Here is the easiest way to understand Turkey’s upcoming constitutional referendum: it is an overhaul of the country’s model of governance from a parliamentary system to a U.S.-style executive presidency—minus the Supreme Court and Congress.
This is an exaggeration, of course. The proposed amendment, to be voted on in a nation-wide referendum held on April 16 under a state of emergency rule, does stipulate for a parliament, an independent judiciary and a constitutional court. But by expanding the powers of the presidency over top judicial appointments, the parliament, and his party apparatchik, the new system effectively eliminates the “checks and balances” that are the hallmark of the U.S. system.
In the existing Turkish constitution, the presidency is, in theory, a symbolic and non-partisan post with no executive powers, which lie with the prime minister and the government. Under the proposed system the position of the prime minister is eliminated and executive power flows to the president, who will lead the government, run his political party, and determine top legislature without parliamentary confirmation. This “Turkish-style presidential system,” would create the possibility of an extended reign for Turkey’s strongman president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan until 2029.
Erdoğan has long been a proponent of the presidential system, arguing that Turkey’s parliamentary system breeds internal dissent between the president and prime minister and prevents good governance. “Remove these shackles,” he told a cheering crowd of AKP supporters in the Black Sea town of Trabzon this week, arguing that the new system would facilitate the government’s ability to provide services and allow Turkey to fulfill its global leadership potential.
Erdoğan is right in one sense: the relationship between most Turkish presidents and prime ministers has traditionally been mired in conflicts. As a former prime minister and later as a president, Erdoğan has experienced his share of tensions at the top. Most recently he forced out his hand-picked prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, following disagreements on a number of policy issues last year.
But “shackles”—or checks and balances as we call them—are also important for democratic governance. Admittedly the current constitution, drafted after the military coup of 1980, has several problems: parliamentary elections are based on party lists drafted by party leaders; there is no real accountability for the president; and the 10% electoral threshold, once designed to keep the Kurds out of parliament, is too high. But the proposed amendment does not address any of these flaws.
Instead, the proposal would concentrate power in the hands of the presidency, leading critics to argue that a “Yes” vote would effectively transform Turkish democracy into one-man rule. The Venice Commission, the specialised legal body of the Council of Europe, warned in a March 13 opinion of “a dangerous step backwards in the constitutional democratic tradition of Turkey”, noting that the amendments could pave the way towards “an authoritarian and personal regime”.
But in the immediate future it is unclear whether such an amendment would make a difference in the day-to-day lives of Turkish citizens, with Erdoğan already an omnipresent figure. The Turkish president has long been exercising de facto control over the government, determining its foreign policy, taking all major economic decisions, and even drafting party lists for parliamentarians behind the scenes. His supporters argue that the new amendment just writes this reality into law.
Not everyone agrees. Even though the ruling AKP has disproportionate use of state and media resources, and has the support of the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), it has not been able to build a comfortable lead for the “Yes” vote. Current polls show voters to be almost evenly divided between “Yes” and “No” votes, with a huge chunk of “undecideds”. As such, the referendum will likely be decided by a fraction of conservative voters, including religious Kurds, who typically favor AKP but remain concerned about Erdoğan’s style of governance or unconvinced about the need for such an overhaul of the system.
Inevitably, the whole vote is about Erdoğan himself, with the Turkish president on the campaign trail every day, his rallies broadcast live on all networks. With just one week to go, he is focusing on those sceptical conservatives who are concerned about Turkey’s authoritarian drift. In an effort to win them over he has noticeably softened his rhetoric, dropping previous suggestions that “No” voters are “terrorists” and de-escalating his tone towards Europe.
Which brings us to the question of what the referendum will mean for Turkey’s relationship with the EU. It was already highly transactional, with a moribund EU accession process and little hope of a marriage of values. But things took a marked downward turn with Erdoğan’s recent accusations of “Nazi practices” after Turkish ministers were blocked from campaigning for the referendum in Germany and the Netherlands. If the constitutional reform passes and Turkey moves further towards authoritarianism, even keeping the engagement ring might prove to be a challenge.
Given the interdependence of Turkish and European economies, Erdoğan cannot afford to escalate any further. His recent change of tone suggests that he understand this. The optimistic scenario now is that a “No” vote (or potentially even a narrow “Yes” vote) might lead the Turkish president to reconsider his combative attitude towards Europe and attempt to repair the relationship. That would require some progress in Turkey’s dire human rights situation, but Erdoğan has been known to show surprising amounts of pragmatism when least expected. He has long wanted a summit with European leaders and could take advantage of upcoming Cyprus talks to initiate a thaw in relations.
The pessimistic scenario, of course, is that a “Yes” vote will embolden both Erdoğan’s anti-Europe rhetoric as well as anti-Turkish sentiment in Europe, leading to further deterioration in the relationship. A formal suspension of the EU accession process is unlikely for the moment, even though this course of action was recommended by the European Parliament in a symbolic vote last year. Most member states within the European Council would rather quietly transition Turkey’s membership bid into an expanded customs unions with Europe. But if there is further escalation, suspension cannot be ruled out.
It is impossible to predict which way the winds will blow after the referendum next week. But one thing is clear: whatever the result of the vote, one man and one man alone will shape the course of Turkey’s future.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.