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Turkey’s Constitutional Referendum And Erdogan’s Diminished Power – Analysis


By Elias Vahedi*

Turkey held a referendum on the proposed reforms to its constitution on April 16, 2017, in which the number of positive votes cast in favor of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reforms amounted to a weak percentage, namely 51.5 percent of the total vote. The referendum results showed that at least about half of people in Turkey were opposed to the way that Erdogan was running the country. This is true because due to conditions created by opponents and proponents of the constitutional reforms during their campaigns, the public opinion had been diverted from the main issue, which was reforming 18 articles of Turkey’s constitution to, among other things, change the country’s ruling system from the current parliamentary one to a presidential system.

As a result, the general atmosphere governing the referendum had become intensely bipolar for and against Erdogan. Perhaps one can claim that a high turnout – that accounted for over 85 percent of eligible voters – in the aforesaid referendum, which had no precedent in Turkey’s political history, was a result of the bipolar atmosphere that governed the Turkish society.

Political map of Turkey’s 2017 referendum

The spatial distribution of positive and negative votes cast in Turkey’s constitutional referendum generally conforms to maps of previous elections. It shows that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party has more or less performed like previous elections in which it had got most votes in the country’s central regions, including Central Anatolia, and the shores of the Black Sea in north, as well as the Mediterranean coast in south, which are under powerful influence of the party. However, the European part of the country in those regions situated close to the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara are still under the heavy influence of pro-West secular social classes that support the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which is the biggest opposition party in the country.

On the other hand, apart from Şırnak and Bingöl provinces, other Kurdish regions of Turkey, which are located in eastern and southeastern parts of the country, cast their votes for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party. The most striking difference between this and previous elections in Turkey, was demonstrated in the votes cast by people in cities of Istanbul and Ankara. People in these two cities traditionally used to lend their support to the Justice and Development Party and had played a great role in the party’s election wins. However, during this referendum, these two cities also inclined toward the opposition. This unprecedented development triggered different analyses from its outset.

Some analysts believe that the cities of Istanbul and Ankara are major concentration points for Turkey’s opposition parties. Therefore, supporters of opposition parties, who only voted for their own parties during past elections, have said a big ‘no’ to the ruling Justice and Development Party. Other analysts have mentioned other reasons to explain why Turkish citizens in Istanbul and Ankara did not support the government. Their reasons include the fall in votes cast by the Islamist conservative class in these two cities due to mass arrests of tens of thousands of people following Turkey’s failed putsch in 2016; the support lent by some Islamist figures to Fethullah Gulen’s current; and opposition to changes in the constitution by some supporters of the Nationalist Movement Party. They consider constitutional changes to be at odds with a previous agreement between the leaders of the Nationalist Movement Party and the Justice and Development Party.

Such regions as Izmir, which is located in the European part of Turkey, as well as the Kurdish provinces of Diyarbakir, Van and Hakkari, have also opposed the Turkish government’s proposed reforms due to the influence of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party in these regions.

An overall view of Turkey’s 2017 constitution referendum map will show that in 49 provinces located in the country’s center, north and south, except for Ankara and Istanbul, the proponents of constitutional reforms have swayed majority, while in 32 provinces located in the country’s west, southwest, east and northeast, the opponents have had the majority. The noteworthy point about the geographical division of positive and negative votes is that in those provinces where proponents or opponents have swayed majority, the gap between positive and negative votes has been wider than previous elections, which proves intensification of bipolarity between government’s supporters and the opposition.

Erdogan’s all-out faceoff with Europe

European governments have been mounting pressure on the Turkish government in recent years, mostly due to Erdogan’s unilateral policies and also under the influence of dominant rightwing groups in the member states of the European Union. As a result, during campaigns for Turkey’s recent constitutional referendum, European countries barred Turkish officials from taking part in campaign rallies held by the supporters of the Justice and Development Party in various European states.

