By Mahmood Monshipouri

Turkey and its constitutional referendum: Looking ahead

April 22, 2017

The recent referendum in Turkey has dramatically expanded the powers of President RecepTayyip Erdogan, pushing the Turkish people and its domestic politics toward a choice between serving as a democratic model for the rest of the Muslim world or defending their nation by prioritizing security (in the face of the most talked-about terrorist threat—ISIS—within its porous borders) and its economic stakes (worsened by the Syrian refugee crisis) over its democratic ideals in a region that is growing on the whole more authoritarian.

 What is happening in Turkey cannot be completely unrelated to the European context, which is moving further rightward and toward anti-economic globalization.  Not ironically, Europeans, especially Germans, have been watching the Turkish referendum’s vote with much trepidation.

Several questions come to mind as Turkey’s commitment to democracy is increasingly called into question not only on the regional level but also at the global level.  Is this a new phase in the rise of authoritarianism in Turkey?  How will this bring Islamists and nationalists in Turkey into a coalition in a country with many potentially explosive and divisive political drives?  Is this the beginning of the unraveling of Turkish democratic model to be emulated in the post-Arab Spring era?

No one has the answer to these questions and it would be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to precisely answer these questions without some kind of empirical data and public opinion polling.  But the fact remains that Erdogan and his administration have moved the country in a direction that a simple majority of the Turks would approve of it.  In the past four years, increasing authoritarianism and the active retreat from democracy promotion have been apparent in the memory of Turks as its police has suppressed Gezi Park (Istanbul) protests.  But perhaps more alarming was the July 2016 coup and internal threat of radical Kurdish groups that have carried worrying implications, leading to speculation that the country faces colossal security challenges ahead.  

Clearly for many voters and politicians, the answer to these security challenges was sought in a strong and firm presidency in Turkey.  For others, mostly urbanite and educated in big cities, the turn toward authoritarianism portends a future fraught with much risk and uncertainty.  To be sure, the referendum’s slim 51 percent victory falls far short of a broad, national consensus needed for a sustainable democracy. Absent a system of checks and balances, the ruling party of Justice and Development Party (AKP) runs the risk of alienating a large segment of the Turkish society that opposed the shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system.

Can Erdogan afford to alienate 49 percent of the population who are notably skeptical about the country’s future? What lies ahead for Turkey could be presenting both opportunity and threat.  It could be a new chapter in forging consensus across the board in a country that is politically fractured, economically divided, and socially polarized.  Given these domestic concerns, it is highly unlikely that Erdogan’s stance toward the region will fundamentally alter as a result of this vote.  Whether this referendum will translate into a major shift in Turkey’s foreign policy toward Syria and the European Union remains to be seen. What is certain is that this empowering vote could be a harbinger of more perilous times ahead in a nation that straddles national pride and identity on the one hand and the allure of a false popular mandate, populism, and narrow nationalism on the other.


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