A dark cloud of illegitimacy hovers over the Turkey referendum vote in favor of 18 constitutional amendments that will dramatically increase the power of the presidency and could extend President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s term in office until 2034. The result is likely to be an extended period of tension that could increase Erdogan’s paranoia, deepening divisions in Turkey and worsening Turkey’s relations with the EU and possibly the United States both of which are likely to view the referendum outcome as a further giant step down Turkey’s path to authoritarian rule.
There is little chance the vote, a 51-49 squeaker, will be overturned. The Higher Election Council (YSK by its Turkish acronym) to which Turkey’s opposition will appeal is dominated by Erdoganists, and, based on precedent, Turkey’s Constitutional Court will not overturn decisions of the YSK. Rulings by the YSK that allowed ballots in unsealed envelopes to be counted and overlooked various other infractions prompted opposition CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu to appeal the validity of some 2.5 million ballots.
Coupled with the facts that the campaign took place under emergency rule, stifling the ability of “no” voters to publicize their views and that some half-million displaced Kurds in Turkey’s southeast were largely denied access to the ballot box, this is likely to be the first time since Turkey began competitive elections in 1950 that the losers can raise justifiable claims that the outcome of a national election was the result of fraud. Few, if any, of those who voted “no” will see Erdogan’s victory as legitimate. Mass, possibly violent, demonstrations against the result are a distinct possibility.
It should be noted that as of Monday morning, the vote is not officially certified. Rather, it has been reported by the state-run Anadolu News Agency (ANA), based on its own sources. However, Erdogan declared victory on the basis of those reports, and few doubt that the final YSK-approved vote total will differ much from the one reported by ANA.
Even as reported by ANA, the vote represents a moral defeat for Erdogan, who asked Turkish voters to pass the measure by a 60% margin while claiming every vote would be “a cornerstone of our revival.” Instead the vote, as reported, was a barn-burner. The “no” vote triumphed in virtually all of Turkey’s largest cities, marking the first time that AKP has been defeated in Istanbul and Ankara since it first began contesting elections in 2002.
AKP, which won more than 49 percent in two of the previous three parliamentary elections, was counting on its alliance with hard-nationalist MHP to put it over the top. That combination was the ticket to winning a 60 percent vote in parliament that made the referendum possible. That coalition indeed may have carried the day – again, treating the ANA reports as accurate – but even the reported “yes” vote (51.3 percent) fell well below the combined vote of the AKP and MHP in the last parliamentary election in November 2015. At that time, AKP took 49.5 percent and MHP 11.9 percent, for a total of 61.4 percent — almost exactly ten percentage points more than Sunday’s “yes” vote. In province after province, the “yes” lagged far behind that of the combined November 2015 AKP-MHP vote, reflecting the lack of enthusiasm for the amendments among many AKP voters and the outright opposition of – according to many polls – the clear majority of MHP voters. It also reflected AKP’s failure to articulate a convincing rationale for backing the new system other than for the sake of showing support for Erdogan.
Ironically, despite his alliance with the MHP, Erdogan appears to have picked up votes in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern region of Turkey, though it is too soon to know why with any certainty. Some conservative Kurds may have supported the referendum out of frustration with the behavior of the PKK, or perhaps in the hope that Erdogan, empowered, would revive negotiations with the group. At the same time, in a region where hundreds of thousands of people were displaced after more than a year of fighting, and where there has been little media scrutiny on the effects of emergency rule, voter suppression may also have been a major factor in driving up Erdogan’s Kurdish support.
However it was achieved, though Erdogan’s victory was not pyrhhic. Erdogan succeeded in vastly strengthening his office, as he has long desired, by altering roughly one-third of the articles of Turkey’s constitution. He will dramatically increase his influence over the judiciary, will assume total control over Turkey’s administrative apparatus and personnel without parliamentary oversight, and will gain the right to issue decrees with the force of law in many areas of Turkish life. Parliament’s powers will be reduced concomitantly. Taken as a whole, these many changes would give Erdogan or any subsequent president the opportunity vastly to restrict freedom of expression and other rights, a process already well underway in Erdogan’s Turkey even before the coup attempt of July 2015.
The first major change to take place after the YSK vote becomes official is that Erdogan will once again be eligible officially to lead AKP. He has done so unofficially since becoming president in August 2014. Prior to this development, Turkish presidents have been constitutionally required to sever all party ties upon taking office; that will now change.
The judicial oversight board will be restructured to reflect greater presidential influence within 40 days, and, over the first 60 days, parliament will prepare implementing legislation for all the many constitutional changes. Perhaps the most immediately visible change – the disappearance of the prime ministry and the appointment of “one or more Vice-Presidents” – will take place only after the next election, currently scheduled for November 3, 2019, but which could take place earlier if parliament’s AKP majority so decides. In that election and all subsequent ones, the president and parliament will be elected on the same day by separate ballots but always on the same day – one of the odder features of the unique system upon which Turkey is about to embark.
Emboldened by the victory but still paranoid after such a close and contested outcome, Erdogan is likely to double-down on his harsh rule.
Emboldened by the victory but still paranoid after such a close and contested outcome, Erdogan is likely to double-down on his harsh rule. Convinced that reconciliation with his domestic opponents is impossible, his taste for no-holds-barred political combat and his commitment to playing the nationalist card will increase. He has already signaled his interest in re-imposing the death penalty in Turkey, a move that would quite likely end Turkey’s decades-long quest for EU membership. Erdogan seems almost eager for that result, removing a European point of leverage in a relationship that Erdogan feels he can dominate via the refugee issue.
Less predictable is Turkey’s future relationship with Washington. It’s unclear whether and how much the Trump administration will be bothered by Turkey’s further turn away from democracy. Despite veiled pre-referendum criticism from the State Department, the Administration may perceive little change in Turkey going forward. By now, the United States is accustomed to the idea that only one man counts in Turkey’s decision-making. Moreover, Turkey has been under emergency rule, something close to a dictatorship, since the start of the Trump administration; there is no sign that it will end soon, and the administration has not complained. The system passed in Sunday’s referendum is certainly not less democratic than emergency rule.
For his part, Erdogan cannot easily write off the relationship with Washington, say, by suddenly denying the United States and the anti-ISIS coalition access to Incirlik airbase. Unhappy though he is about U.S. support for Syria’s Kurds, a total break with the United States would weaken what leverage he has had in restraining U.S.-Kurdish cooperation in northern Syria, and might open him up to more consistent criticism on human rights as well.
In the aftermath of yesterday’s referendum, Turkey is unlikely to experience the stability or return to normalcy that many yes voters hoped. The country will remain divided, and its ties to the rest of the world strained. Turkey’s citizens and foreign partners are now bracing for what comes next.