The man who nearly reconstituted Turkey

FOR the past 92 years, says Osman Can (pictured), a former heavyweight in Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) party, his country has lived under three constitutions, each a product of upheaval and none of them democratic. The first set the stage for a secular one-party regime. The next two followed military coups. The newest, adopted by parliament in January and set for a referendum on April 16th, is no exception. Billed by the AK government as a safeguard against political chaos, the new charter would transfer all executive power into the hands of the country’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. If approved, it would be the most comprehensive overhaul of the state apparatus since the birth of the Turkish republic.

It is not what Mr Can and most Turks had in mind. As a respected jurist, and subsequently as a member of AK’s top executive body, Mr Can campaigned to replace the current junta-drafted constitution with a civilian one. A constitutional committee was set up in 2011; more than 60,000 people, as well as hundreds of universities, think-tanks and NGOs, wrote in with proposals. Turks made it clear that they wanted a charter that enshrined new rights, notably by lifting restrictions on free speech, strengthening checks and balances and ensuring the independence of the judiciary, says Fuat Keyman of the Istanbul Policy Centre, a think-tank.

The committee collapsed after two years amid squabbles between AK and the Republican People’s Party, the main opposition. Faced with a wave of anti-government protests, a corruption scandal and a falling-out between AK and the Gulen movement, a powerful sect, Mr Erdogan marshalled his nationalist base and stepped up repression. The constitution Mr Can had wanted to write went up in smoke. “The priority became to save the day and consolidate power,” he says.

The new charter was drafted late last year, after a failed coup and amid a mass crackdown on any form of opposition. Some 40,000 people, including the leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party and over 100 journalists, have been thrown in prison. Mr Erdogan rules by decree under a state of emergency that will remain throughout the referendum campaign. The press has been defanged.

The revised charter enshrines Mr Erdogan’s power. It abolishes the office of prime minister, leaving the president fully in charge of the government. Instead of ensuring the separation of powers, it gathers them together under the roof of Mr Erdogan’s gaudy 1,150-room palace. The Turkish leader would handpick his own cabinet, other senior officials and his party’s MPs. He would be free to rule uncontested for up to two five-year terms, and under some circumstances into the early 2030s.

“Under normal circumstances this would not pass,” says Mr Can, referring to the constitutional changes. But normality in Turkey is gone. The Venice Commission, an advisory body to the Council of Europe, has warned in a leaked report that the country is on the road to autocracy. Mr Erdogan and his prime minister, Binali Yildirim, have threatened opponents of the new constitution by comparing them to terrorists and coup plotters. Neither Mr Erdogan’s predecessor as president nor Mr Yildirim’s as prime minister, both believed to be critical of the new constitution, have dared to make their views public. With thousands purged from universities across the country, many academics who took part in the constitutional debate in the early 2010s are also reluctant to speak up.

Members of Mr Erdogan’s team insist the country needs strong leadership to stave off the turmoil at home and abroad, including terrorist attacks and the war in Syria. But the kind of democratic reforms under debate in the early 2010s are not off the table, suggests Mehmet Ucum, a presidential adviser. “Think of this [constitution] as the beginning,” he says.

Mr Erdogan’s critics think of it as the end. Those who can afford to do so have already started to vote with their feet. According to a recent survey, 6,000 millionaires left Turkey in 2016, a fivefold increase on the previous year. As Turkey’s democracy unravels, more are likely to follow.