Last Sunday, a slight majority (51.4 per cent) of Turkish voters voted in favour of a series of constitutional amendments proposed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The proposed changes will effectively turn the present parliamentary system into a presidential one.
Despite apparent success, the AKP, together with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) which backed Erdogan in this referendum, would have been disappointed by the slim margin, especially considering the massive voter turnout. Notably, the two parties combined garnered more than 60 per cent of votes cast in Turkey’s last legislative elections in November 2015.
Debates precipitated by the referendum in Turkish political, legal and media circles extended beyond the country’s borders. Building on existing schisms, they have even transcended the constitutional amendments to question the legitimacy of the election results, and even the future of the ruling AKP. The 18 proposed wide-ranging constitutional amendments would significantly expand the president’s current executive powers, rendering him the main power broker and policymaker in the country. After abolishing the position of prime minister, the president would be in a position to appoint and dismiss cabinet ministers and senior state bureaucrats. He would also become commander of the Armed Forces.
Additionally, the amendments further enable the president to call for early elections, provided that these cover both the parliament and the presidency, and are supported by three-fifths of parliament. The approved amendments also give the president the right to declare a state of emergency, or to propose a national budget to parliament.
Fully 85 per cent of the 55.3 million registered voters turned out to vote in the April 16 referendum. Voters in Turkey’s major cities, such as Ankara, Izmir and Istanbul, were largely opposed to the proposed amendments. In addition to the symbolic significance of the loss of Istanbul region, the AKP also lost the country’s six biggest provinces, including the province of Ankara, which had overwhelmingly backed Erdogan in the 2014 presidential elections. In parallel, the poll results indicate that the political opposition — primarily, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) — was bolstered at the expense of the AKP and the MHP. This is particularly poignant given that these parties, which backed the amendments, had polled a combined 61.4 per cent of the votes at the last parliamentary elections in Turkey, compared to 51.4 per cent of voters who voted yes to the amendments.
The AKP had hoped to win no less than 60 per cent backing for its constitutional proposals. The sharp divide of votes cast, particularly in the large metropolises, took the ruling party by surprise. The AKP seems to have failed to take into account widespread public fears that the proposed changes may be overturning a long-standing secular regime in favour of a new, centralised ‘Second Republic’ for Turkey. Erdogan seems to have also taken lightly the position of the AKP historic leadership.
People such as former President Abdullah Gul, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and former Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc have all been dismissive of the proposed changes. This was translated into an estimated 2-3 per cent of the rank and file of the ruling party voting against the amendments.
Deeper social divisions
While Erdogan may have succeeded in the constitutional referendum, the slim victory margin reflects a deeper social division which will continue to grip the country until the next presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019 — which is when the amendments would take effect. The fact that opponents of the constitution amendments managed to secure over 48 per cent of the votes, far greater than the parliamentary weight of AKP opponents in the legislature, suggests that future electoral showdowns will be difficult for both the MHP and the AKP.
In other words, the AKP would be mistaken to read the results of this referendum as a public mandate to unilaterally bring about sweeping social and political changes to Turkey. This is particularly so if the AKP ignores those parts of the political opposition which rejected the referendum. These forces may resort to a popular protest movement reminiscent of the protests surrounding the restructuring of Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park in 2014.
Turkey’s constitutional referendum will bear significance surpassing the choice between two competing modes of democratic government. The results have highlighted sharp societal divisions, rooted in differences in how Turkish people view their own national identity, the relationship of the state to various social and political forces and even Turkey’s foreign relations with the wider world.
For these reasons, it will be important to monitor how the Erdogan government conducts itself in the coming period — and how the political opposition will respond.
Marwan Kabalan is a Syrian academic and writer.