On Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan achieved a narrow victory in a referendum to amend the Turkish constitution and consolidate power in the presidency. Opposition parties are contesting the results, objecting to a decision by the election board to lift a rule requiring ballots to have official seals and citing discrepancies between vote totals released by the election board and a state-owned news agency. A preliminary report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observation mission noted an “unlevel playing field” and “restrictive campaign framework.” In a country with a history of generally free (if not always fair) elections, allegations of fraud question the legitimacy (if not the practical result) of the vote. It is far too early to assess the aftermath, but here’s what to watch for in the weeks ahead.
What is the impact on Turkish domestic politics?
Although polls were forecasting a win, the final results were surprisingly close. For starters, many assumed a wider margin of victory, given the government’s near-complete control of media, uncoordinated opposition campaign, and prevailing climate of fear, including a state of emergency. Furthermore, Erdogan notably lost in the country’s three largest commercial centers — Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. Defeat in Istanbul, where he began his political career as mayor, is a painful blow. This suggests he’s vulnerable in a fair race in the 2019 presidential elections and could create political space for a more unified opposition in the near term.
There is a case to be made that a “yes” vote provides short-term political stability (albeit at a high price socially and democratically), given fears a “no” vote would’ve provoked Erdogan to rerun parliamentary elections or find another way to achieve reform. Results show he lost support within his base and failed to rally nationalists. It remains to be seen whether the narrow margin of victory restrains his ambitions or causes him to double down on perceived threats. In the near term, Erdogan will be warily watching street protests in Istanbul and elsewhere across a deeply divided country. In the medium term, the narrow result raises questions about whether opponents can unify into a meaningful resistance.
The international community has already warned Turkey about the need for fair implementation of the new measures. For example, the Council of Europe cautioned leaders to “consider the next steps carefully” and encouraged respect for judicial independence. Similarly, the European Union noted the reforms would be assessed in light of Turkey’s obligations as an EU candidate country and called on leaders to “seek the broadest possible national consensus in their implementation.”
Does Turkey give up on the EU?
One of the biggest geopolitical questions emerging from the referendum is how Erdogan will approach the EU. Already tense relations soured during the campaign when Erdogan picked a fight as a means of rallying nationalist voters, accusing the Netherlands and Germany of Nazism after they prevented his officials from holding pro-referendum rallies for Turkish expats. At the same time, Europeans arguably benefitted electorally from anti-Turkism. Austria and Germany blocked campaign rallies, while Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was buoyed in his re-election bid by standing up to Erdogan’s threats. Notably, the diaspora in Austria, France, Germany, and the Netherlands voted “yes.”
Some observers hoped Erdogan’s demonization of Europe would end after a successful referendum. However, it may signal the start of a permanent shift in Turkey’s perspective. During the campaign, Erdogan said Turkey’s EU membership would be “on the table” after the poll. In his victory speech on Sunday, he repeated his campaign pledge to reinstate capital punishment and offered to hold a referendum if parliament didn’t support his plans. (Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2004 as part of its EU accession bid.)
Reactions from leaders across Europe were subdued, noting deep divisions within the country. Both Germany and France expressed concern about possible election irregularities and called on Erdogan to engage in dialogue with the opposition. They also warned that reinstating the death penalty would end EU negotiations.
If Turkey surrenders (or forfeits) its bid for EU accession, two orders of business will likely remain on the table. First is the refugee crisis, with EU leaders having a vested interest in maintaining arrangements negotiated last summer to stem flows. If accession talks lapse, Turkey and the EU may conduct transactional negotiations on other shared interests, such as terrorism. The second is economic. The sides may dispense with unpleasant discussions about rule of law and focus instead on strengthening their customs union and potentially negotiating a free trade agreement.
What are the prospects for U.S.-Turkey relations?
The Trump administration has not released a statement on the referendum, nor have any senior American officials commented. The State Department has responded to press queries by providing lines from the acting spokesman, which note the OSCE report and encourage “voters and parties on both sides to focus on working together for Turkey’s future and to maintain a meaningful political dialogue.” While there may be understandable reluctance to become a pawn in Turkey’s domestic politics as has happened before, American silence is striking.
Two thorny issues remain at the center of U.S.-Turkey relations. First is the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric who resides in Pennsylvania and is blamed by Erdogan for last summer’s coup attempt. The day before the referendum a Turkish prosecutor launched investigations into 17 individuals accused of fomenting the coup, including former CIA chief John Brennan, Senator Chuck Schumer, and former district attorney Preet Bharara. In the absence of compelling legal evidence (and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who was on the Turkish government’s payroll and sympathetic to its concerns), Gulen’s return to Turkey seems unlikely.
The second matter is disagreement over which forces should lead the charge against the Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria. While the Pentagon wishes to use Syrian Kurdish fighters — the People’s Protection Units, or YPG — Ankara views the YPG as synonymous with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK (a designated terrorist organization engaged in a decades-long fight with the Turkish government) and advocates Syrian Arab fighters instead. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made no progress during his oddly timed visit to Ankara two weeks before the referendum, while Turkey’s defense minister pressed the case with Defense Secretary James Mattis last week. The Trump administration appeared deferential to Turkish political sensitivities before the referendum, but the Pentagon appears anxious to move and seems unlikely to find alternative troop arrangements sufficient. If the administration proceeds with plans to support a YPG-led assault on Raqqa, it will hope Erdogan’s referendum win softens his undoubtedly negative reaction.
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