The Turkish Referendum: A Turning Point?

By April 20, 2017

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 448, April 20, 2017

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The legitimacy of the recent Turkish referendum is under dispute, further polarizing an already divided Turkish society. With no effective mechanisms for conflict resolution, and headed by an authoritarian Erdoğan, Turkey is heading towards a socio-political crisis. This might include a deteriorating economy, a flight of elites, and possibly even violence. Turkish nationalism remains very strong, however, and can be enlisted to divert attention from Turkey’s domestic problems. Erdoğan might decide to use his increased power to pursue an adventurist foreign policy rooted in his Islamist and neo-Ottoman impulses.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, after serving eleven years as prime minister, became Turkey’s first directly elected president in August 2014 when he won 51.5% of the nationwide vote. The Islamist AK Party (AKP), led by Erdoğan, has ruled the country since 2002.

Erdoğan’s leadership has been increasingly authoritarian, curtailing the freedom of the press and jailing political opponents. The referendum held on April 16, 2017, in which Erdoğan once again secured a narrow majority, formally turns Turkey into a presidential democracy. The president now possesses much greater powers than he had before – but the new system lacks the checks and balances characteristic of other presidential democracies.

The opposition has challenged the legitimacy of the election and international observers have reported irregularities, but Erdoğan is unlikely to agree to a new referendum. The referendum has, after all, buttressed the de facto authoritarian regime he has envisioned for himself and his country.

Erdoğan is a charismatic and popular politician, and he gets his way by seemingly democratic means. But Turks are torn between modernists and Islamists. The struggle for the soul of the country is tilting towards the latter, particularly since the AKP government has slowly put its followers in key positions in the statist structure.

Reforms in the educational system are likely to produce long-range effects that will bring an end to the unfinished secularization process started by the Kemalists. Even the Gülen Movement, which has tried to forge a synthesis between modernity and religious tradition, has been suppressed by Erdoğan to the extent that it is portrayed as public enemy number one.

The recent referendum, the legitimacy of which is disputed by many Turks, is politically extremely divisive and might be the breaking point for the Turkish political system. This system lacks the mechanisms for acute domestic conflict regulation, and Erdoğan’s personality does not help. He is not characterized by a suave ability to defuse tensions, and is not inclined to compromise. In fact, he is the opposite: he is a street fighter who enjoys a good fight for the opportunity it provides to humiliate his opponents. The longer he is in power, the more imbued he is with disregard for the opposition and determination to enforce his own policies at any price.

Turkey has witnessed violent behavior on the part of extreme groups before now. Civil war is possible in the current environment, if unlikely. The organs of force are not feared by the regime. The military has been largely neutralized and the police put under party control.

Other repercussions are, however, more likely. A flight of western-educated elites from the increasingly oppressive regime has already started. A further deterioration in the economy, the result of capital flight and a serious decline in tourism, might bring additional pressure to bear on the political system. Unrest might elicit more oppression, leading to international opprobrium.

Moreover, the evolving domestic political crisis could lead to an adventurist foreign policy. Erdoğan has long accused real and/or imaginary foreign powers of trying to weaken Turkey, particularly during election campaigns. Turkish nationalism remains very strong and can be enlisted to divert attention from domestic problems.

The 2017 referendum was preceded by acrimonious exchanges between Erdoğan and European leaders, reviving historic Ottoman-European tensions. Nor is this the first time Erdoğan has engaged in risky behavior. He tried to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza, and even had a Russian jet fighter shot down that flew over Turkish territory for a few seconds. In both cases, better judgment eventually prevailed.

Erdoğan’s Turkey has displayed revisionist tendencies on several fronts, rejecting the non-interventionist Kemalist legacy in foreign affairs. It challenged the Lausanne Treaty that delineated the Turkish-Greek border, increasing anxiety in Athens. Ankara bullies Cyprus on the issue of gas explorations, demanding to be a partner to the gas riches found in the Cypriot economic zone. A Turkish naval presence interferes with Cypriot efforts in this area. Erdoğan’s government has supported Islamist radical organizations in Syria and Libya, as well as Hamas in Palestine. For the first time since the establishment of the Turkish Republic we see Turkish troops deployed in Syria and Iraq on combat duty.

Turkish behavior could become even more aggressive, should Erdoğan decide to capitalize on the large and modern military complex at his disposal. The impulsive Erdoğan, with his neo-Ottoman and Islamist impulses, might lose all caution and use force to get his way in his immediate neighborhood. He values military power, and has promoted a policy of enhancing the Turkish military’s ability to project that power. In addition, he has presided over an ambitious attempt to expand domestic military industries.

Turkey is a large, important country situated in a highly strategic position. It is also a pivotal country for the Muslim world. Its current direction in both domestic and foreign affairs is dangerous to Turks and their neighbors. This development should be of great concern to the West. It is not clear whether or not the West can substantially affect events in this part of the world, but it behooves civilized people to reduce the damage as much as possible.

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Efraim Inbar, professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, is a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum. 

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

Prof. Efraim Inbar
Prof. Efraim Inbar

Prof. Efraim Inbar is professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.