Turkish referendum: Erdogan home but not yet dry

The thin margin of victory presents numerous problems for Erdogan and suggests that all is not yet lost for Turkish democracy.

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The Turkish referendum on Sunday once again highlighted the deep and irreconcilable schisms in Turkish society, with votes for and against Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s constitutional reform package split almost 50/50.

The electoral map presents a nation divided, with Kurdish areas and the Mediterranean and Aegean coastline all the way up to Istanbul rejecting Erdogan’s bid. This stood in contrast with the less developed and more socially conservative central Anatolia and Black Sea regions, which welcomed his new role.  Nay-sayers were highest among younger, wealthier, and more educated people, especially in urban areas: All the major cities – including Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Diyarbakir, Antalya – and Turkey’s key industrial centres voted “No.”

The president’s win in the referendum will further consolidate his power and, as the Venice Commission noted, speed up Turkey's drift towards an “authoritarian presidential system.” It will mean a significant overhaul of the Turkish state and produce a system with virtually no checks and balances.

However, his campaign was far less effective than many anticipated. Erdogan’s alliance with the ultra-nationalist MHP, use of religious symbolism and religious networks, and his spat with Europe all seem to have put off moderate voters. As a result, despite an unfair campaign period and blatant use of state resources (as noted by OSCE observers), the Turkish president only managed to wrangle 51% from the voter. This is not at all what he had hoped for, and the thin margin of victory presents numerous problems for Erdogan.

The big question: Was it a fraud?

This was perhaps the most imbalanced and unfair electoral environment in Turkey since a post-coup referendum held by the military generals in 1982.

While the main opposition party, CHP, had some visibility in secular neighbourhoods in big cities, the rest of the country was awash with “Yes” signs and subject to endless television campaigning. Economic incentives such as bank guarantees for loans or public sector recruitment played an important role in consolidating the AKP base, while the “No” camp was routinely described by the Turkish President as an ally of the West, the PKK and “terrorists” in general.

Most controversially, a decision by the Election High Board during the voting hours to accept “unsealed” ballots “unless it is proven to be brought in from outside” was largely interpreted by the opposition as a cover for ballot-stuffing and voter fraud. But while the timing of the decision seems extraordinary, the board has taken such interim decisions before. As explained by one election observer, the need for such a decision came from the ballots being on a paper too thin and the seal at the back potentially mixing up with the Yes or No seal. It is also unclear whether this decision necessarily favoured Yes votes, and it is hard to explain the Yes campaign’s victory margin of 1.3 million votes through ballot-stuffing alone.

Nonetheless, a sizeable portion of No voters believe that fraud extended well beyond ballot-stuffing issues. They have a point: There were dozens of irregularities and instances of overt pressure from public officials, especially in  Kurdish regions. Had the HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas not been in jail, had the pro-Kurdish HDP been allowed to campaign, or had the election board not repeatedly vetoed HDP election observers, the results would likely have been different.

What happens now?

Even though the bulk of the 18-point amendment is supposed to come into effect in 2019, there are several points that will come into force immediately. Erdogan will register as a member of his party and eventually become party leader – a position that allows him to lead AKP into the next election and draft the party lists that determine who gets elected into the next parliament.  The military tribunals will be abolished and the structure of the High Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) will change immediately. There will be appointments to the high courts by Erdogan very soon.

The post of the Prime Minister will remain until 2019, but Binali Yildirim will be a far less central figure now, as Erdogan will undoubtedly use de facto executive powers run the government. The president’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, will also likely emerge as a key figure over the next year, and if Erdogan wins the 2019 presidential elections, perhaps become one of Erdogan’s deputies.

But because the margin of victory was so thin, and because there are allegations of fraud, Erdogan will not have an easy time governing. The opposition seems energised by the results, though the current street protests in major cities about election fraud are unlikely to be sustainable over any meaningful period, given the constraints on public demonstrations imposed by the state of emergency.

Immediate priorities: Economic and foreign policy

Over the next few months, Erdogan will likely focus on Turkey’s key vulnerabilities – the economy and foreign policy.

