Turkey’s autocratic president Recep Tayyip Erdogan added another critical, albeit controversial electoral win to his column last Sunday. A referendum officially changing the regime from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential system with little or no checks and balances passed with a narrow margin (51-49 percent).
With the Constitutional amendments, the position of Prime Minister will be dissolved, and all executive powers transferred to the President. The President can bypass Parliament, which loses considerable powers, by issuing decrees on a wide range of topics. The old constitutional requirement for the President to be neutral from political parties, which has been constantly undermined by Erdogan since he was elected in 2014, is gone. The new system grants the President authority to call for early elections, whereas the Parliament can do the same with three-fifths majority. Presidential and parliamentary elections will be held on the same day. According to a Center for American Progress report by Alan Makovsky, “The amendments package would reinforce the president’s growing control of the judiciary, potentially to the point of total dominance.”
The bulk of the constitutional amendments will be effective in 2019, except for three which could be immediately implemented: The articles allowing the president to join a political party, shape governing bodies of judges and prosecutors, and reduce military court jurisdiction to the disciplinary domain only. By being able to join the AKP again, Erdogan will have the upper hand in controlling internal opposition and picking completely loyal candidates for parliamentary elections. Any possible legal challenge from the judiciary will be eliminated, since Erdogan can now directly appoint four members of the influential Council of Judges and Prosecutors and the remaining seven members will be determined by parliament which is currently under AKP control. This could be the last nail in the coffin of independent and impartial judiciary in Turkey.
Unless the opposition’s calls for annulment due to widely reported election irregularities materialize, which is not likely, Turkey will move further away from the Western-style democracies to its West and closer to the autocratic arc that surrounds it to the North, East and South. The constitutional amendments make it possible for President Erdogan to continue calling almost all the shots, only now under a legal framework and with almost full immunity. In a highly divided and polarized nation of 80 million, such power concentration could lead to more political volatility, human rights abuses, corruption and economic troubles, instead of stability.
Turkey’s unprecedented regime change also means a reversal of most EU-bound reforms if not the end of full membership negotiations which have so far kept hopes for democracy and human rights flickering in one of the world’s key Muslim majority nations. It was no accident Erdogan’s first major promise after referendum win was to push for death penalty, which was abolished in 2004 to harmonize with the EU. With increasingly diminishing mutual democratic credentials, the West will most probably be left with a transactional partner and a “frenemy,” that occasionally flirts with rivals such as Russia.
Despite Erdogan’s contested mathematical win, the moral victory belongs to the ‘no’ camp in Turkey’s referendum, due to extremely unfavorable circumstances under which they have operated. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been muzzling freedoms of the press, expression and assembly since the Gezi protests and corruption scandal in 2013. Conditions dramatically deteriorated after the failed coup attempt of last July. While many crucial details about the coup remain murky, Erdogan successfully used fear and frustration to galvanize his conservative base, pump anti-Western nationalism, play the victim and suppress dissent.
The no camp, which already suffered from lack of effective opposition leaders, was deprived of a charismatic Kurdish politician, HDP Chairman Selahattin Demirtas, when he was jailed on political charges. Many other Kurdish politicians are in jail or ousted from their elected posts, which gave an edge for the yes campaign especially in the southeastern region of the country. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds have been internally displaced or intimidated. Nearly 180 independent media outlets have been shut down, more than a hundred critical journalists jailed, and thousands are on the run due to fear of arrest. Most television networks, which are very instrumental in shaping Turkish public opinion, have been supportive of Erdogan or offered guarded criticism. The ‘Yes’ camp used government resources during the campaign while their opponents faced systematic hurdles including denied permits, physical abuses, torn posters and threats by local authorities and Erdogan fans. Erdogan even accused the no camp of siding with terrorists.
The information flow during the vote count was monopolized via government run news agency Anadolu, since its independent competitor Cihan has been shutdown. Anadolu waited to air data from ballot boxes with majority yes for a long time after the polls were closed. The opposition believes that was intended to discourage opposition poll observers from waiting for the vote count and create a sense of victory for the yes camp. After observers pointed to discrepancies between the rate of opened ballots and vote tallies reported on the High Electoral Board website and Anadolu feed, the website become inaccessible for some time.
In the meantime, the High Electoral Board, which is comprised of judges, changed the rules mid-stream, by validating about 2.5 million ballots that did not have the official stamp required by election legislation. Scenes of alleged election irregularities and fraud flooded social media. However, Erdogan did not hesitate to rush onto TV to declare his victory in the absence of concession by the opposition and clarification of the outcome.
