Volume 21 Issue 6 June 2017


The referendum held in Turkey on April 16 to replace the parliamentary form of government with a presidential one, led to a ‘yes’ vote for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan but it was termed as a pyrrhic victory. His narrow victory could be gauged from the fact that he got 51.4% votes and lost in major cities like Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. The opposition blamed the government of electoral rigging and imposing referendum results of its own choice. In his victory speech, Erdogan said “We have got a lot to do, we are on this path, but it’s time to change gears and go faster.” He also called on foreign powers to respect the verdict given by the majority of voters in the referendum.

The controversial nature of the referendum will have far-reaching implications. Supporters of Erdogan argue that under his leadership, Turkey has progressed and developed at a faster pace which has made the country as the world’s 17th largest economy with a GDP of more than $ 850 billion. In 2003, when Erdogan came to power for the first time, Turkey’s economy was fragile with a low per capita income, lowest value of the Turkish Lira, a high rate of inflation and low employment. Within 14 years, Turkey has emerged as the fastest growing economy in the world and a model for Muslim countries.

According to his supporters, Erdogan’s leadership in the presidential form will further boost Turkey’s economic and political profile and by 2030, Turkey can emerge as the world’s 10th largest economy. Most importantly, Erdogan’s governance was able to neutralize the interference of the military in Turkish politics, a fact which was reflected when the hostile popular response to the abortive military coup in July last year further weakened the position of a once powerful military.
The London Economist, in its April 15 issue provides a clear picture of Turkey under Erdogan since 2003 by stating that, “After. Endogan came to power in 2003, he and his AK party did a lot that was good. Encouraged by the IMF, he tamed inflation and ushered in economic growth. Encouraged by the EU, he tackled the cabal of military officers and bureaucrats in the deep state, strengthened civil liberties and talked peace with the Kurds. He also spoke up for working class religious conservatives, who had been locked out of power for decades.” But that was the flip side depicted by the London Economist. On the alarming side, it maintained that, “but today Turkey is beset by problems. In the shadow of the Syrian civil war, Jihadists and Kurdish militants are waging campaign against the state. Last summer the army attempted a coup – probably organized by supporters of an America-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen who had penetrated the bureaucracy, judiciary and army. The economy once a strength, is growing slowly, plagued by cronyism, poor management and a collapse of tourism.”

Critics of Erdogan express their concern that under the presidential form of government, he will assume enormous powers like appointing a Vice President and could even influence the judiciary. He can have two terms as, president which will enable him to be in power till 2029. Furthermore, the narrow victory of Erdogan in the referendum raises a serious question about his popularity as irregularities were committed during the voting process, particularly in counting unstamped ballots which accounted for 1.5 million votes. It was reported that “the preliminary report of the European voting observer mission, a combined effort of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the office of the Democratic Institute and Human Rights, criticized the decision on unstamped ballots and said it meant the referendum had taken place on unlevel playing field.”

Whatever are the pluses and minuses of Erdogan’s victory in the referendum, one thing is certain: the future Turkish president will have to confront serious challenges particularly from the civil war in Syria and growing activities of Da’ish in the form of periodic terrorist attacks.

One can figure out three major implications of the referendum. First, if the presidential form of government marginalizes democracy and imposes political


curbs on the opposition parties, the future of democracy in the country will be at stake. The European Union has already expressed its concerns about the future of democracy in Turkey and the enforcement of curbs on free media. If 48.6% voters rejected the presidential form of government in the referendum, it means a significant part of Turkish voters do not approve Erdogan’s policies and his future ambitions.

More than 85% voters cast their vote in the referendum while the opposition parties like the Republican Peoples Party and Peoples Democratic Party launched a rigorous campaign against Erdogan’s plan to establish a presidential form of government. Therefore, one can expect more polarization in the Turkish political scene with opposition parties sustaining their pressure on Erdogan.

Second, providing Erdogan and his AKP party political space till 2029 would mean that Turkey would further drift towards the age-old phenomenon of pan-Islamism. A clear divide in Turkey is visible: the conservative segment of society supports Erdogan whereas the liberal and left-wing groups are against him. If conservatism and pan-Islamism continue to gain state patronage, Turkey would further erode its prospects to become a part of the European Union. Erdogan’s tirade against the Dutch and German governments of taking measures against the pro-Erdogan Turkish immigrants in their respective countries reflect how deep is the cleavage between Erdogan and Europe. The EU’s cold shoulder to Turkey on its membership case will, however, create conditions for Turkey’s vibrant role in the Arab-Islamic world. While the restoration of the Caliphate is a remote possibility, Erdogan’s ambition to play a leadership role in the Muslim world cannot be ruled out. His regime has categorically rendered support to the Palestinians, Kashmiris and Rohingyas.

Third, the surge of the Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey will compel Erdogan to take punitive measures against them which will be a departure from his earlier policy of seeking conciliation with Kurdish nationalist leaders. Along with the Kurdish challenge is the fallout of the Syrian civil war on Turkey as millions of Syrian refugees have poured into Turkey thus causing serious economic problems.

Commenting on Erdogan’s pyrrhic victory in the referendum, The Guardian Weekly in its issue of April 21 remarked “The narrow victory for the ‘yes’ campaign will come as a disappointment for Turkey’s leadership, which had hoped for a decisive mandate for a plan that could see Erdogan remain in power until 2029. The result will also set the stage for a further split between Turkey and its European allies, who believe Ankara is sliding towards autocracy. The European commission said that Turkey should seek the broadest possible national consensus on its constitutional amendments, given the slim margin of victory.”

The report in The Guardian Weekly on the referendum further says, “The result sets the stage for a transformation of the upper echelons of the state and changing the country from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential republic, arguably the most important development in the country’s history since it was founded from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.”

It is true that Erdogan’s support emanates from the conservative lower, lower middle and middle classes but he cannot undermine those who resent his mode of governance and his approach to Islamize secular Turkey. Nevertheless, Turkey will face difficult times in the days to come because of a sustained level of the civil war in Syria, internal opposition against his mode of governance and the Kurdish nationalist movement. In order to seek political stability, which is imperative for economic growth and development of Turkey, Erdogan will have to mend fences with the opposition and reach an agreement with the Kurds?

The writer is Meritorious Professor of International Relations, University of Karachi.

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