in the next few years, but when you impose a system this oppressive on a population that has, yes, has had many military coup d'etats but has had a history and a tradition of free electoral system, changing parties, voting for different parties. I think in four or five years, we're going to see a backlash in Turkish society against the system, and that's when Turkey will become unstable. It's going to be short-term stability versus long-term instability.

SHAPIRO: Henri Barkey is director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here in Washington. Thanks very much.

BARKEY: Thank you.

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