Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has finally fulfilled his long-held ambition to expand his powers after last Sunday’s referendum handed him the reins of Turkey.
But success did not come without a cost. His victory leaves the nation deeply divided, while international observers and opposition parties reported numerous voting irregularities.
An unofficial tally gave Erdogan’s ‘yes’ vote a narrow win, with 51.4% approving a series of constitutional changes converting Turkey’s political system from a parliamentary to a presidential one. Critics argue that the reforms will lead to autocratic one-man rule till 2029 with few checks and balances.
The referendum campaign was heavily in favour of the ‘yes’ campaign, with Erdogan drawing on the full powers of the state to dominate the airwaves and billboards. “Erdogan dominated the national media. He imposed a very restrictive environment for the ‘no’ camp,” pointed out Fadi Hakura, Turkey Specialist, Chatham House.
The ‘no’ campaign complained of intimidation, detentions and beatings. In Istanbul, hundreds of ‘no’ supporters demonstrated in the streets chanting “thief, murderer, Erdogan” and banging pots and pans.
An unprecedented electoral board decision to accept ballots that didn’t bear the official stamp led to outrage. By law, for a vote to be considered valid, the ballot and the vote must bear official stamps. The system is designed to ensure only one vote is cast per registered voter.
International monitors, including the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said this decision undermined important safeguards against fraud and was “contrary to the law.” The electoral board, however, published past rulings on the validity of unstamped ballots.
Opposition parties challenged the count but Turkey’s election authority rejected a request to annul the referendum. On Friday, they took their petition to the nation’s highest administrative court.
State over People
The tight state control and national polarisation in Turkey’s governing system can be traced back to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the former army officer who founded a nation from the crumbling Ottoman empire in 1923.
Although Ataturk introduced a parliamentary system, multi-party politics did not take hold until after he died in 1938. While Turkey, a Western ally with a mostly Muslim population, has a long record of elections despite periodic military coups, a culture in which the interests of the state dominate those of the individual has prevailed.
Strong currents of nationalism, as well as both hardline secularism and religious piety, have shaped Turkey through generations, bolstering leaders whose strongman postures belied a nearly constant struggle to hold together the country’s factions in a region prone to violent conflict.
The culmination of this trend is President Erdogan, whose populist drive to expand his powers as president exposed increasing rifts in a nation hosting several million Syrian war refugees, enduring militant attacks and navigating tense ties with the West.
The weakening of Turkey’s parliamentary system follows from a 1982 constitution that was crafted after a military coup two years earlier and emphasised the power of the state over its citizens.
“What we are seeing is actually an attempt to consolidate state power in Turkey,” said Halil Karaveli, Senior Fellow, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program. He described the referendum partly as a reaction to a fracturing of the state during a murky, internal struggle that culminated with a failed coup attempt last year.
The contest pitted Erdogan against Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Turkish officials say infiltrated the police, judiciary and state institutions in a bid to take control of the country. Gulen has denied involvement in the botched uprising by some military units on July 15, 2016.
About 100,000 people have been fired from their jobs in a crackdown following the attempted coup, and tens of thousands have been arrested.
At a protest in Istanbul, demonstrators said Turkey’s new presidential system was part of a broader campaign to quell legitimate dissent. “They want to silence the citizens of this country,” said 30-year-old Sertac Babat.
To his supporters, Erdogan has brought freedom. A former Istanbul mayor who became Prime Minister in 2003, he represents a class of pious Muslims, many in rural areas, who chafed under a hardline secular order that was set in motion by Ataturk during his nation-building project.
Modern Turkey is a flawed project that has achieved prosperity, regional influence and other goals since its foundation, but has also been “nondemocratic, repressive, and sometimes violent,” Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in Foreign Policy, “Erdogan is simply replacing one form of authoritarianism with another.”
Unfazed by Criticism
But Erdogan is unfazed by the criticism and says the changes remove the rivalry inherent in a system with both a President and a Prime Minister, and will help Turkey deal with its many challenges.
“We have put up a fight against the powerful nations of the world. We did not succumb. As a nation, we stood strong,” he said insisting that Turkey’s referendum was “the most democratic election ever seen in any Western country” and admonished the OSCE monitors to “know your place.”
On Monday, the Council of Ministers decided to extend the state of emergency, which grants greater powers of detention and arrest to security forces, due to expire April 19, for a further three months.
“The way (Erdogan) has closed the door on the opposition, there is likely to be increased political unrest,” said Howard Eissenstat, Associate Professor, Middle East History, St Lawrence University, New York. “Forty-eight per cent of the population is being told that their voices don’t matter.”
Turkey and EU
Turkey has been a European Union (EU) candidate for decades, but its accession efforts have not yielded results. Now, there is the risk of increased international isolation, with Erdogan appealing to patriotic sentiments by casting himself as a champion of a proud Turkish nation that will not be dictated to by foreign powers in general, and the EU in particular.
“They have made us wait at the gates of the EU for 54 years. We can conduct a vote of confidence on this as well. Would we? What did England do — they did Brexit, right? Either they will hold their promises to Turkey or they’ll have to bear the consequences,” Erdogan told his supporters.
The EU is looking to Turkey for its support in the fight against the Islamic State and in helping slow and regulate the flow of migrants into Europe.
Erdogan has also vowed to consider reinstating the death penalty — a move that would all but end prospects of EU membership. Erdogan also insisted that other nations’ opinions on the issue are irrelevant to him. “That’s why our parliament will make this decision,” he thundered.