Erdogan and the Turkish Referendum: A False Promise?

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan narrowly won a referendum granting him sweeping powers, fundamentally altering the Turkish government structure and constitution. The vote, held on 16 April, reflect a deeply divided Turkish public with 51.4 per cent in favour. This divide is due to the fact that it will result in the ‘[scrapping] of the country’s parliamentary system, including the office of the prime minister, in favour of a president with expanded powers.’ These expanded powers include ‘a five-year tenure, for a maximum of two terms,’ the ability to ‘directly appoint top public officials,’ the ‘power to intervene in the judiciary,’ and the power to unilaterally ‘impose a state of emergency.’ The New York Times stated that these changes are a severe departure from the current constitution which ‘establishes neither a parliamentary system nor a presidential one’ but rather a ‘two-head hybrid, with a directly elected parliament and a directly elected president;’ a system that can lead to deadlock on any major policy dispute. Essentially, this shift in the system is an unprecedented one in Turkey’s modern history. The referendum brings to light new questions regarding the Turkish government’s legitimacy, international recognition and reputation. Needless to say, there have been a variety of responses, with the supporters and opponents engaging in a bitter discourse.

Erdogan’s supporters have cited a variety reasons for granting him powers, stressing religious freedom and economic growth. Notably, United States President Donald Trump has offered his congratulations to Erdogan over a telephone call, a move that starkly contrasts with the voiced European concerns. The BBC reported that this phone call ‘will delight Erdogan supporters, who will see it as legitimising the president’s victory’ and ‘dismay opponents.’ Legitimacy from the United States will give Turkey at least a portion of the international support needed to conduct foreign policy.

Presidencia de la República Méxicana, Palacio Nacional, Ciudad de México,

Image courtesy of Presidencia de la República Méxicana, Palacio Nacional, Ciudad de México, © 2015, some rights reserved.

Essentially, ‘supporters [of Erdogan] say a ‘yes’ vote [streamlines] and [modernises] the country; opponents fear the move will lead to [an] increasingly authoritarian rule.’ It is crucial to mention that supporters are not confined to Turkey or even Trump. The New York Times’ Opinion Page stated that the referendum may very well represent a move towards ‘good governance’ where Erdogan symbolises Turkey’s progress towards a more modern, effective political system given that the current system does emphasise maintaining the status quo.

However, it seems that the discrepancy between Erdogan’s supporters and his opponents – rather than the actual content and concrete effects of the change in governance – can be sourced to the idea that the ‘No’ campaign was not allowed access to full resources and circulation.

Turkey’s opposition parties have ‘appealed to the central election authority… to annul the government’s narrow win.’ These appeals are shared by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe. Both European organisations have expressed the following: the campaigns were on an uneven playing field lacking ‘equal opportunity’; ‘unbalances due to the active involvement of the president and several senior officials’; ‘tarnished by a number of officials equating No supporters with terrorist symphathisers’; ‘state resources were misused’; ‘under the state of emergency, essential fundamental freedoms were curtailed’; and ‘the legal framework [was] inadequate for a genuinely democratic referendum’. The assumption here is that Erdogan would have lost the vote ‘had the referendum followed international standards’. This is a critical assumption to keep in mind because the main idea being expressed is that Erdogan does not actually have the support of the Turkish people, and therefore does not have domestic nor international legitimacy. However, ‘Turkey’s high election board has rejected formal calls by the… opposition parties to annul’ the result and Erdogan has stated that Turkey did not ‘see, hear or acknowledge the politically motivated reports of the [OSCE] monitors.’

While Erdogan’s victory has garnered great criticism from the international community, the criticism coming from Europe is especially pertinent given that Turkey’s potential membership to the European Union is at stake. The years of effort and hope to join the EU will very well come to and end with the result of the referendum. The New York Times reports that ‘the result of Turkey’s referendum… could snuff what was left of [the] European Union-Turkey courtship.’ Representatives from Germany have already asked that talks with Turkey cease on grounds that the country is headed towards a dictatorship and would ‘damage the credibility of Europe.’ In fact, Guy Voerhofstadt, ‘the influential leader of liberal in the European Parliament and former prime minister of Belgium’ has stated that the best response for the European Union would be to ‘stop accession talks immediately’ and ‘rethink its relationship with Turkey’. Alongside the European discourse criticising the actions of the Turkish government, during the campaign, Erdogan has stated that ‘the governments of Germany and the Netherlands were Nazi-like,’ perpetuating dangerous, isolationist rhetoric that further alienated European states. Moreover, aside from the vote, Erdogan has asserted that Turkey aims to restore the death penalty, another diversion from the European Union. Considering the entire dialogues of both Turkey and the European Union, it is unlikely that Turkey will gain membership into the European Union anytime soon.

Taking the Turkish discourse and actions at face value, it is clear that the referendum granting Erdogan extended powers will remove the majority of systematic boundaries and precautions of the government structure. The constitution, which has been in place for roughly thirty-five years, will undergo its largest change. While Erdogan’s supporters are expecting increased efficiency and economic prosperity in the government, it will be difficult to realise these goals if the Turkish government does not have the international legitimacy needed to conduct relations and therefore achieve any long-lasting change.