By Emma Champion, Turkey analyst for the IISS Armed Conflict Database
The referendum campaign was divisive. Polls were evenly split, and many analysts argued that this decision was one of the most important in Turkey’s history.
The proposals generated friction within Turkey’s borders, amplified diplomatic tensions between Turkey and Europe, and held wider repercussions for human security in Turkey – particularly for Erdogan’s opponents in the public sector and media.
A ‘dictatorship project’
Constitutional amendment is nothing new to Turkey. Since its initial approval in 1982, the Turkish Constitution has been amended 17 times, twice by means of a referendum, altering over 60% of its articles. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which spearheaded the ‘yes’ vote, endorsed constitutional reform as a positive and democratic change from a parliamentary system to a ‘Turkish-style’ presidential system, promising to reduce the likelihood of ineffective coalitions governing Turkey.
However, the scope of changes proposed by the 18-article amendment package has been widely criticised for its potential to erode the separation of powers, and to create an authoritarian regime on Europe’s doorstep.
The amendments will enable the president to retain direct party affiliation while serving as both head of state and head of the executive. Among other powers, the president will be able to set the state budget, and freely appoint ministers and vice presidents with no veto granted to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TGNA). Diluted checks and balances will additionally ensure that the Turkish parliament cannot hold a vote of confidence against the president, while the president retains the ability to dissolve parliament at will.
Inevitably, these changes will enable the president to hold patronage over the legislative and executive agenda. Critics within the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), have decried these amendments as part of a ‘dictatorship project’, structured to secure Erdogan’s position as the leader of the country for at least the next decade. One of the amendments involves creating an additional 50 seats in the TGNA, which could enable Erdogan to carve out a geographical advantage for the AKP to obtain a critical two-thirds majority in future elections.
While the amendments are not planned to come into force until the next round of elections in 2019, AKP sources have indicated that the changes could be passed rapidly.
Silencing the opposition
Since the July 2016 coup attempt, internal sources estimate that over 47,000 people have been arrested on suspicion of links to terrorism, including 2,000 members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Under the auspices of a nine-month state of emergency, tens of thousands of civil servants, judges and academics have been dismissed and 149 media outlets closed. Amnesty International recently reported that a third of imprisoned journalists worldwide are currently held in Turkish prisons, and CHP representative Utku Cakirozer estimates that up to 90% of Turkish media is under government control.
For Erdogan, silencing opposition channels has become a non-negotiable tenet of his presidency. Many commentators have argued that this referendum failed to respect the democratic values of free speech and an independent press, and has prevented opponents from campaigning effectively.
More critically, perhaps, these purges and suppression of the ‘no’ campaign have created an environment of self-censorship, that is likely to continue as the amendments are implemented.
An estranged relationship with Europe
The European Parliament has called Erdogan’s use of power in the wake of the failed coup ‘disproportionate and repressive’, and an analysis by the Venice Commission concluded that the constitutional amendment proposals will result in ‘excessive concentration’ of unchecked executive power.
For the Turkish diaspora in Europe, the referendum campaign presented a choice between loyalty to their homeland, and their support for European democratic principles. Often the target of populist disapproval in their adopted countries, Erdogan effectively tapped into economic discontent and societal discrimination faced by Turkish expatriates in Europe.
On a diplomatic level, EU–Turkey tensions have run high after Turkish representatives were denied access to deliver speeches in various EU countries. Following Sunday’s vote, Turkey’s bid for EU membership may have ground to a permanent halt. Europe has already warned that constitutional amendment will harm Turkey’s chances of joining the bloc, and Erdogan continues to signify willingness to re-evaluate Turkey’s relationship with the EU by holding a Brexit-style ‘in–out’ referendum, or by reinstating capital punishment. The latter would effectively default Turkey’s plans for EU accession.
Meanwhile, diplomatic relations look set to strengthen between a post-Brexit UK and post-reform Turkey, with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office stating that the UK intends to sustain a close bilateral relationship on international trade and security in coming years.
Securitisation against Kurdish insurgency
Constitutional amendment is equally likely to intensify the Turkish government’s internal security measures against the Kurdish insurgency.
In the build-up to the referendum, some of the most hotly contested areas for the vote were the unstable districts in the southeast. Erdogan’s rhetoric of creating unity and brotherhood between Turks and Kurds, as well as of stabilising the region against the Kurdish insurgency, was effective in mobilising a significant number of voters in the southeast – where the pro-Kurdish, anti-Erdogan HDP gained traction in the last election – to vote in favour of constitutional reform.
Since the breakdown of the peace process and escalating conflict between Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) following the 15 July 2016 coup, Erdogan has delivered a persistent and highly effective message: that rejecting constitutional reform equates to displaying solidarity with terrorists groups. This referendum, then, was about more than just Erdogan’s grip on power, and could serve as a mandate to deal more vigorously with the Kurdish insurgency and challenge calls for autonomy in Turkey’s southeast.
Should Western spectators be surprised by the result, which appears to be a vote in favour of dictatorship? Not in the least. The effects of the UK’s vote in favour of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president continue to ripple across the Western hemisphere, signalling a strong popular desire for change and a likely pivot away from the liberal world order.
The referendum outcome serves as a timely reminder of the risks of authoritarianism, and could serve as a catalyst to strengthen diplomatic unity towards the European project, at least in the short term. For Turkey, however, President Erdogan – who has already been elected as prime minister three times, and has served as the country’s first president since 2014 – is here to stay.
The coming months for Turkey will be very telling. How rapidly Erdogan moves to implement his constitutional changes – combined with Turkey’s behaviour on the international stage – will determine the course of Europe’s neighbour for the coming decade.
For more on Turkey’s political and security challenges visit the IISS Armed Conflict Database – our analysis on Turkey is free to view this month.