What does Turkey’s referendum result mean for the country’s future?

What does Turkey’s referendum result mean for the country’s future?

The narrowness of Turkey’s referendum result is arguably the worst outcome possible, denying the country the political stability many had predicted from a decisive result.

By the evening of 16 April, the results were in and Turkey’s vote to change its constitution had won with a very narrow 51.4% ‘yes’. The country’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had developed and campaigned hard for these plans to change the constitution to a ‘presidential system’.

This new system concentrates executive power in the presidency. It also allows for a president to be head of a political party, not possible under the previous system. Since the referendum, President Erdogan has rejoined the AKP, which he left to become President in 2014. Proponents of the change say it fills in the gaps in Turkey’s hitherto incomplete constitutional framework, while critics claimed it would damage the country’s democracy.

Opposition groups questioned the outcome. They claimed that the controversial, last-minute decision by the country’s Supreme Election Board (YSK) to accept votes lacking official seats may have swayed the result. An official request from the main opposition party to the YSK to cancel the result of the referendum was rejected, putting an end to this challenge.

Nonetheless, the questioning raised doubts in the minds of many over the legitimacy of the vote. In addition, Turkey’s biggest cities, Istanbul and the capital Ankara, voted against the changes. Both cities typically vote for the ruling AKP and are seen as bellwethers of Turkish politics.

Consequently, while the result of the referendum was a victory for Erdogan and the AKP, it was not what they had been hoping for. The loss of support in Istanbul and Ankara in particular will be troubling. This, the narrow win and the doubts that opposition groups continue to raise about the result make the AKP’s position far less certain that it could have been.

Erdogan arguably saw in this vote an important change to the constitution, as well as a way of consolidating support following last year’s attempted coup d’état. In the run up to the election, Erdogan indulged in a divisive populism to drive his campaign home, allowing a rancorous and paranoid atmosphere to develop in the country.

Eager to introduce the changes, before the referendum the Turkish government pursued a series of populist but not particularly practical policies. Analysts and investors had hoped that these populist policies and Erdogan’s divisive approach would change following success for the government at the referendum. However, with the referendum not providing the decisive victory hoped for, the government may well double down on such populist approaches.

Such policies included placing pressure on the Central Bank to not raise interest rates. While these had short-term positive impact on living costs, many analysts worried this would not help the Turkish lira in the long term and that the Central Bank’s independence was being damaged. The lira showed a slight recovery following the referendum result responding to the broad interpretation of the outcome as a portent of political stability. However, with investor-friendly names such as Ali Babacan, Numan Kurtulmus and Mehmet Simsek’s respective stars all appearing to wane, and Erdogan’s closest on the way up, concerns remain that a more rational economic approach is not imminent.

Erdogan in particular appears to be happy to continue to use crowd-pleasers, such as discussing reintroducing the death penalty, to drive up support. Such moves risk isolating Turkey internationally, or at least from Western partners, and suggest again a prioritising of immediate gains in the opinion polls over sound long-term governance and partnerships.

Similarly, the commission to review the mass-expulsions ordered by the government under the state of emergency powers in place since the coup, which was discussed by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, is yet to appear. Erdogan has suggested the commission is unnecessary. Indeed, since the referendum result, thousands more people have been removed from their positions.

Rather than soften its approach, attempt reconciliation and heal growing societal rifts, the government appears to be willing to further play on this atmosphere of tension. Opposition figures had warned of arbitrary decision-making becoming entrenched in Turkey’s politics under the new system. Actions such as the above feed into that concern.

Moreover, an opening on Turkey’s Kurdish conflict now appears increasingly unlikely. With the government looking to secure its near abroad and achieve demonstrable military successes, it appears set to continue pursuing a military approach. This means Turkey’s domestic security situation will remain unstable in the short to medium term. Domestically, near-constant operations continue against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants, regularly costing the lives of Turkish security personnel. In Syria and north west Iraq, Turkey has launched strikes against Kurdish positions and may be gearing up for renewed land assaults.

This narrow victory for the ‘yes’ vote is arguably the worst possible outcome for Turkey’s political stability. The stability that could have been offered by an affirmation for the ruling party’s leadership is tainted by its narrowness, the loss of major cities, and the doubts over the fairness of the election raised by opposition groups. Instead, the outcome risks exacerbating some of the worst populist excesses of the ruling AKP’s leadership ahead of the upcoming 2019 elections.

About Author

George Dyson

George Dyson is Head of Research at the Centre for Turkey Studies (www.ceftus.org) and has worked as a research analyst on conflict, political risk and business intelligence in Turkey and the MENA region.