On April 16, Turks voted, by a razor-thin margin, to scrap the country’s parliamentary system for a presidential one and give the current incumbent, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sweeping powers. According to the state-run Anadolu News Agency, the “yes” vote stood at 51.41 per cent; the “no” vote was 48.59 per cent. With this victory, Erdogan, who has already helmed power in Turkey for 15 years, could extend his term in office till 2034. Evidently, he is now the most important political figure Turkey has seen since its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
The referendum is probably the most important moment in Turkey’s history since the country became democratic in 1950. Erdogan has long argued for a presidential system. A failed coup last July, increased civil strife and terrorism gave him the opportunity to make a substantive case for a stronger executive, and build alliances with right-wing parties to push through the referendum. For Erdogan’s critics, the vote was about one man establishing a de-facto dictatorship.
Since 2008 though, Turkey has consistently slid down an authoritarian path. Since 2016’s coup attempt, Turkey has been in a state of emergency. More than 1,00,000 public officials have been purged on accusations of being aligned with Fettulah Gulen, the Islamic preacher who was once Erdogan’s ally, whom he now accuses of masterminding the failed coup. More than 45,000 people have been arrested, journalists and academics especially targeted. The once-robust Turkish media is now little more than a government mouthpiece.
Further, Erdogan has cynically reignited violence in the Kurdish southeast to shore up nationalist support — and cripple the populist pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). More than 2,500 people have been killed since July 2015, and an estimated 5,00,000 displaced in violence in southeastern Turkey. During the referendum, HDP’s charismatic leader, Selahattin Demirtas, was in jail, facing criminal charges that could result in a 143-year prison sentence.
But despite the curtailment of freedoms, the “yes” vote only just squeaked past the post. This is a huge moral defeat for Erdogan, who has always sought legitimacy through his popularity with voters. This narrative has shifted slightly with the referendum — the “no” vote triumphed in major cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, the first time Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost in these areas.
Erdogan’s victory was further tainted by reports of fraudulent ballots and a highly contentious decision by the Higher Election Council (YSK) to allow votes in unsealed enveloped to be counted. The spectre of illegitimacy only points to the weakening and politicisation of Turkey’s core democratic institutions. Opposition groups have appealed the vote’s validity. Its overturning is unlikely.
However, the divisive victory will likely bring out the worst in Erdogan; by all accounts, the failed coup last year made Erdogan extremely intolerant of dissent. The expansive powers the presidency will now give him don’t bode well for any retreat from the harshness characteristic of Turkey’s political environment today. Rather than striking a conciliatory post-poll note, Erdogan said, “There are those who are belittling the result. They shouldn’t try, it will be in vain.”
Erdogan is likely to double down on anyone challenging his rule. The AKP has traditionally been a pro-business, pro-growth party, but with the economy in the doldrums and tourism and construction slowing, popular discontent could grow: Erdogan could combat this by appealing to the basest of nationalist emotions. After the vote, Erdogan signaled the possibility of re-imposing the death penalty in Turkey — which would end Turkey’s long quest for EU membership. The problem, even before Sunday’s referendum, was that Erdogan had acquired too much power. Now, he has even more — it seems unlikely that he will use this in any way other than to prop up his own rule.