Erdogan's Fragile Referendum Coalition

Crafting a Coherent Domestic Agenda Will Be Difficult

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends an interview at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, April 2017. Umit Bektas / REUTERS

In an April 16 referendum, Turkish citizens voted in favor of a measure that will fundamentally change the nature of Turkey’s political system. Although the republic has a long history of such votes—seven referendums, and three of them during Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule—this one surpassed all others in terms of its political significance. By a narrow margin (only 51.4 percent voted “yes”), the tally will result in the scrapping of Turkey’s parliamentary political system, which predates the establishment of the modern Turkish republic. The new presidential system will vest significantly more power in the executive and will likely further the development of a two-party presidential system (though it will not terminate the existence of smaller parties) with an excessively powerful president holding most of the cards. 

Despite the radical changes, the referendum has generated very little excitement within Turkey. That is because it will have only a limited near-term impact on Turkey’s power structure and domestic policies. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP do and will continue to wield the real power in the country. In fact, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli, whose offer to support the presidential system led the AKP to finally bring the issue to the table in November 2016, has justified his position by arguing that the referendum will merely legalize the model of government that is already effectively practiced.

Perhaps another reason for the somber atmosphere is that the referendum passed by such a narrow margin. Even the parties supporting it—all of the conservative Islamic and nationalist parties apart from the small pro-Islamic Felicity Party—failed to convince a significant share of their own voters of the need to change the political system. The “no” vote comprised not only the voter bases of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) but also a considerable chunk of the normal base of the parties of the “yes” camp.

To put the contentious aspects

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