On Sunday, a referendum that will change Turkish history was decided. In a 51.3% to 48.7% victory, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party, the AKP, won the referendum, which will usher in 18 changes to the Turkish constitution. The one that was given the greatest coverage was the changes to Article 104, which will end the current parliamentary political system in Turkey, replacing it with an executive presidential system. But all of the changes together create a system that could potentially keep Erdoğan and the AKP in power for a long time.
What Does This Mean?
The new Article 104 in of itself actually doesn’t mean a whole lot. It changes Turkey from a parliamentary system like Germany to a presidential system like we have in the United States. Both systems are considered democratic. And although Erdoğan has been the ceremonial president since 2014, he has been the real leader of Turkey the whole time. His dismissal of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu this past summer was proof, not that anyone really doubted who was in charge before then.
But other changes, in combination, will make it tough for anyone to knock the AKP out of power. Article 75 raises the number of seats in Parliament from 550 to 600. Article 77 extends the presidential term from four to five years. Article 89 allows Parliament to overcome a presidential veto with only an absolute majority (50%+1). Article 101 allows presidential candidates to keep their party affiliation (not that this limit ever really stopped candidates in the past). Article 116 allows the president and 60% of the Parliament to renew elections. Article 123 allows the president to create new federated states inside Turkey (which could affect the voting districts).
However, not all of the changes raise the power of the AKP. Article 125 makes the president’s acts subject to judicial review and Article 9 requires the judiciary to be impartial. Theoretically by lowering the required ages for candidates (25 to 18) and not requiring compulsory military service to have been completed in Article 76 opens positions to a greater piece of the population. If the president is going to call a state of emergency, he has to have approval from Parliament first, and all of his actions during such a state of emergency require Parliamentary approval as well.
But none of this will happen until November 3, 2019, when the next Turkish election will be held, and most amendments won’t actually come into effect until the new president is sworn in. Everyone assumes it will be Erdoğan, but if by some chance a different candidate were to prevail, all of the new powers would go to that individual, and not Erdoğan.
What Does It Mean for the Future?
Erdoğan argued that these new changes need to be adopted to handle the dangerous issues that Turkey now faces. No one can dispute that Turkey is in an unenviable position: Turkey currently houses the largest number of refugees in the world, has been pulled into the bloody conflict in Syria, faced a coup just last July, and has a restive minority in the guise of the Kurds.
While granting more power to Erdoğan, or whichever candidate emerges victorious in November 2019, could help Turkey manage these problems, it could actually backfire. Already the CHP and the HDP, opposition parties to the AKP, have demanded a recount of the votes. And the referendum has left a deeply divided country, with the results not appearing entirely legitimate. For example, it is highly unlikely that far eastern Turkish provinces, mostly populated by the Kurds, would do an about-face and support Erdoğan, let alone support greater power for the Turkish government.
These divisions could develop into open conflict, despite Erdoğan’s harsh crackdown on dissidents since the failed coup against him last July. If that happens, the unstable region could envelop Turkey as well, with instability in Iraq and Syria potentially spreading across the porous Turkish southern border, or with larger regional powers such as Russia and Iran interfering in Turkish politics.
Even if these new powers solve Turkey’s many problems, it will likely come at a cost of even greater repression of the Turkish people and an increasingly fast slide into authoritarian rule.
Turkey already had a list of factors, such as human rights violations and millions of refugees inside its borders, which hurt its chances of joining the European Union. By increasing the authoritarian nature of Erdoğan’s rule, the referendum has put yet another nail in the coffin of Turkey’s chances of joining the EU. This time, that coffin may be shut for good. Both liberals, such as former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verehofstadt, and conservatives like Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s foreign minister, urged the EU to end accession talks.
In a scene reminiscent of his diatribes against Germany and the Netherlands earlier this year, Erdoğan wasted little time in criticizing the West and telling the world to accept the outcome. No doubt this will have an even more souring effect on Turkish-Western relations, which have already been growing worse over the past few years.
But American President Donald Trump actually congratulated Erdogan on his victory in the referendum. While this was a questionable choice, it perhaps shows that United States policy will, like it has so much in its history, value a strategically important ally over the questionable status of the democracy and rights of its people.
Turkey could still change the outcome of the referendum, but that is unlikely. Erdoğan has been building up to this stage for quite some time, and the failure of the July coup to remove him from power effectively signaled that nothing short of a monumental force would budge him.
So now Turkey has about two and a half years to prepare itself for the coming changes. What exactly will that bring? Only time will tell.