At the same time, however, supporters of such Kurdish groups as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) were allowed to hold rallies and even some prominent European media went a step further and served Erdogan’s opposition in their campaign effort. Such measures, however, not only failed to benefit the European countries, but caused their efforts to backfire in practice as well. As a result, Erdogan was provided with an opportunity to take advantage of his regular election tactic and ride the tide of anti-Turkey policies adopted by Europe to incite nationalistic sentiments of Turks living in Europe. This incitement had an effect on the mind of Turks in Europe, which was much more powerful than holding of campaign rallies. As a result of the success of Turkeys’ ruling party in riding this tide, the share of positive votes given to proposed changes in Turkey’s constitution reached about 65 percent in Germany and France, while in the Netherlands, which was previously a center of tension against the Turkish government, about 70 percent of participants voted positive for the constitutional changes.|This came despite the fact that other Turks living in the United States and the UK, whose governments generally turn a blind eye to Erdogan’s authoritarian policies, have said no to Turkish president’s proposed changes by a decisive majority. Even in countries that have friendly relations with Turkey, including the Republic of Azerbaijan and Qatar, the opposition had the upper hand compared to supporters of Erdogan. On the whole, more than 59 percent of voters taking part in the referendum outside Turkey voted positive for proposed constitutional changes, which was eight percent higher than positive votes cast inside Turkey.

Unsettling realities for the ruling party

The results of this referendum have revealed a set of realities for the public. Some of those realities, which may not have been very evident on the surface, include:

  • Fragility of people’s support for the Justice and Development Party and Recep Tayyip Erdogan;
  • Increased possibility of an emerging gap between the Nationalist Movement Party, as supporter of the ruling party, and the Justice and Development Party. It is remarkable that most members of the Justice and Development Party voted negative for the proposed reforms despite a prior agreement between party leaders and the government in this regard. Even within the Justice and Development Party, the dissident section of the party either voted negative or did not take part in the referendum;
  • Non-transparent policies and plans formulated by the ruling party with regard to the issue of ethnic tendencies – including Turk-centered nationalists and Kurdish ethnocentric elements – have caused both groups to tilt toward the negative vote; and
  • Intensification of differences between supporters of the ruling system and their opponents is another reality, which in addition to increasing political instability in the society will weaken social attachments among various groups of people.

Domestic and foreign outcomes of Turkey’s referendum

The most important changes predicted in the package that contains proposed changes to the constitution include:

  • Unlike the previous constitution, there will be no ban on the president’s membership in a political party through people’s direct vote;
  • The prime minister post will be phased out in Turkey’s political system and the president will take over the prime minister’s duties as well;
  • There will be changes in the composition of the High Council for Judges and Prosecutors, the Constitutional Court of Turkey, the National Security Council, and the Council of Higher Education;
  • The president and parliament will be reciprocally able to dissolve and dismiss each other and this will be followed with a request for reelection (both for the parliament and the president). In fact, if the president dissolves the parliament, he will have removed himself from his post as well and, vice versa, if the parliament removes the president, it will be dissolving itself as well;
  • The number of parliament’s deputies will increase from the current figure of 550 to 600;
  • The minimum age of candidacy for the parliament will decrease from 25 years to 18 years; and
  • Every parliament term will be increased from four years to five years and elections for parliament deputies and the president will be held at the same time.

Although the ruling Justice and Development Party is currently facing opposition from about half of Turkey’s population, this is not enough to bar the party from implementing its plans. The most striking step taken by this party has been proposing reforms to the constitution in order to increase the president’s powers with regard to both domestic and foreign policies. According to the latest remarks by the Turkish president, the reforms will enter into force gradually until 2019, when the current presidential term comes to an end.

Under the new constitution, Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be authorized to seek two consecutive terms in office as president. If this happens in practice, Erdogan will remain at the helm of Turkey’s government for 12 more years. As a result, he will have enough time to implement his party plans in the Turkish society and without a doubt, will try to make the most of that opportunity. This is true because the current opportunity that has presented itself to Islamist conservative politicians in Turkey has not had a precedent in the past, nor it is possible to continue into the future if this political current loses power.

When it comes to foreign policy, the government will have a lot of latitude to set its regional policies. This state of affairs will lead to adoption of bolder policies, including cross-border military operations and the likes of that, while at the same time, make it possible for Turkey to take sharp turns in the country’s foreign policy.

*Elias Vahedi
Expert on Turkey and Caucasus Affairs

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