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

Erdogan's Fragile Referendum Coalition

Crafting a Coherent Domestic Agenda Will Be Difficult

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 of the recent referendum in a historical perspective, one need only look to the two previous votes introduced under the AKP. In 2007, Turkey’s secularist establishment resisted the prospect of then Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul becoming president on the grounds that his wife wore an Islamic headscarf. In response, the AKP (to which Gul belonged) decided to hold early elections and put forth a referendum that would allow the public, rather than the Parliament, to elect the president. This package, which also reduced the duration between general elections from five to four years, was a precursor to the executive presidency. Although the AKP received around 46.5 percent of the vote in the general election of 2007, the constitutional measure received around 69 percent of public support in the referendum. Likewise, in 2009, the party’s vote share went down to around 38 percent in local elections. But a year later, it put a major referendum related to the restructuring of Turkey’s high judiciary to the public vote, which received 58 percent of public support.

For these first two referendums, the AKP was on its own politically. All of the other major parties either opposed them or boycotted the referendums, as was the case with the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party in the 2010 referendum. Yet the AKP was able to obtain 23 and 20 percent more support than it received in the elections preceding them. In other words, a significant segment of society that did not vote for the AKP saw these proposals as progressive and reformist and loaned their support to the measures. This time, though, the reverse happened. Apparently, 11 to 12 percent of AKP and MHP supporters found the constitutional change regressive and in violation of the separation of powers. In addition, despite an intensive campaign by the “yes” camp with a strong emphasis on Turkey’s identity fault lines and polarized political atmosphere, a chunk of voters resisted the pull of identity politics and populism. And that is an encouraging sign for the future of Turkish democracy.

AN INCOHERENT AGENDA?

The future trajectory of Turkish politics until 2019 depends on how Erdogan and the AKP government engage with those who supported the referendum. The composition of that coalition—that is, the AKP’s formal alliance with the MHP, with the additional support of Kurdish “yes” votes—will not be conducive to meaningful political reform, at least in the short term. Too much reliance on the nationalist MHP, which favors policies such as a more heavy-handed approach toward the Kurdish issue, will push away the Kurds. On the other hand, any attempt to negotiate on the Kurds’ political demands, including linguistic, educational rights or broader cultural and political rights, will break the alliance with the MHP.

The future trajectory of Turkish politics until 2019 depends on how Erdogan and the AKP government engage with those who supported the referendum.

In short, these two constituencies’ political aspirations are incompatible. The AKP government is thus likely to start off by pushing an uncontroversial economy-focused agenda, with some potential additional minor political steps, rather than by rewarding the Kurds for their support. A major test of the alliance will come if the government undertakes any new and sustained cross-border military operations in Syria or Iraq, which Erdogan has hinted about in some post-referendum speeches. In the recent past, such operations have been focused on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has a significant presence in northern Iraq, and the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party, which controls much of the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border.

Erdogan and the AKP will also have to calculate how to win upcoming local, parliamentary, and presidential elections, which are all set for 2019. One shouldn’t rule out the possibility of an early election if Erdogan judges that the political climate is favorable. But regardless of the timing, the government is likely to be conscious of keeping the fragile “yes” alliance intact. It will likely attempt to strengthen the camp by winning back conservative-nationalist voters who defected during the referendums. Given the fracture within the MHP (a majority of whose members voted “no,” according to pollsters), the government is likely to end up allied mostly with the MHP leadership, with limited grass-roots support. This bloc will run against an alliance spearheaded by the main opposition secularist CHP and joined by dissenting former nationalist MHP elites. Here the position of the pro-Kurdish HDP and the Kurds at large will be crucial. Against this background, the AKP will try to manage its “yes” camp alliance. The government will probably fluctuate between implementing economic measures coupled with very modest political gestures on the Kurdish issue and trying to cater to the nationalist MHP’s policy preferences. The AKP’s agenda will therefore look less and less coherent.

Erdogan’s statement on the night of the referendum that he would approve capital punishment, for example, was partially meant to appeal to the nationalists. The government’s talk of sending Turkey’s EU membership bid to a referendum was as well, as the MHP represents one of the most anti-EU political camps in the country. Yet both proposals will be unpopular among the Kurds.

After he acquires the post of chairman through the AKP’s extraordinary congress on May 21, Erdogan will try to present the image of a new period both for Turkey and for the party. To that end, he will probably try to energize the party machine, which has become increasingly lackluster in recent years, and rejuvenate its central executive committee and other key bodies by changing their composition. It is highly likely that a cabinet change will follow the change within the party structure to further give the impression that a new period is commencing, but this will not mean a departure from the policies and politics that are already in place. Aside from the rhetoric on capital punishment and possibly ending membership negotiations with the EU, the new alliance structure with the nationalist MHP and calculations for the upcoming elections are likely to lead the government to continue more or less the same policies and approaches.

LAST CHANCE FOR REFORM?

There is still a limited window of opportunity for reform, however. What took place on April 16 is highly unlikely to be reversed wholesale, but it is important to focus on remedying the most glaring faults of the package passed in the referendum. Despite hardly encouraging early signs such as the debate on capital punishment and on the largely stalled EU accession process, this discussion is critical. Given the trends that this referendum has revealed to the government—the loss of major metropolitan cities (the three largest, Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir, voted “no”) and a growing level of disconnect from the relatively educated, urban-dwelling middle classes and young people—it is crucial for Erdogan and the AKP to accurately analyze and later act upon this result.

By the numbers, the “yes” camp won the referendum. Yet this narrow win doesn’t easily or necessarily translate itself into a true political victory. The latter hinges more on the management of the post-referendum period than on the outcome of the vote itself. This requires an active effort on the part of the government to enlarge the social base of Turkey’s new political system beyond the people who voted for it. One way to do so is to introduce new and reformed electoral and political party laws to reduce Turkey’s prohibitively high election threshold from ten percent to a more democratically acceptable level. Another is to introduce a single-member district system, hence reducing party bosses’ powers over the selection of candidates as part of the harmonization of laws and legislation preparing the ground for the introduction of the executive presidency system in 2019. Such reforms would go some way toward restrengthening the legislative branch relative to the executive and decreasing the democratic deficit of the new package. The government thus far hasn’t signaled any intention of undertaking such rectifying measures. But unless it does, the newly passed referendum will not only fail to solve Turkey’s systemic political crisis, it will further deepen it.

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