On Sunday 16 April, Turkey witnessed a historic change in its democratic system. A vote of ‘yes’ for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s constitutional reform package prevailed in the nationwide referendum. Therefore, after a turbulent year in Turkish politics, Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development (AKP) Party appears to have consolidated its leadership. The constitutional amendments voted for in the referendum constituted sweeping changes to the executive branch of government, altering the Turkish system from one of a parliamentary to presidential nature. According to an early count, the ‘yes’ camp appears to have succeeded with a slim majority of 51.3%, with 48.7% voting against. Official results are yet to be released, however.
The results of the referendum will strengthen President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule and veer Turkey towards a more authoritarian style of governance. The position of Prime Minister will be eradicated, with Erdoğan becoming the sole leader with a vice-president. Additionally, these changes will reinstate Erdoğan’s ties to his political party. However, the approved changes won’t come into effect until the November 2019 election. If Erdoğan wins the next two elections, the new temporal rules could mean that he retains his leadership until 2029. Another critical power that Erdoğan gains under this new system is the ability to call a state of emergency. This is pertinent to Turkey’s current political context and was one of the triggers for calling the referendum. The fractured political system is now in its third consecutive state of emergency since the failed coup of July 15 2016.
One significant impact of this referendum result is the increased power the president will attain over the judiciary. Notably, these nationally-approved amendments will impede on the separation of powers in the Turkish Government and jeopardise the independence of the judiciary. For example, under the previous system only four out of 22 Supreme Court judges were appointed by the president, whereas in the new system five out of the reduced number of 13 Supreme Court judges will be appointed by the President. Critics have consequently raised alarm over Erdoğan’s increasing influence over the judicial branch of government and what this signifies for the impartiality of the courts.
Many questions remain regarding whether the referendum was a fair and legitimate operation. Opposition groups have already indicated their intention to have votes recounted, crying foul over the results. From the outset, the ‘no’ campaign was significantly disadvantaged by Erdoğan’s repression of all opposition since the 15 July coup attempt. Whilst the ‘no’ camp relied on the social media and small-scale campaigning, the ‘yes’ camp, sponsored by the ruling AKP Party and the right-wing National Movement Party (MHP), was strongly supported in the political and public sphere.
Concerns over the level of free speech during the campaign thus emerged. Both before and during the campaign, there was significant repression of the opposition voice. Given that many opposition media outlets were shut down following the coup attempt, there were a lack of resources available for the ‘no’ camp to widely distribute their materials and campaign. How the opposition’s protest and challenge to the referendum results will unfurl, however, remains a development to watch. Nevertheless, given that Erdoğan has just tightened his grip over Turkey, it’s unlikely that he will easily cede his powers or relinquish any newfound authority.
Turkey is now on the cusp of a new era of government. The recent referendum results will usher in the most profound political changes the Turkish state has experienced since the founding of the modern Turkish republic. The plethora of powers that Erdoğan will accrue under this new model has concerned critics, as it enables him to consolidate his increasingly authoritarian ruling style. Additionally, Erdoğan’s pursuit of a more autocratic agenda may have significant ramifications for Turkey’s relationship with European allies and its ongoing bid to join the EU.
As such, whilst Erdoğan pushed for the referendum to bring stability to the political system, it’s possible that the recent results could plunge the nation into yet another period of political fragility. Notably, the narrow victory of the ‘yes’ camp indicates that the referendum polarised the nation and ignited bitter division in the political arena. How the political dynamics unfurl in the aftermath of this referendum result will therefore illuminate Turkey’s ability to remain as a relatively stable pillar in a region otherwise embroiled in crisis and unrest.
Sarah Barrie is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.