In Turkey, a Different Kind of Presidential Vote

8 MINS READApr 11, 2017 | 20:52 GMT
In Turkey, a Different Kind of Presidential Vote
(OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)
If Turkish voters reject proposed constitutional reforms in a referendum April 16, they will deal a blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's campaign to increase his authority. But either way, he will continue his quest for greater power.
Forecast Highlights

  • Whether the April 16 referendum on constitutional reform passes or fails, the ruling Justice and Development Party will keep pursuing its domestic and foreign policy goals to address Turkey's security concerns.
  • Those concerns, combined with economic instability, will divide Turkish voters over the referendum.
  • If the referendum passes, the constitutional reforms will transform the country's government and grant the presidency more power than ever before. 


Since its founding in 2001, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has slowly amassed greater and greater power in the country. The party has won pluralities in every legislative election over the past 16 years, and today, it is Turkey's most influential political force. But for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, bringing the parliament under the AKP's control was only a means to an end. The president's ultimate goal is to increase the executive branch's power.

Erdogan has a knack for using positions of lesser influence to accrue authority. During his tenure as mayor of Istanbul, he laid the groundwork for his ascent to higher office. And as president — a role he took after reaching his term limit as prime minister in 2014 — he has worked to steadily broaden the functions of his office, once a mostly ceremonial post. Erdogan has used his influence to strong-arm the leaders of Turkey's central bank, other parties in the AKP's coalition and even members of his own party. He so frequently overstepped the established bounds of the presidency, in fact, that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu resigned in protest.

On April 16, voters in Turkey will vote on a referendum to formalize the powers that Erdogan has claimed for himself and further increase his authority. The referendum is a kind of gamble for the president; even the most ardent AKP supporters may think that he and the ruling party have enough power as it is and vote "no" to get that idea across. Whatever the vote's outcome, though, the AKP will maintain its influence over Turkey's future for years to come. And the president, likewise, will continue his quest for more power.

The Path to (Increased) Power

The referendum, which covers a raft of 18 constitutional amendments, stands to change the Turkish state's very structure. If the reforms prevail, the balance of power between the branches of the government will shift in the presidency's favor. The proposed changes include abolishing the role of the prime minister and conferring its powers on the president, creating the office of vice president, diminishing parliamentary and judicial oversight over the presidency, and adding 50 seats to the Turkish National Assembly. In addition, the measures would empower the president to prepare the budget, appoint ministers, enact laws by decree and appoint judges to the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors.

Some of the proposed reforms, such as giving civil courts jurisdiction over matters now settled in the military courts, have wide support among Turkey's political groups. And beyond the amendments' specific content, nearly all of the country's parties agree on the need to revise the current constitution. Two years after assuming control of Turkey in a coup in 1980, the military approved the document, which has faced widespread criticism in the years since for the special privileges it affords the armed forces. Erdogan has been particularly determined to curtail the military's power, wary of its function as an appendage of the state, but overhauling the 1982 constitution has been a common goal across Turkey's political spectrum for decades.

Turkish Political Factions

The exception to this trend is the Republican People's Party (CHP), Turkey's largest opposition group — and the oldest in the country's multiparty system. The CHP, which has historically aligned itself with the armed forces, opposes Erdogan's constitutional amendments, not because they strip the military of power but because they would increase the president's powers and potentially extend his rule. If the referendum passes, Erdogan will become "acting executive" and will then be eligible to serve up to two more terms in office, until 2029. Opponents such as the CHP see the measures as a gross attempt to aggrandize power. For the referendum's proponents, on the other hand, keeping Erdogan in the presidency and increasing his authority offer a more expedient way to address the country's economic and security challenges than a coalition government could achieve.

It's the Vote That Counts

Already, the amendments have made it through an arduous parliamentary negotiation between the AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party. But the country's voters will have final say over their fate. And they, too, will be thinking of Turkey's economic and security problems as they head to the polls. The country's economy has hit a rough patch. High rates of inflation and unemployment have taken a toll on Turkish consumers. The lira, moreover, is still vulnerable to external factors such as the dollar's rise, though it has stabilized since its steady descent after the attempted military coup in July 2016. Considering the sizable dollar-denominated debt saddling Turkey's private sector, the dollar's strength bodes ill for the country's businesses, particularly small businesses. (The European Union's financial troubles will also add to the country's economic woes.) Although the AKP built its reputation in part on having guided Turkey through economic crisis in the early 2000s and into a period of rapid growth, some voters see Erdogan's heavy-handed rule as detrimental to the country's economy. The Turkish electorate will channel its feelings about the ruling party's fiscal policies into the ballot box on April 16. 

Erdogan, meanwhile, has used the multifaceted threat of terrorism facing Turkey to argue in favor of an executive presidency, claiming that he needs broader powers to address the problem. Since the coup attempt, the country has been under a state of emergency that has at once made it difficult for the reforms' opponents to express their views and given supporters fodder to promote the measures. In fact, many members of the "no" camp fear government reprisal in the wake of the referendum or voter intimidation at polling places. Nevertheless, Turkey's leaders haven't managed to quash dissent entirely. Even some AKP supporters feel that Erdogan's foreign policy decisions, such as the military campaign in Syria, have heightened security risks in Turkey and may vote against the constitutional reforms as a result. The "no" vote will likely also prevail in the predominantly Kurdish regions of southeast Turkey, where the government is conducting operations against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Authorities are preparing for the possibility that violence could break out in the area and elsewhere in the country in the runup to the vote. To keep the peace between "yes" and "no" voters, more than 380,000 members of Turkey's security forces will be on duty April 16, according to the Interior Ministry, along with 51,000 village guards across 26 cities.

Troubling the Bloc

Beyond the country's borders, the impending referendum has also caused tension between the Turkish government and its allies in the European Union. EU leaders are concerned not only with Ankara's attempts to tamp down its opposition at home but also with its campaigns to rally support for the constitutional reforms abroad. As the vote approaches, the AKP has been courting the millions of eligible voters in Europe's large Turkish expatriate communities, whose support proved invaluable for Erdogan during the last general elections in 2015. But its efforts to galvanize voters living abroad vexed some European politicians, many of whom are in the middle of their own campaigns in a critical and contentious election season. The waves of nationalism sweeping Turkey and the Continental bloc collided, causing renewed strife between Ankara and Brussels.

Even so, Turkey and the European Union each want to maintain a good working relationship with the other in the long term. Ankara is still intent on joining the European Union, even though talk of further integration with the bloc has turned more and more to economic matters in recent months. Their mutual economic dependence and interest in expanding trade ties explains why Ankara threatened to slap Brussels with diplomatic sanctions during their recent row and didn't follow through with economic penalties. And Turkey's negotiating position could improve after the referendum. With the vote behind him, Erodgan can get off his nationalist soapbox and get back to working out an accession deal with Brussels. At the same time, however, if the referendum passes, the president's expanded executive powers could strain Turkey's relations with its allies in the bloc, which are leery of the country's increasingly authoritarian rule. The Turkish government, in the meantime, will keep using complaints of discrimination among Turkish expatriates in Europe to try to blunt allegations of human rights abuses from EU member states.

For many Turks, the upcoming referendum has presented a weighty decision. But whatever the vote's outcome, the AKP will continue down the path it has been following for much of the past two decades. Even if the measures fail, Erdogan will keep pursuing his administration's objectives, maintaining Turkey's foreign policy, its military commitments in Iraq and Syria, and its fight against Kurdish expansionism. And, of course, win or lose, Erdogan will stay focused on his goal to further consolidate power in any way he can.

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