By Roberto Pucciano CEO http://www.anchoragegroup.org
Turkish voters appeared to have narrowly chosen to back Turkey’s incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a controversial constitutional referendum this month, after a fiercely fought campaign on both sides. The ‘Yes’ camp claimed victory after results showed it had won a 51.4% share of the vote compared with the ‘No’ camp’s result of 48.6%. Turnout exceeded 80% and was high even among expatriate Turkish communities abroad. The victory was narrower than Erdogan and his supporters had hoped for but still set the seal on a plan to change Turkey from a parliamentary democracy into a presidential republic; arguably it marks the biggest constitutional change for Turkey since the end of the Ottoman Empire and the founding of the Turkish Republic.
The Turkish leader has been in power since 2003, first as prime minister but since 2014 as his country’s president. Theoretically the post of the Turkish presidency is meant to be a neutral, mainly ceremonial one. But under the new proposals it will soon be transformed into a strong executive with the abolishment of the rival prime minister’s office by 2019. Turkish presidents will soon be able to unilaterally declare a state of emergency, appoint ministers and most of the country’s top judges, rule by decree on economic matters and be a member of a political party. This means Erdogan can re-join the ruling Justice & Development Party (AKP) he co-founded, membership of which was theoretically forbidden to him as Turkish president under the old constitution. The new rules also mean Erdogan could be in office and in power until 2029 so long as he keeps winning elections. The referendum result therefore confirms his status as the most powerful and influential political leader in Turkish history since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey.
But the victory is a personal as well as political one for President Erdogan, who had long sought to overturn the old constitution, which though subsequently amended was originally imposed on Turkey in the wake of a brutal 1980 military coup. That more secular era is not remembered fondly by the president or his pious supporters in the country’s Anatolian heartland, who recall the state backed repression against citizens seen as overly religious. Erdogan and his supporters represent a strand of Turkish thinking which has always rejected the overtly pro-Western programme of the country’s founders and looked beyond them, back to the glory days of the Ottoman Empire. By achieving a fundamental transformation of the upper echelons of the Turkish state Erdogan and his supporters see themselves as overturning an illegitimate secular political system, and returning Turkey to its Islamic, Ottoman and Middle Eastern roots.
However, the referendum results also represent an intriguing snapshot of Turkish political opinion in a society where open dissent has increasingly been driven underground by the ruling AKP. They confirm that the base of poplar support for Erdogan and his allies is becoming increasingly narrower the longer they remain in power. The AKP won 363 seats in the Turkish parliament during the 2002 elections, a total which had fallen to 258 seats (and a consequent loss of a parliamentary majority) in the first elections of 2015. Though the governing party was later able reverse this (winning 317 seats in a second election in November that year) and regain its parliamentary majority (for which it needed just 276 seats), economic problems and defections by liberals, Kurds, left wingers and now even some ultra-nationalists from the governing coalition are beginning to tell against the once all-powerful AKP electoral machine.
This helps explain the narrow victory for the AKP in the recent referendum, despite credible allegations of dirty tricks, blatant press censorship and a brutal post-coup purge which has seen tens of thousands of government critics sacked from their work or arrested. Despite holding the referendum under a stage of emergency Erdogan and his allies only just squeaked to victory with the help of expatriate Turkish voters (71% of German Turks and 63% of Dutch Turks voted in favour of the new constitution) and a suspiciously timed announcement from the country’s electoral board that unstamped ballots, which are usually discarded, would be validated. Even the People’s Republican Party (CHP), Turkey’s enfeebled main secularist opposition party, roused itself to contest the fairness of this official meddling to affect the outcome.
Meanwhile the ‘Yes’ campaign surprisingly lost in all three of Turkey’s big cities (Ankara, Izmir and Istanbul), plus the Mediterranean coastal regions and the Kurdish south-east. Buy narrow result aside, Erdogan appears to have taken his referendum victory as a mandate to pursue further radical changes in Turkish society. He has already declared that he intends to pursue a referendum on returning the death penalty to Turkey and extending the state of emergency for another three months on 17 April. In turn the opposition have declared they intend to appeal against the result, cementing a bitter divide in Turkish society between those who follow Erdogan and accept his leadership, and those who loathe the divisive Turkish president. The stage is set for a bitter presidential poll in several years’ time.
Meanwhile the split inside Turkey over Erdogan now extends to Turkey’s Western allies; the European Union, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have all voiced concerns in the aftermath of the vote, as have a number of European governments. In America however, the Trump administration has chosen to congratulate President Erdogan on his victory, perhaps calculating that the Turkish leader needs a show of support given Washington’s continued backing of Kurdish forces in Syria remains a public irritant to Turkey’s government. The erratic Turkish leader alarms European governments but remains a NATO ally and a vital regional power in the Middle East, where President Trump has committed to destroying Islamic State and containing Iran. Turkey’s leader may be moving his country away from Europe but he might not find it as easy to escape interacting with the West as he and his supporters would like.