ISTANBUL, TURKEY – On Sunday in Istanbul, thousands filled the streets protesting a historic referendum that dramatically expanded the president’s power.
The referendum, which 51.4 of voters supported, transforms the country’s constitution. It will replace Turkey's parliamentary system with a presidency and abolish the office of prime minister. Most of the changes will go into effect after the next elections, in 2019, at which point the president will have the power to appoint the cabinet and a number of vice-presidents, and be able to select and remove senior civil servants without parliamentary approval. He will also have the authority to declare a state of emergency, among other changes.
Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), said it would demand a recount of about 37 percent of ballot boxes. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who became president in 2014, has expressed interest in rewriting the constitution since 2011. At that point he was still prime minister, angling for a third term, and making the case that to modernize, the country needed to abandon its constitution, which was written by generals after the 1980 coup.
He continued with this message as he campaigned for president in 2014, but throughout his campaign never offered details on why the existing constitution wasn’t working. It was only after last summer’s failed military coup, which made the public more cautious of the military’s power, that Erdogan’s position gained more mainstream support. Sunday’s referendum came at a perfect time for Erdogan, who has become what his supporters consider a steady presence in a country wracked by instability. Ongoing wars in Syria and Iraq have required Turkey’s military and political attention on the borders and made the country a strategically important member of NATO. Security threats come from both Islamic State and the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which wants autonomy within Turkey, and which claimed responsibility for an attack a few days before the referendum.
Erdogan’s crackdown on his political opposition and his citizens’ civil liberties more broadly helped sway the referendum in his favor. After the July coup attempt he declared a state of emergency, and shut down more than 170 media outlets, detained more than 113,000 people and jailed 47,000, including judges, prosecutors, academics, journalists, police officers and parliamentarians.
Supporters of the referendum believe that through his authoritarian tactics, Erdogan will protect Turkey from Islamic State and the PKK. They think he will resuscitate the country’s economy and increase wages, even though he has been vague about his plans for growth. Erdogan’s self-image as a devout Muslim leader has been another political asset in a country that has become more religiously conservative over the past several years.
To his detractors – mostly from liberal backgrounds, LGBT and other vulnerable communities – the referendum represents an enormous threat to Turkey’s democracy. They fear that the new constitution will legalize Erdogan’s abuse of power.
“What [Erdogan] has been doing in the past two to five years is illegal and he has continued doing it anyway,” says Mahir Zeynalov, a Turkish journalist and analyst based in Washington, D.C. “But he asks for people to vote to get legitimacy for his actions and to say, ‘Look – this is what the people want.’”
In his first public appearance after the state-run media agency announced the referendum results, Erdogan said he plans to immediately discuss with the prime minister the issue of reinstating the death penalty. His critics fear he might use the death penalty as a tool to muzzle his opposition.
But rather than bringing back state-sanctioned murder, Erdogan’s top domestic priority should be to reunite the polarized country, divided between a secular class and the more ultra-nationalist and conservative faction that supports him. In order to weaken his growing opposition he would also need to diminish the hostility between the Turkish state and the minority Kurds.
Beyond Turkey’s borders, the referendum will likely impact the country’s relationship with the West. Europe still needs Turkey to prevent Syrian refugees from flooding its borders, but Erdogan could use his new authority to try to oust Syrian President Bashar al- Assad.
To repair his relationship with Europe and the United States, Erdogan needs to reinstate press freedom, free imprisoned journalists and parliamentarians, stop publicly vilifying his opponents and put an end to the Nazi references he used to describe the German and Dutch governments. A softer approach to Europe seems unlikely in light of Erdogan’s recent comment that he had been attacked by the "crusader mentality in the West," after European monitors criticized the vote. The future of Turkey is now in Erdogan’s hands. With so much power, Erdogan is even more responsible for whatever difficulties the country faces. If he doesn’t address the deep divides in Turkey and repair relations with the West, he may strengthen his opposition’s resolve.