Support for the changes to the constitution that were put to a vote in the referendum in Turkey on April 16, 2017 rested on the claim that the amendments are important to help stabilize the country’s political system, enable Turkey to contend more effectively with the challenges before it, and contribute to its prosperity. However, it is very unlikely that the results of the referendum will allow these promises to be kept. It is more likely that the results will only generate new sources of frustration, which are liable to be vented against those perceived as “enemies from within.”
Current political trends in Turkey will also adversely affect, at least partially, Turkey’s foreign relations.
The referendum held in Turkey on April 16, 2017 to approve amendments to the constitution – in essence, transition from a parliamentary mode of government to a presidential system, with a limited set of checks and balances between the governing authorities – was staunchly promoted by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As such, many saw the referendum as a vote of confidence in the President, although even some of Erdogan’s supporters believe that the change in system is a mistake, because it grants the president too much power. Perhaps this situation is comfortable for Erdogan today, but what will happen when someone else comes into power? Of the extensive commentary published since the announcement of the referendum results, two main perspectives may be identified. One approach postulates that the fact that the amendments to the constitution were approved by a slim majority – about 51 percent – constitutes a source of hope for the opposition factions, since it indicates that the support for Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is not as steadfast as it used to be. This contention carries greater weight in light of statements made by the International Limited Referendum Observation Mission sent on behalf of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights that cast the possibility of waging a campaign before the referendum as unfairly biased in favor of the “yes” supporters. In addition, the amendments to the constitution were not supported by the majority in Istanbul, which is significant given the city’s economic importance, and particularly since Erdogan has always enjoyed the support of Istanbul in elections since he was its mayor. Other pundits, however, believe that it matters little by what percentage the referendum was passed; the very fact that it was passed gives an official seal of approval to President Erdogan’s autocratic regime, which de facto already exists.
Following Erdogan’s considerable successful investment in the efforts to pass the referendum, what will Erdogan’s next objectives be and what specific issues will he choose to promote? While serving as Prime Minister, in unprecedented fashion, he chose to promote the peace process with the Kurds. However, Erdogan abandoned the peace process when he perceived the regional strengthening of the Kurds following the Arab Awakening as threatening Turkey’s domestic arena. However, since 2016 the cooperation between the AKP and the Nationalist Movement party (MHP) has not been as fruitful as expected, in the sense that it did not achieve broader support in the “yes” camp for the referendum (although this cooperation did help the AKP pass the resolutions in the parliament that enabled the very holding of the referendum). With the referendum over, it appears that the importance of this alliance has diminished and therefore, its unraveling could play a part in a possible resumption of the peace process.
In late March 2017, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, announced the successful conclusion of Operation Euphrates Shield in Syria, but failed to mention what are the plans for the existing Turkish presence in northern Syria, and said only that if further operations were launched, they will be given a different name. For his part, Erdogan added that the next stage of Operation Euphrates Shield will be launched not only in Syria, but also in Iraq. As such, Erdogan has signaled the possibility of a Turkish military operation against the presence of the Kurdish underground organization, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), in the Sinjar Mountains – in addition to the sporadic bombings already launched against targets in the Qandil Mountains. These declarations attest not only to the difficulties that Turkey is facing following its military intervention in Syria – given that Turkey’s advances are positioned against the American support of the PKK-affiliated organization in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and opposite Assad regime forces, which are supported by Russia and Iran – but also attest to the battle over the political future of the territories currently under the control of Islamic State, in light of the hopes of the territorial routing of the organization in the near future.
President Trump was the first Western leader to contact Erdogan to congratulate him on the results of the referendum. Despite this, grave disputes between the two countries exist, led by the continued American support of the Kurds in Syria and the Turkish government’s demand to extradite the cleric Fethullah Gülen, accused by the Turkish government of being behind the failed coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016. Despite the efforts to resolve these two points of conflict during the Obama administration and since Trump has taken office, no formula has been reached that will satisfy the American requirements and at the same time placate Turkey.
Another central issue is the future of the relations between Turkey and members of the European Union, and in particular, whether the process of Turkey joining the EU will remain officially open. Since 2005, despite the many doubts over the years with regard to the final outcome of the process, many in Turkey and the EU believed that the process itself is worthwhile, since it encourages trends toward liberalization in Turkey, and thus plodded ahead with it. However, the campaign prior to the referendum and the attempt by the Turkish government to persuade Turkish voters living abroad to vote “yes” resulted in exchanges of rhetoric between Erdogan and Western leaders that reached new lows. In March 2017, Erdogan even announced that he might hold a referendum about whether to continue the contacts with the EU with regard to Turkey joining the European Union, and made similar remarks once the results of the current referendum were announced. Another challenge is that in his first speech after the referendum, Erdogan announced the possibility that he might reinstate the death penalty. Prior to the referendum, European Union leaders warned unequivocally that the reinstatement of the death penalty would trigger the termination of contacts with Turkey regarding its joining the EU. If so, why is Erdogan taking such a belligerent stance towards the European Union? Is he despairing of the process and the gains to be reaped from its completion, or is this a negotiating tactic with the EU that relates to the issue of Turkey allowing refugees passage through Turkey en route to Europe and the fact that Turkey is currently accommodating more than three million Syrian refugees?
The supporters of the constitutional amendments and the “yes” voters during the referendum tried to emphasize that the amendments are needed to stabilize the political system, in order to help Ankara contend with the many challenges that Turkey is facing – economic deterioration, the decline in tourism, the threat of terrorist attacks by the Islamic State and the Kurdish underground organizations, the continuing civil war in Syria and the Russian military presence also in the southern arena, the deteriorating relations with the European Union, and the pitfalls in relations with the United States. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that Turkey’s difficulties contending with these problems actually derive from any lack of government stability. Notwithstanding the impact of the failed coup attempt, Turkey faced these problems even before the incident. Therefore, despite the fact that the referendum was passed more or less to the satisfaction of the “yes” supporters, it does not signal any substantive change in the negative trends prevailing in Turkey. Despite the efforts exerted by Erdogan and his supporters to pass the referendum, it is highly likely that frustrations will rise again, due to the inability to implement the desired changes. This frustration is liable to be directed against those whom the government perceives as “enemies from within” and to collect a price, at least in part, in terms of Turkey’s foreign relations.