Turkish voters had a clear-cut choice when they cast ballots on Easter Sunday in a referendum on 18 constitutional amendments already approved by the National Assembly. A “Yes” vote would change their country’s political system and usher in a new era in Turkish history. More than a century of parliamentarianism would be replaced by an alla turca presidential system that is tailor-made for the current incumbent, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Given Turkey’s considerable experience in writing constitutions, most legal experts deem the amendments, which voters endorsed by a razor-thin margin, regressive at best. Those who drafted them seem to have ignored 150 years of Turkish history, not to mention the most fundamental lessons of liberal democracy.
The political system that will be operational in 2019, after parliamentary and presidential elections that year, will abolish the post of prime minister and concentrate executive power in the hands of a president who also leads a political party. The National Assembly – the Turkish Republic’s founding institution – will lose many of its powers, and its capacity to serve as a check on the president will be severely curtailed, because the president can dissolve it at any time.
Moreover, changes in how judges are appointed will give the president decisive power over the judiciary, too. The judiciary’s already-fragile independence will be further weakened, and the separation of powers will become meaningless.
Despite the referendum’s high stakes – the abandonment of the Turkish Republic’s longstanding political framework – there was no serious or extended debate prior to the vote, which was held under the state of emergency imposed by Erdogan in the wake of last July’s coup attempt. And at the same time that Turkey undergoes far-reaching political change, Erdogan will seek to advance a project of social transformation aimed at erasing a Westernizing legacy that dates back to the late-Ottoman era.
The amendments were approved after a relentless campaign of obfuscation, misrepresentation, and vilification. Opponents were accused of associating with terrorists, and Western officials, particularly European Union leaders, were openly attacked. But Erdogan, who led the campaign, avoided any real discussion of what the constitutional-reform package would entail, instead merely promising that it would enhance Turkey’s greatness.
Erdogan had almost the entire state apparatus – including provincial governors and much of the national and local bureaucracy – at his service during the campaign. The government lavished all segments of Turkish society with economic incentives and state largesse, and the pro-government media was thoroughly mobilized to support the “Yes” campaign with absurdly sensational, one-sided coverage. Most other media outlets chose, or were forced, to provide toothless coverage.
In addition to this state-led campaign, “No” campaigners were subjected to at least 200 documented attacks, some of them violent. Members of the Kurdish-based Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – including its two co-chairs, other party officials, and various local administrators – have been in jail since November.
On the day of the vote, a controversial decision by Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council concerning the acceptability of ballots that lacked the official stamps on the back heightened worries about voting irregularities and cast a shadow on the legitimacy of the result – which is now being strongly, albeit futilely, contested. All told, the campaign and vote fell far short of established international standards, as election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have pointed out.
Still, Erdogan’s narrow win could turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory, given how bitterly divided the country has become. The no vote was concentrated in Turkey’s economic hubs, such as its western and southern coastal region, and the predominantly Kurdish southeast, as well as in its two largest cities, Istanbul and the capital, Ankara. Of Turkey’s 20 most economically important cities, voters in 13, accounting for 62% of total national income, voted predominantly against the constitutional reforms. And, because these cities represent the bulk of Turkey’s economic and cultural output, they are host to the country’s most educated segments.
By contrast, the yes camp comprised all but a few of Turkey’s least educated, economically insignificant, rural, insular, and conservative provinces. This is not in keeping with the forward-looking agenda that has always brought Erdogan political success in the past. It is telling – symbolically and politically – that the amendments’ opponents carried Istanbul, where Erdogan came to the national stage as mayor-elect in 1994.
Erdogan was visibly shaken by the narrowness of the result – and the breakdown of support that underpinned it. But, as the master of the political game in Ankara, he will try to shape the agenda, and remain on his current course, by relying on domestic polarization and, perhaps, daring foreign adventures. He has given no indication that he will try to ameliorate the country’s tensions. On the contrary, he has suggested that he will reintroduce the death penalty – a move that would bar Turkey from joining the EU.
The referendum’s outcome is almost certain to aggravate Turkey’s domestic and international challenges, which have been mounting since the July coup attempt. The good news is that the strong showing by the amendments’ opponents, and their ability to mobilize through alternative media and micro-organizations, even while under duress, has shown that Turkish civil society remains vibrant.
But this is just the beginning. Those who want to prevent Turkey from falling into the trap of electoral authoritarianism must now form a new political space and furnish leadership alternatives. If they do not, Erdogan will win the 2019 presidential election – and move quickly to use his newly expanded power in ways that will be far more difficult to combat.