- If Turkish voters approve the measures proposed in the referendum, Turkey will move from the parliamentary to the presidential system with the president having an authority over the executive branch and high amount of power over the judiciary and the legislature. Moreover, Erdogan could theoretically stay in office until 2034
- In case the proposed constitutional changes are rejected, extension of the emergency state and snap elections are likely to happen
- The main obstacles for Erdogan include disunity inside the AKP and MHP, and unwillingness of their electorates to support the proposed changes unanimously, as the polls suggest
- Regardless of the referendum outcome, polls are proving that polarization of the Turkish society is dangerously high with a risk of serious intra-societal conflict
- Erdogan is willing to risk Turkey’s foreign relations with the EU in order to attract undecided nationalistic and conservative voters. Even though the aggressive rhetoric will likely tone down, future relations between EU and Turkey are not going to be cordial
What is it about? Yes scenario
On April 16 Turkey will decide whether to move from parliamentary to presidential system. Even though it might seem as a newly-emerged idea, it has been an ongoing topic of discussion since the 1980s.
In the upcoming referendum, people will vote on a package of 18 constitutional amendments affecting 76 out of the 177 articles in the Turkish constitution. The proposed changes include increase of the number of seats in the Parliament from 550 to 600, lowering the age requirement for a candidate to stand in an election from 25 to 18, extending the parliamentary terms from four to five years, and many others. However, the most controversial and also the most important are the proposals expanding the role of the president who would have a total authority over the executive branch, as the post of prime minister would be abolished, and high degree of power over the judiciary and the legislature. The president would become both the head of state and the head of the government with power to sack or appoint ministers, vice-president; issue executive orders with the power of laws; appoint Justices of the two main judiciary bodies – the Constitutional Court and the Supreme board of Judges and prosecutors. In addition, the president would be able to declare a state of emergency, similar to the martial law. The new proposal about the joint parliamentary and presidential elections would also enable Erdogan to potentially stay in office for the next two five-year terms, with the next elections planned for 2019. Moreover, in case parliament calls for early elections on the last year of his second term, Erdogan would be able to become president for the next additional five years – until 2034. As this is only a handful of the constitutional changes the referendum deals with, it demonstrates how significant April 16 could be for the future of Turkey.
On the other hand, it is necessary to emphasize that the proposed system is also providing a certain level of checks and balances. The parliament would have to approve the fiscal budget proposed by the president and would have the power to override his executive decrees or vetoes with an absolute majority.
However, when AKP, the president`s party, controls the parliament (as nowadays), those mechanisms would be entirely irrelevant. In addition, the president would not longer be required to stay above the politics and could be a member of a political party.To sum up, despite the fact that the new constitution does not formally allow authoritarian rule, it undeniably concentrates a substantial degree of power in the hands of the president and, therefore, creates favorable conditions for a political system with a practical lack of checks and balances.
This would mean a significant deterioration of Turkey`s democracy in the situation when Turkey is already considered a hybrid regime according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. Moreover, for Erdogan, the referendum is only a first step in his project for the new Turkey and the real deal is the year 2023, Turkey’s 100th anniversary.
For Erdogan, the rejection of the proposed changes on April 16 by the Turkish people would be more of a symbolic setback and blow to his prestige rather than an actual defeat with vast consequences for his political career. Firstly, regardless of the results of the referendum, he would still be the most popular Turkish politician and the AKP would be the strongest party without any other party being able to challenge their leadership in the near future. Secondly, with the AKP controlling the parliament, there is virtually no limit to the extension of the state of emergency in Turkey, which grants even more powers to the executive than the proposed changes. Lastly, it is highly probable that AKP would call for a snap parliamentary election in case of the referendum being rejected, as it would enhance their share of seats in the parliament even more.
There are two main reasons behind this logic. Besides the AKP’s unquestionable popularity, it seems that their coalition partner, the MHP party, is in deep crisis, with their voters partly shifting towards the AKP. Moreover, the current division of the MHP representation and their electorate over the referendum suggests that there is a high possibility of a split in the party with a creation of a new party, most likely around Meral Akşener, the former Minister of the Interior. The level of tension between supporters of the current MHP leader, Devlet Bahceli and the MHP dissidents is so serious, that it even led to attacks of a crowd on the expelled members who refused to support the referendum. With the divided MHP and many members of the pro-Kurdish HDP in jail, only the weak CHP would be able to pass the 10% threshold in snap election, resulting in even more seats for the AKP.
