Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has prevailed in a referendum that will transform his country’s political system. Given the razor-slim margin of victory, charges of voter fraud and complaints that the campaign was rigged against opponents of the referendum, the ballot is more likely to increase tensions in Turkey than vent them. It is not yet clear what the foreign policy implications of the vote may be, but international censure is unlikely to have much impact on Erdogan. The West must now prepare for an even more contested relationship with Turkey.
Despite — or perhaps because of — Erdogan’s extraordinary political successes, he has bristled at institutional restraints on his power. Ever since he moved from the prime minister’s office to the presidency in 2014, he has railed against the constraints he faced as he sought to modify Turkey’s political system to give him more power.
The first proposal for a constitutional referendum to create a presidential system was made in 2005, when Erdogan was then serving as prime minister. The idea gestated until last December, when the ruling Justice and Development Party proposed 21 amendments to the national charter; that list was whittled down to 18, which went before voters last Sunday. The changes, the most important since the modern Turkish state was founded, will vest all executive power in the presidency, allowing him to appoint (or dissolve) a Cabinet, and hire and fire all judges and prosecutors, to name but two new prerogatives. They abolish the post of prime minister and limit the legislature’s power to amend bills.
Voters approved the changes by a margin of 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent, with turnout reportedly exceeding 85 percent. But detractors saw in the referendum campaign a portent of how Erdogan would now govern. A state of emergency declared after last summer’s failed coup attempt allowed the government to restrict the media and put many opposition politicians behind bars. “No” campaign rallies were denied permits or shut down, while supporters received 90 percent of television airtime, according to one study.
More worrying still were last-minute decisions by the Electoral Commission and reports of vote fraud and ballot stuffing. After voting began, authorities decided to accept ballots that were not stamped with an official seal, even though the law stipulated otherwise. As a result, Turkey’s two main opposition parties have said that they will challenge a significant number of ballots: one questions 37 percent, the other 66 percent. One international group raised doubts about 2.5 million votes, about two times the government’s margin of victory.
In addition to charges of box stuffing and disappearing ballots, international monitors complained about the government’s domination of the media, noting that the referendum took place on an “unlevel playing field and the two sides of the campaign did not have equal opportunities.” It continued to charge that, as a result of the state of emergency, “fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed.”
Erdogan has dismissed the claims with his usual bombast, telling protesters that “debate about this issue is now over,” and reminding international critics to “know your limits.” Turkey’s foreign ministry piled on, charging that observers “disregarded the principles of objectivity,” and had a biased approach.
While the win is important, the margin of victory is worrisome for the Turkish leadership. The country is deeply divided, with majorities in the three largest cities voting against the referendum, as did an overwhelming majority of Kurdish voters and many of the coastal cities.
In his speech after the results were out, the president touted the growing support for the change to a presidential system, but by many indicators support for the ruling party is falling. Following on the heels of the declaration of the state of emergency, divisions in Turkey may be hardening.
Erdogan may not care. He has countenanced few challenges to his authority and he famously declared that “democracy is not a goal, but an instrument.” The way that he has used his authority to silence dissent, commandeer the media and marginalize the opposition during the period of emergency rule that followed last year’s coup is a disturbing indication of what he seems intent on doing if the constitutional changes are adopted.
Growing authoritarianism in Ankara will have a profound impact on its foreign relations. European governments have long been unnerved about deeper engagement with Turkey and the diplomatic dance surrounding its admission to the European Union is one telling indication of the continuing unease.
In the run-up to the referendum, Erdogan used European unease about the concentration of power as a foil for his campaign and to appeal to voters. Any disregard for democracy will heighten European concern, which Erdogan will exploit for his own ends.
Appeals from other governments for the Turkish government to reach out to the opposition are dismissed as interference in domestic affairs and meddling. Again, Erdogan wins while his country suffers.