On April 16, Turkish citizens will (most likely) vote on whether they want to amend the constitution to give their president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even more power than he already has.
Erdogan’s supporters insist that a Yes vote, by creating a strong presidential system, will put a permanent end to Turkey’s traumatic and recent history of military coups and terrorist violence. Critics, meanwhile, warn that by ratifying Erdogan’s authoritarian rule, the referendum will solidify Turkey’s transformation from a troubled democracy into a de facto dictatorship.
Not surprisingly, independent observers almost all side with Erdogan’s critics in opposing the referendum. And yet, despite a general consensus that the stakes for Turkey and the region are high, there is reason to fear both outcomes could lead to continued chaos.
The biggest question remains whether there is any outcome that could optimistically be expected to bring Turkey a period of much-needed political stability.
Amidst a heavy-handed campaign in support of the referendum—in which opponents have been denied broadcast air time, called traitors, and even arrested—polls have consistently shown the Turkish electorate evenly split. Despite enormous pressure to support the president, many members of his own party are privately skeptical, giving further reason to think that No might prevail.
Yet anyone who’s watched Erdogan’s run of political successes over the past decade and a half is hesitant to bet against him. Erdogan recently picked a high-profile fight with the Dutch to drum up support, and rumors are rife that he might take more dramatic measures against Kurdish terrorists in Iraq or Syria to inflame nationalist sentiment in the remaining two weeks before the vote. To date, there is no evidence that the government plans to completely rig the results, but it does have plenty of dubious methods at its disposal to potentially pick up a few illegitimate points in a close race. A recent move to block opposition poll-watchers did not inspire confidence.
Moreover, if Erdogan cannot find the votes to win the referendum, he has plenty of other routes open for consolidating his power. In Turkey’s chaotic circumstances, he could simply find a pretext for postponing the referendum and continue to rule with his already considerable powers until circumstances were more conducive. Even if the referendum fails, he could hold new elections, hoping that if smaller opposition parties fell below the country’s steep 10 percent threshold for representation his party would have the votes in parliament to amend the constitution directly without a referendum.
The biggest question remains whether there is any outcome that could optimistically be expected to bring Turkey a period of much-needed political stability. Would Erdogan, either confident after a win or chastened after a loss, turn away from the divisive nationalism and confrontational populism that has increasingly defined his approach to politics over the past several years? Could he return to negotiations in order to end the country’s war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or reverse the paranoid political culture and proliferation of armed political factions that have taken hold since the coup attempt of last summer?
Anything is possible: Erdogan has shown himself capable of remarkable pragmatism before, and knows he will ultimately need good relations with neighboring countries and his own people to make Turkey into the global power he aspires to lead. Yet barring a dramatic and unambiguous victory, it may prove difficult for Erdogan to shift course. Over the last few years he has put himself in a position where losing is no longer an option while the kind of decisive win that would give him a sense of security remains out of reach.
Erdogan has long insisted that a wide array of foreign and domestic enemies are arrayed against him and in doing so helped give life to his fears. His campaigns against Kurdish nationalists, secularists, and followers of the preacher Fetullah Gulen have generated a degree of anger and suspicion that decreases the space for compromise and maneuver. Moreover, as Turkish politics becomes uglier, Erdogan and his supporters have ever more reason to fear the consequences of losing power. If a defeat in the April referendum emboldens the government’s opponents, Erdogan, with his back against the wall, would have only his hardcore supporters—and their fears—to fall back on for self-preservations. Were Erdogan to win the referendum by a narrow margin, perhaps amongst accusations of voting irregularities or even widespread protests, Erdogan would still feel under attack, likely leading to similar outcome.
That the results of the referendum are still in doubt is another reminder that Erdogan’s rule is not as secure as it sometimes seems. The danger for Turkey is that Erdogan has already accumulated enough power that, even in defeat, he could easily bring the entire country down with him.