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The Potential Implications of the Turkish Referendum

  • On 16 April 2017, a constitutional referendum will be held in Turkey. Voting has already begun across Europe for expatriate Turks.
  • If the referendum is successful, Turkey will go from having a parliamentary political system to an executive presidency.
  • The lead up to the vote has highlighted deep divisions between Turkey and European nations.

Political: On 16 April 2017, eligible voters in Turkey will go to the polls to vote on a constitutional referendum. Voting has already begun across Europe, with Turkish nationals permitted to cast their ballots at 120 missions in 57 countries in total (this will end on 09 April 2017). The changes proposed in this referendum will effectively see Turkey move from a political system of a parliamentary democracy to an executive presidency. It would give the sitting president power to appoint and fire ministers, hold leadership of a political party while in office, and extend term limits. Increasing the powers of the president would effectively abolish the position of prime minister.

The enhancement of Presidential powers is opposed by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), and the Democratic Regions Party (DBP). Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) support the ‘yes’ vote.


Local Implications
If this referendum does pass, it will legitimise and legalise the political moves which Erdogan has been making recently. He has been amassing increasing levels of power in his hands and becoming more authoritarian, especially so since 2016’s failed coup. Historically, the role of the Turkish president has been largely ceremonial but Erdogan has transformed this and seeks to make more changes.

President Erdogan and the AKP Party have argued that new powers are necessary due to the country’s fragile security situation. Some commentators have suggested that instability has been brought about by President Erdogan’s policies. Others have argued that he has directly encouraged instability, with the distinct intention to provide a rationale for the increase in executive powers. Indeed, it is possible that the Turkish government reignited the fight against Kurdish separatists to reduce the power of the pro-Kurdish HDP; the HDP reached the ten per cent threshold in June 2015 parliamentary elections, enabling them to take up seats in the Turkish Parliament. Their electoral gains would have forced the AKP to go into coalition or call another election. They did the latter, by which time the ceasefire with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) had ended and the new security environment persuaded many of the HDP’s voters to either not turn out, or transfer their votes to other parties.

If Erdogan is given more powers in his role as president, it is very possible he will exercise them to their fullest extent. Since the failed coup in July 2016, more than 150,000 people have been detained under the state of emergency. This has included members of the armed forces, judiciary, civil service, academia, and opposition politicians. Those arrested includes 13 HDP members of parliament, who the government have accused of being linked to the PKK. The government has also taken direct control of 82 municipalities (of the 103 run by controlled by the DBP, the HDP’s sister party) in the Kurdish southeast region, arrested Kurdish mayors, and severely restricted the rights of those in that area.

A ‘yes’ vote in this referendum may very well turn Turkey into an authoritarian regime, with Erdogan becoming a strongman. Indeed, the proposed changes have been drafted to personally benefit Erdogan by consolidating executive, legislative, and judicial powers under his personal control.


International Implications
European nations, and a number of Turkey’s other allies, have grown increasingly concerned by President Erdogan’s actions and rhetoric over the past few years. Erdogan has grown increasingly vitriolic in his language during the referendum campaign. After both Dutch and German authorities prevented Turkish ministers from holding rallies for Turks living in their respective countries, they were greeted with jibes of being ‘Nazis and fascists’ by Erdogan. EU nations have also voiced concerns over Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian positions and his drift away from the NATO alliance towards President Putin’s Russia. It seems likely that if Erdogan gets his way in the referendum, he will continuthe similarly authoritarian Putin, with little internal opposition.

A key reason why European nations have been less vocal than expected over the proposed constitutional changes than one may have expected, is the refugee crisis. Signed in March 2016, an agreement was reached to limit the flow of predominantly Syrian refugees reaching the Schengen Zone of the EU. In return, the EU agreed to loosen visa restrictions for Turkish nationals, to accelerate Turkey’s accession attempts to join the bloc, and help to fund the refugee programme in Tukey.

Some commentators suggest that Turkey’s relationship with the west has become so tainted, that EU accession hopes under Erdogan are now virtually over. Erdogan is moving Turkey further away from the EU’s Western socio-political values. He has even suggested that he would put EU membership to a referendum, a policy which replaces the long held aims of Turkish governments to join the world’s largest trading bloc. It is unclear now if the EU would want Turkey to join the trading bloc. With the UK set to leave within the next two years, a small power vacuum has emerged in the EU. If Turkey was to join, it may upset the status quo, impact the EU’s liberal outlook, and pull power away from Central Europe. There are further issues which could complicate any accession negotiations. Ankara, on the other hand, may feel restricted by EU norms and values, which helps to explain why Erdogan has retreated from a pro-EU accession position.

There is a doctrine of Neo-Ottomanism prevalent in the ruling AKP party. At its peak, the Ottoman Empire spread from modern day Algeria to Yemen, and from Kuwait to Hungary; at one point in time, advancing Ottoman forces came close to overrunning Vienna. Turkey is seen as a successor to this empire and many in the AKP pine over lost land and would like to regain what they once had. This can help to explain the recent diplomatic spat between Turkey and Greece over islands in the Aegean Sea, and why Turkish forces invaded northern Syria (ostensibly to defeat Islamic State but to also cripple the US-allied Kurdish forces). Reports from 06 April 2017 also suggest that Turkish forces were planning military incursions into Iraq. All of these territories were formally part of the Ottoman Empire. There are substantial, and perhaps not misplaced, fears in some circles that a more authoritarian leadership may lead Turkey to flex its military might. This could destabilise Eastern Europe and perhaps also further destabilise the Middle East. Turkey has the third largest population in Europe (after Russia and Germany) and after the United States, the largest NATO military.

If Erdogan gets his way in this referendum, there could be a number of implications within Turkey itself and for Turkey’s international relations, creating serious geopolitical consequences.


Intrinsic Advice
Since the failed coup in July 2016, the government has increasingly limited the freedoms of speech and assembly, including the 2016 Gay Pride march in Istanbul. This trend is set to continue up to and after the referendum vote. This brings a series of security challenges. It is highly likely that Turks will take to streets with or without the permission of the state; demonstrations and counterdemonstrations are to be expected. Historically, a key location for this is Taksim Square in Istanbul. Unorganised and illegal protests have a higher likelihood of turning violent than those which are legal and the government’s security forces are notoriously forceful in putting down protests across the country. It should be noted, however, that violence thus far has not been on a large-scale but isolated pockets of unrest have occurred at the Dutch and German Consulates in Istanbul, and in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland. Clashes have also occurred in Yozgat, with both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ supporters of the MHP clashing. Other small-scale clashes in Istanbul’s Bakırköy district and Mersin (amongst other places) also occurred in March 2017.

In the longer-term, a ‘yes’ vote may lead to widespread instability in the region, with increased clashes with militant Kurds likely. A ‘yes’ vote may also lead to further infringements on civil liberties and increased detentions without trial. On the other hand, a ‘no’ may lead to short-term political instability as it would likely lead to the fall of Erdogan’s presidency and perhaps an election in 2017, less than two years after the last.

We would advise clients to employ enhanced security measures when visiting Istanbul – airport meet and greet and a security driver for the length of a visit should be minimum security precaution. Travellers should also employ travel-tracking technology with an intelligence feed so they are kept abreast of security developments.

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