Turkish Referendum Postmortem: More Power To Erdoğan, But With Cracks In His Armour

04/23/2017 08:30 pm ET Updated Apr 24, 2017
Demonstration by supporters of President Erdoğan, 22 July 2016.
Mstyslav Chernov - Published under Creative Commons
Demonstration by supporters of President Erdoğan, 22 July 2016.

This is the full-length original text of the interview I gave to Brazilian newspaper O Estado de São Paulo. The Portuguese version, published on Sunday 23 April, can be accessed here.

The referendum on 16 April to enhance presidential powers has been the most unfair and controversial election that Turkey held since 1950. The playing field was highly unequal, with the ‘yes’ side taking full advantage of state resources and controlling almost all of the mainstream media. The campaign and voting took place under a state of emergency, in place since last July’s coup attempt, at a time when many critical journalists and opposition MPs were in jail. The ‘no’ side was frequently attacked and harassed, and generally prevented from campaigning freely.

The voting day also brought up evidence of wrongdoing. Most notably, the Supreme Election Council, the body regulating and overseeing elections, issued an unprecedented decision in the middle of the voting process, announcing that ballots without official stamps would also be counted in the tally, effectively violating the law and undermining the legitimacy of the election. Particularly in the Kurdish southeast, there were hundreds of cases of “block voting”, where one person voted ‘yes’ on behalf of an entire village or town.

The reports of the OSCE, whose observers were in Turkey for the referendum, and the EU Commission reflected the view that the referendum had failed to meet international standards. The two opposition parties, the CHP and the HDP, have filed formal complaints, demanding (and being refused) a recount or a repeat of the referendum. There are some street protests going on, defying the emergency laws.

The government has ignored these protests, with President Erdoğan declaring the result – 51% for ‘yes’ – a fait accompli and comparing the election to a football match where “a win is a win”. Characteristically, he also lambasted western observers for meddling in Turkey’s affairs. But the process and the contested outcome will further polarize Turkey’s society and erode trust in its state institutions, boding more instability in the near future.

Estadão: Why is the referendum being considered the most important turning point in Turkey’s politics since the First World War?

The referendum symbolizes a major turning point for Turkey. The constitutional amendments aim at changing Turkey’s system of parliamentary democracy, which goes back to the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century, with a strong executive presidentialism. The changes bring about an extremely powerful presidency with very weak checks and balances; a populist one-man system rather than a system of presidentialism within a liberal democratic framework. Therefore the vote was not just about system change, but also about whether Turkey would remain a flawed democracy or exit democracy completely. Some observers have called this a ‘democide’, the death of a democracy through elections.

E: Is Erdoğan now more powerful although nearly half the electorate voted against him?

Institutionally yes, but socio-politically no. Institutionally, his already extensive powers will now be secured by the constitution. He will be able to officially rejoin his former party and freely engage in politics; previously he was violating the constitution, which requires the president to be non-partisan. His ability to rule by decree will be enhanced. He will be able to appoint most of the senior judges and prosecutors and handpick members of the Constitutional Court. From 2019 onwards, the president will also have the power to dissolve the parliament and call for new elections. These are fundamental changes to the existing system, which will be extremely difficult to undo or reform once they are put in place.

Despite these extensive powers, the referendum also showed that at least 49% of the population was against the proposed changes, including some in the government’s own conservative constituencies and a majority of the nationalist voters from the far-right MHP, who rebelled against their leadership’s decision to back the ‘yes’ campaign. It seems that Erdoğan’s strategy of ruling by tension and polarization is proving increasingly costly not just for Turkey, which is mired in ever-deepening socio-political and economic problems, but also for the AKP government as well.

E: What do you think of the argument, put forward by President Erdoğan’s supporters, that given Turkey's history of coups, civil strife and failed coalition politics, a stronger executive is a necessity. Can the result be good for Turkey?

The ‘yes’ campaign’s main argument for the constitutional changes is that a strong executive is necessary for an efficient government freed from the tutelage of the bureaucracy. This argument is flawed on numerous grounds. It is true that Turkey has suffered from the undemocratic guardianship of the military and there has been broad consensus in society for over a decade that this had to change. Indeed, under the AKP, the system of military tutelage had been disassembled (although in a highly contested manner and largely outside the rule of law).

Conversely, what the latest changes will undo in the name of political efficiency is the democratic separation of powers and institutional checks and balances that are essential to a functioning democracy. This is a recipe for authoritarian rule, which is sure to close off avenues for public deliberation, increase socio-political tensions and lead to more (not less) civil strife. And thus it will ultimately prove more inefficient, which goes against the core argument of these changes.

Let us also remember that the AKP has governed Turkey without a formal coalition and under a de facto one-man rule at least since 2011. Yet this has not prevented political crises, civil strife or even coup attempts from taking place. What Turkey needs is a constitution based on political pluralism, that safeguards civil liberties and oversees a degree of devolution of authority from the excessively powerful central government to local administrations. The changes voted in this referendum do not offer remedies to Turkey’s core problems; on the contrary, they risk making these worse.

E: Does the outcome of the referendum indicate any potential changes in how Turkey deals with terrorism, such as the Kurdish insurgency and the wave of Islamic State attacks?