The main obstacles for Erdogan
For Erdogan, this is the first campaign without Erol Olcok, who was killed during the attempted coup last year. Olcok was the mastermind behind all the previous AKP campaigns and he was considered to be one of the key figures behind the success of the party. Current pre-referendum campaign suggests that without Olcok, Erdogan is not sure how to approach his voters. A series of u-turns the Turkish officials made during the last months includes conflicting suggestions about the post-referendum relations with the EU, the Kurdish question, where they moved from nationalistic rhetoric to campaigning in Diyarbakir and hints of a renewal of peace talks with the PKK, or the withdrawal of their remarks on ‘No’ voters, whom he called terrorists at first.
It also seems that Erdogan has problems with his own traditional electorate. While the voters of the opposition CHP and HDP are without any hesitation in the ‘No’ camp, there is a surprisingly high number of undecided AKP supporters. At one point several sources estimated the share to be 1/5 of all AKP voters, but it is likely that this number is gradually decreasing and most of them will vote ‘Yes’ under the influence of the powerful campaign. Generally, the unwillingness of the traditional AKP voters to vote ‘Yes’ might be a result of the worsening economic situation in the country, alienation of the approximately 3 million followers of Gülen since 2013, and the alliance with Russia vis-à-vis the Russian cooperation with Assad against Sunni rebels, including Syrian Turkmens.
Moreover, the constituency of the nationalist MHP is even more divided, despite its leaderships’ official support for the proposed changes. Besides the undecided voters, there is also a sizeable group group that will vote ‘No’ in the referendum. More surprisingly, there are signs that there might be problems even inside the AKP. The former president of Turkey, founding member of the AKP, Abdullah Gul, as well as the former prime minister Davutoglu, refused to participate in the ‘Yes’ campaign. In addition, there are rumours of an imminent purge inside the AKP after the referendum because of the ties of some members to Gülen. This may sound plausible as until now not a single AKP member has been affected by the post-coup purges (unlike the rest of the society), even though the AKP had cooperated with the Gülen movement until the end of 2013. According to the leader of CHP Kilicdaroglu, between 120 and 180 AKP PMs have been using By Lock, a communication program allegedly used by Gülen movement members.
Dangerous level of polarization in the society
All the polls suggest that referendum results will be extremely even. Combined with the rhetoric about the existential importance of the referendum coming from both sides of the political spectrum, it is a sign of a serious division within the Turkish society. Regardless of the outcome, there will be more than 20 million voters discontent with the results. In the context of the growing polarization in Turkey during the AKP era, this may easily lead to an intra-societal conflict and destabilization of the country in following years. Since its rise to power, the AKP government has deepened no the existing societal tensions between the secularists and the conservatives, and even facilitated new polarization based mostly on the political preferences. As a result of the aggressive rhetoric of AKP officials, the Turkish society has gradually become an example of a bounded community. Because of the extreme levels of distrust and hatred between supporters and opponents of Erdogan, his main electorate, conservative Muslims from Anatolia, are not willing to make him accountable for his misdeeds. By them he is perceived as the only protector of their religious, cultural or economic rights, that were disregarded by the old secular elite. That was the case in 2013, when a huge corruption scandal reached the inner circle of AKP and even Erdogan’s family, but their popularity remained unaffected.
To measure the exact level of polarization in the country is a problematic task. However, in a recent survey focusing on a social distance between constituencies of the Turkish political parties, “83 percent of the respondents do not want their daughter to marry someone voting for the party they feel distant to; 78 percent reject the idea of doing business with someone voting for the “other” party; and perhaps most dramatically, 74 percent reject the idea of his or her children playing with the children of someone who votes for the other party.“
Erdogan further divided the Turkish society by restarting the conflict with the PKK in 2015, partly in order to gain the support of nationalistic voters ahead of the parliamentary elections. While a brutal suppression of the Kurdish resistance in the Southeast cities led to a rise of anti-government sentiments in the Kurdish society, the guerrilla and terrorist attacks of PKK and TAK cemented the image of a Kurd being a terrorist in the eyes of nationalistic and conservative Turks. That is the case even though many Kurds actually vote for the AKP and fight against the PKK. Arrests of the most influential figures of the pro-Kurdish HDP, attacks of the nationalistic crowd on HDP offices, violent clashes between the leftist Kurdish and AKP/MHP youth, all that proves the growing division between Turks and Kurds in recent years.