The economy has been experiencing a “slow bleeding” since the days of high growth for a myriad of reasons, ranging from political (institutional weaknesses due to purges) to fiscal (global currently fluctuations, depreciation of the lira and Turkey’s high current account deficit) considerations. There was a splurge in public spending during the referendum cycle, which boosted inflation and hurt the budget deficit. Fiscal discipline, once the hallmark of AKP, is now in question. Banks are still doing quite well but the economic slowdown could impact their balance sheets later this year if the government continues to softly pressure them into more lax lending policies. And despite a campaign of public hiring, unemployment has gone up to 13%, rising to 25% among the youth population.

Turkey’s growth depends strongly on foreign investment and tourism revenues, both of which are dwindling. Turkey’s current climate (security concerns, rule of law issues and political uncertainty) had not been very appetising for investors or tourists, and Erdogan knows he needs to create a new narrative to change that. The story will likely be “stability and growth”, but it is unclear if the current economic climate will allow for such marketing.

We can also expect more Turkish focus and possibly greater military engagement in Syria and Iraq. In Syria, U.S. forces will likely continue their partnership with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) whose backbone is the YPG fighters affiliated with the PKK. Even though Ankara tried to dissuade the Trump administration from this policy, and offered its own troops for an upcoming Raqqa offensive, Turkish proposals fell short of U.S. expectations.

It is possible that the Turkish government will embark on a military offensive against the new PKK stronghold of Sinjar/Shengal in Iraq – possibly with tacit support of a Trump administration eager to please Turks and reduce bilateral tensions that arise from their military alliance with YPG in Syria.

The Kurdish issue

Inside Turkey, the referendum results and the slight increase in the Kurdish countryside votes could be interpreted by Erdogan as a mandate to continue hardline policies in Kurdish areas. However, that is a misreading of the Kurdish dynamic. Despite the arrest of HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas, the imprisonment of 13 Kurdish deputies and 83 elected mayors, voters in the main Kurdish cities overwhelmingly voted “No” in the referendum.

In the countryside, things were different. The displacement of roughly half a million Kurds in the fight between security forces and the PKK over the past 1,5 years, some gerrymandering in pro-HDP towns and the banning of dozens of HDP ballot observers clearly hindered the Kurdish vote.

This is likely to further delegitimize Turkey’s democratic processes in the eyes of Kurdish youth and increase their sense of alienation. This will continue to be one of Turkey’s main problems in the long-run.

An opening for Europe?

There are lessons in all of this for Europe. First and foremost, almost half the Turkish population seems to reject their leader’s anti-European, authoritarian moves. Europe must consider the effect on this group of its future decisions on Turkey.

Secondly, the president said repeatedly during the campaign that he wants a new framework with Europe – one that has a predictable timeline and is grounded in reality.  That effectively means the end of the accession process, but it is unclear what might replace it. Ankara desperately wants to sign a customs union upgrade with the EU: an economic deal with no human rights attachments is perhaps preferable to the moribund accession process for Ankara.

But Europe should remember that what is preferable to Erdogan is not necessarily preferable for other important constituencies in Turkey, particularly financial markets and business leaders. Turkish markets are very sensitive to Erdogan’s tone about Europe. While they see a “Yes” vote in positive terms as an end of political uncertainty, the harsher Erdogan’s tone is with Europe, the more squeamish investors become.

Added to that the fact that 13 of Turkey’s top 20 cities, which together produce some 62% of Turkey’s GDP, voted “No” in the referendum, it is unlikely that Erdogan will really push for a reintroduction of the death penalty or seek further clashes with Europe. More likely, he will continue to use “Europe” and “the West” as vague bogeymen for domestic audiences, but refrain from direct disputes with specific leaders or countries.

This is a trading nation and Erdogan rose to power largely on his ability to boost the economy. The bulk of Turkish exports go to Europe and the majority of Turkey’s direct investment comes from Europe. A suspension of the EU accession process would further expose a fragile economy and reduce investor confidence. It would make it very difficult to write a new Turkish story of growth, likely speeding up the “bleeding” in the economy. 

In this sense, the EU retains significant leverage over Turkey. It should keep this in mind, and continue to demonstrate its commitment to democracy and pro-European Turks. The referendum result may have accelerated Turkey’s authoritarian drift, but all is not yet lost.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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