NEW YORK – Undeterred by warnings, particularly from the Western media — including The Economist’s stark caution that Turkey risked “sliding into dictatorship” — voters narrowly approved a referendum proposal Sunday that expands President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s powers under the constitution. Judging from some of the voter interviews, one of the drivers of this outcome was the Turkish electorate’s hope that stronger leadership can provide greater stability, security and prosperity.
This phenomenon has also played out in other countries, and is likely to continue to have an effect in the months ahead. As a result, neither markets nor political scientists should underestimate what some swing voters are willing to accept, and risk, in their quest for greater national strength, a development that raises interesting domestic and global issues — including possibly in the upcoming presidential elections in France.
With 51.4 percent of the vote in his favor, and an 85 percent turnout, Erdogan now has wider powers over matters of legislation, finance, appointments and civil society. His win comes at a time of significant regional fluidity, including the conflicts in Syria, together with greater tensions in the country’s already delicate relations with Western Europe.
This referendum outcome will embolden the Turkish government: Its first actions post-election included prolonging the state of emergency for three months and signaling the possibility of holding a referendum on reintroducing the death penalty. But it is also generating internal and external push back.
Seizing on reports of irregularities, including by external observers who noted that the referendum fell short of international standards, opposition parties are questioning the legitimacy of the result. The fact that Turkey’s three main cities voted “no” is seen by some as a signal of caution for the government. Meanwhile, in an unusual set of comments, high-level European officials, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, have warned the government against extrapolating too much from a vote that they regard as illustrating a deep split in Turkey.
But all this is unlikely to deter the Turkish government from drawing the same types of conclusions as U.S. President Donald Trump did from his election victory and the U.K. government did from the Brexit referendum: Unsettled and, at times, angry citizens are looking for stronger leadership to regain control of their destiny. And this comes at a time of “unusual uncertainty” both at home and abroad.
How the trade-off turns out well will depend both on how constructively the Turkish government, and Erdogan in particular, uses the new constitutional powers. In the meantime, both markets and political scientists should remember that what occurred in Turkey on Sunday is partly an illustration of a broader global phenomenon of significant numbers of people showing they are willing to take risks in opting for the promise of stronger leadership to secure greater stability and security. And they seem willing to do so even if it entails weakening long-standing checks and balances, potentially fueling political cults of personality and, perhaps even increasing the threat of an eventual slide into greater authoritarianism.
This phenomenon will probably be tested again in the first round of the presidential vote in France this Sunday. Already, the three anti-establishment candidates — Marine Le Pen of the National Front, Jean-Luc Melenchon of the far left, and Emmanuel Macron, who is running as part of a self-declared new movement — have shaken up the country’s politics. In the process, they have out-distanced the insiders Francois Fillon and Benoit Hamon, who have been hampered by liabilities of their own making.
Insights from Turkey’s referendum add to the possibility of a victory by one of the unconventional candidates in France. That includes not only the front-runner Macron but there also is a lower extreme tail risk for Le Pen or Melenchon.
Mohamed A. El-Erian is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the chief economic adviser at Allianz SE and chairman of the President’s Global Development Council, and he was chief executive and co-chief investment officer of Pimco. His books include “The Only Game in Town: Central Banks, Instability and Avoiding the Next Collapse.”