Issuing a statement on preliminary findings and conclusions, international election observers sent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) stated that the Constitutional referendum took place on a “unlevel playing field.” According to the OSCE, while the technical aspects of the referendum were “well administered,” late changes in counting procedures “removed an important safeguard.” The OSCE observer mission also pointed out that under the State of Emergency put in place after the July 2016 failed coup, “fundamental freedoms” were curtailed and the dismissal or detention of thousands of citizens “negatively affected” the political environment. Those comments infuriated Erdogan who in return said “know your place” to the observers of a watchdog of which Turkey is a founding member.
Emboldened by the criticism of international observers and outpouring public protests, opposition parties declared they don’t recognize the outcome of the referendum and filed official complaints. Turkish law does not offer much room for appeals to the High Electoral Board actions and the Constitutional Court is not immune from Erdogan’s political maneuvers. The Board rejected appeals on Wednesday. However, a high profile and sustained campaign questioning the referendum outcome could cast a dark cloud over the legitimacy of the new regime and bolster dissidents. There is even talk in opposition circles of boycotting the parliament so as to force an early election.
Erdogan’s hands are not tied, of course. The parliament controlled by pro-Erdogan AKP immediately extended the State of Emergency which gives security and judicial bodies extraordinary powers in dealing with dissent. Security forces are now arresting peaceful protestors who contest the referendum outcome. If Erdogan goes with further crack down on the opposition, his legitimacy would be further undermined. If he doesn’t act forcefully, dissenters might gain strength and seriously challenge his rule.
Erdogan is walking a tightrope because there are signs of erosion in his own base. Several major AKP figures, who were sidelined by Erdogan, such as former President Abdullah Gul and former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, have never publicly endorsed the yes campaign. Erdogan had to form an alliance with the leading Turkish nationalist party, MHP, and that didn’t pay off very much at the polls. In parliamentary elections of November 2015, AKP and MHP total votes were around 61.4 percent. In this week’s vote, the ‘yes’ camp ended up with 51.3 percent, which points to at least 10 percent defection from both parties’ bases. Clearly, a significant number of conservative and nationalists refrained from granting excessive executive powers to Erdogan. In most of Turkey’s major cities, such as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, ‘no’ votes prevailed, while ‘yes’ won decisively in less industrialized and rural areas except for Kurdish majority regions. For Erdogan, losing Istanbul, where he started his election winning streak as mayor in the 1990s, must have been particularly painful.
If his health conditions permit and he keeps winning elections, Erdogan can potentially rule Turkey as president until 2034. His current term ends in 2019. The new constitution grants a president two consecutive 5-year terms (until 2029) if elected. Technically, Erdogan could also call for early elections shortly before the end of a possible second term and win another five years. Such a privilege would even outmatch Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of Republic of Turkey and many Ottoman sultans.
Turkey has had its ups and downs with democracy since its first multiparty elections in 1946, however this is the first instance that the nation has granted a sweeping and loosely-checked authority to a single person via electoral processes. Although references to Ataturk and secularism have been preserved in the new Constitution, Erdogan’s Islamist supporters see Erdogan’s victory as the end of the Kemalist era by a popular revolution. In various ways, the secular Republic founded by Ataturk is changing into an Islamist leaning Republic under Erdogan. What will most probably come next is flooding the bureaucratic openings created by post-coup purges with cadres from Islamist backgrounds. Increasing his grip on the education system and media would help Erdogan raise a new ‘pious generation’ loyal primarily to him to pursue with the regime building. For some Erdogan’s Islamist fans, his mission would be completely fulfilled when he reinstates the Sunni Caliphate which was abolished by Ataturk. Such a move, if successful, bears the potential to dramatically change the strategic calculus in the region and the world.
Thanks to its unique geostrategic assets and historical relevance, it’s always better to make Turkey part of the solution in a number of critical foreign policy issues. That’s why both the U.S. and Europe cannot totally dismiss Turkey just because it’s turning into a one-man regime under Erdogan. The West has so far preferred compartmentalizing democratic ideals on one hand and other strategic interests on the other.
During the campaign Erdogan used the decision of the German and Dutch governments not to allow pro-yes rallies led by AKP figures to portray them as children of ‘Nazis’ and ‘fascists.’ While his ‘anti-Crusader’ message resonated with his base and generated votes, voices in Europe calling for ending Turkey’s membership process were louder. As for Erdogan, given the scope of the purges and other human rights abuses, maintaining what are now frayed ties with the European Union might not be sustainable, although he still holds the Syrian refugee card as key leverage with his European counterparts. And he will have to carefully calculate the economic repercussions of distancing Turkey from Europe, which is a major source of foreign direct investments. All this points to a tenser and increasingly transactional relationship between Europe and Turkey.