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What Erdogan's narrow win means for Turkey and abroad

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan poses with visiting children at the Presidential Palace in Ankara.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan poses with visiting children at the Presidential Palace in Ankara.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan poses with visiting children at the Presidential Palace in Ankara.
By Amanda Sloat
Foreign Policy

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. The success of a package of 18 changes to the constitution was narrow, with about 51.4 percent of Turks approving it. It came at the end of a divisive two-month campaign during which Erdogan accused opponents of the vote of supporting "terrorists" and denounced as Nazi-like the decision of some EU countries to bar his ministers from lobbying the diaspora. The approved changes include the elimination of the post of prime minister and the removal of the requirement for presidential neutrality. They also enable the president to stand in two five-year election cycles, and a third with parliamentary backing and allow the president to appoint six of a whittled-down panel of 13 top judges. Most of the changes won't take effect until after the next presidential election in November 2019.

The success of a package of 18 changes to the constitution was narrow, with about 51.4 percent of Turks approving it. It came at the end of a divisive two-month campaign during which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused opponents of the vote of supporting "terrorists" and denounced as Nazi-like the decision of some EU countries to bar his ministers from lobbying the diaspora. 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 benefited 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. 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 US-Turkey relations?

Many thorny issues remain at the centre of US-Turkey relations, but one prevails. The main 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 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.

@a_sloat

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