The situation has become even worse after the attempted coup. As Erdogan exploited the situation to get rid of all his opponents, regardless their role during the coup, the atmosphere of fear, paranoia, and violence has spread all over Turkey. Moreover, the AKP decided to provide arms for their members, including their youth wing, famous for attacking journalists, pro-Kurdish activists or political opponents. With around 150 000 people sacked, detained or arrested until now, the AKP supporters have become obsessed with the idea of an internal as well as an external enemy, and the opposition has started to fear for their jobs and personal safety.
In this atmosphere, under the state of emergency, Erdogan again opted for a divisive referendum campaign and an open confrontation with the EU to mobilize nationalistic and conservative voters once again. Those who will vote ‘No’ were described as terrorists, supporters of the attempted coup and collaborators with the enemy. There has been cases of people sacked from their jobs because of their announcement of voting ‘No’. Even OSCE officials expressed their concerns about the intimidation attempts against campaigners for ‘No’ vote, one-sided handling of the referendum in the media, restrictions against news or organizing demonstrations.
Erdogan and his politics are polarizing Turkish society in a previously unseen manner. Together with the ongoing conflict with the PKK, that has already caused around 3 000 fatalities since the summer 2015; bad economic situation of the country; violent attacks between the supporters of various political parties; continuing mass purges and arrests; weakened security forces; and the atmosphere of fear and distrust between the various segments of the society, it all provides ideal conditions for a serious intra-societal conflict in Turkey.
Future of the relations with the EU
The impact referendum results on the Turkey-EU relations is still highly unclear. However, if the draft of the constitutional changes is adopted, it will most probably lead to the end in the EU accession process for Turkey, which is already in coma. For Erdogan, the EU lost its charm a long time ago, and the consolidation of his powers through the referendum would only provide an opportunity to cut the “humiliating” relations. For the EU, this might also be considered as a sign of Turkey moving towards an authoritarian regime and, therefore, alienating the currently bad relations even more.
On the contrary, aggressive rhetoric of the Turkish officials towards the EU, mostly used as a tool to exploit Turkish feelings of being looked down on by the European countries and to mobilize the conservative and nationalistic electorate, will be likely toned down after the referendum. In that sense it is possible to expect an attempt to ‘normalize’ the relations from the Turkish side, because of the economic importance of the EU, being Turkey’s top market with 48,1% share of the total exports in 2016. The conflicting nature of the ‘alliance’ with Russia related to the differences over Syria might be another motivation for Erdogan to maintain at least minimal level of relations with the EU. History of Turkey’s relations with Russia and Israel might also serve as an example of Erdogan’s successful u-turns in foreign policy.
Final thoughts: Why is it important (especially for Erdogan)?
Under the continuously prolonged emergency state, president Erdogan and the AKP government enjoy very similar powers as they would after passing the referendum. Moreover, it is highly probable that the rejection of the proposed changes will lead to another protraction of the state of emergency and most likely to the snap elections resulting in an even stronger AKP.
Why is the referendum so important then? The referendum is mostly about Erdogan’s persona. First of all, it would allow him to consolidate his power, legalize the current emergency situation in the long term and, therefore, significantly decrease any potential political challenge in the upcoming years. Under the current constitution, a president can serve only two five year-terms in a row, meaning that Erdogan can stay in office theoretically only until 2024, compared to 2034 under the new constitution. With a possibility of being in office until he is 80 years old, he would enjoy immunity for a lifetime and, therefore, prevent any possibility of being brought to court for his past corruption scandals or any other violations of law, even in the case of a new, non-AKP government. The only option for the parliament to start a motion against the president would be with an absolute majority of PMs, but president could easily stop it anytime with a call for new elections.
As conspiratory as it might appear, Erdogan himself set a precedent regarding this issue in 2012 when Kenan Evren, a former Turkish president, was brought to trial for his role in the military coup in 1980. With the number of enemies Erdogan has made during his political life, this could be his lifelong guarantee. The new presidential powers would allow Erdogan to secure similar positions for his colleagues or family members, as he could appoint them as ministers, vice-presidents or into other positions in the government without confirmation from the parliament.
In general, it is possible to expect that the proposed changes will be passed very closely, mostly as a result of the overwhelming campaign and the AKP’s control over the media. In any case, after the referendum, Turkish leadership will have to handle the worsening economic and social situation in the country as soon as possible.
Lastly, it might be interesting to mention the results of another survey, this time focusing on the educational level in relation to the Yes/No preferences of the voters in the upcoming referendum. While 65,7% of the illiterate respondents would vote for the proposed changes of the constitution, only 24% of those with a university degree would. Within the context of the ongoing de-secularization of the Turkish educational system and its gradual degradation, April 16 might be the last chance for the opposition to change the current political course of the country.
Author: Matúš Jevčák