On the Islamic State front, not much will change. Turkey’s IS problem is unfortunately just starting and it will become more acute if and when the jihadist militants are pushed out of Syria and Iraq and withdraw to Turkey, where they already have established networks, sleeper cells and a degree of societal support. The direction of the Kurdish conflict also depends to a significant extent on the dynamics in Syria; Turkey’s opposition to the Syrian Kurdish forces (YPG) in that country is fueling much of the tension inside Turkey too.

Even though the support for the AKP in the Kurdish-dominated southeast of Turkey apparently rose in this referendum, this seems at least partly a result of heavy security presence, disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of voters through conflict and displacement, and possibly voting fraud.

That being said, there is always some room for surprise in Erdoğan’s pragmatist approach towards the Kurdish issue. He may well initiate another unexpected “Kurdish opening”, although he is unlikely to find too many counterparts willing to work with him this time. The damage that last few years’ violence and fiercely nationalistic rhetoric has done to Erdoğan and the AKP’s standing among Turkey’s Kurds should not be underestimated.

E: What’s the meaning of the ‘yes’ defeat in Turkey's largest cities, including Istanbul, where Erdoğan was once mayor?

The ‘no’ vote prevailed in most of the major centres of tourism and industry in the country. This is an important indication of changing demographic and socio-political dynamics. Turkey’s two biggest cities, Istanbul and the capital Ankara were won by centre-right and Islamist political movements consistently since the early 1990s. The AKP started off as a predominantly urban-based movement, appealing in particular to lower middle class voters in the fringes of big cities, with roots in the countryside but aspirations for upwards socio-economic mobility. It has maintained support of these groups by delivering better public services as well as economic growth and opportunities for almost a decade.

But Turkey’s economic and political fortunes have been fading once again in recent years and for a growing number of people in the cities the AKP is looking like a source rather than a solution to their problems. This first became clear in the general election of June 2015, where the AKP lost about 10% support. Since that election, Erdoğan has been trying to consolidate his base by appealing to nationalist, religious and populist sentiments. This is a very dangerous strategy that can deliver electoral results in the short term, but is unlikely to attract parts of the population who want better and more secure living standards in the long term. And it seems that a considerable portion of these people were not convinced that the proposed system would bring about the changes they desired.

‘No’ signs at the parliamentary meeting of the HDP, 17 January 2017.
Wikimedia - Published under Creative Commons
‘No’ signs at the parliamentary meeting of the HDP, 17 January 2017.

E: Does the result show that a united front against Erdoğan has a chance of providing an alternative?

There is no united front against Erdoğan; this has been the chronic problem of Turkish politics. The more than 49% that voted ‘no’ in the referendum is made up of groups that can hardly stand together, represented roughly by the three opposition parties, the part-secular nationalist-part-social democrat CHP, the far-right Turkish nationalist MHP and the part-Kurdish nationalist-part leftist HDP. The inability of these parties to come together became evident when they failed even at considering to form a coalition in 2015.

However, there will be a different dynamic at work for the first presidential election under the new system, which will be held in November 2019. At the moment the MHP looks more divided than ever and it is possible that the party will split into two. The opposition can have a chance to challenge Erdoğan if they can find and unite around a charismatic candidate who can appeal to both the nationalist rebels from the MHP, secularists from the CHP and the Kurdish voters from the HDP, as well as some former supporters of the AKP who are disillusioned with the government. A tall order, but two-and-a-half years is a long time.

E: What are the prospects for Turkey’s association with the European Union now?

Even before the referendum the EU-Turkey relationship had been at a historical low point. The pre-referendum report of the Venice Commission (the independent body of constitutional experts) stated clearly that the changes would push Turkey further down “the road to autocracy”. Turkey has never been as far as it is today from fulfilling the conditions required for membership in the EU. And the EU has never been so weak, so divided and so far from offering Turkey any meaningful prospect.

During the campaign the tension between the Turkish government and various European countries boiled over. This mostly had to do with the right-wing populist discourse dominating both sides; anti-western nationalism in Turkey and anti-Turkish, Islamophobic nationalism in countries like the Netherlands and Austria. The rise of such populist discourse will only pull Turkey and Europe further apart from each other. The only thing that is holding the two sides together at the moment is the refugee deal signed between the EU and Turkey last year. The Turkish government has been using this deal as a leverage against European leaders, occasionally threatening to “open the floodgates” and let masses of destitute refugees flow into Europe.

E: What’s the likelihood that the death penalty gets reinstated in Turkey and what would this mean?

The death penalty was abolished in 2002, just before the AKP came to power, as part of Turkey’s accession process to the European Union. Since last July’s coup attempt, President Erdoğan has been talking about bringing it back. This would spell disaster for Turkey, given the lack of rule of law and due justice in the country at the moment. It would also mark the official end of Turkey’s long and troubled journey towards the EU. But Erdoğan doesn’t seem to care. He believes that the age of liberal democracy is coming to an end and the future belongs to strongmen like Putin and Trump. These are the leaders whom he takes seriously. Having had to contain his patriarchal tendencies in the past, he now feels free to unleash them to his heart’s desire.

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