On April 16, 2017, 51.4% of Turkish voters approved a series of constitutional amendments proposed by the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The proposed changes will effectively turn the present parliamentary system of government in Turkey into a presidential system. Despite apparent success, the AKP, together with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) which backed Erdogan during 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% 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. This report examines the outcome of the poll.
Wide Sweeping Powers
The 18 proposed wide-ranging amendments to existing articles of the Turkish constitution would considerably restructure the division of powers across Turkey’s three main branches of government. They would transfer power from Turkey’s legislature to the presidency and the president’s current executive powers would be greatly expanded,. The president would also be authorized to appoint and dismiss senior state bureaucrats, political office holders and cabinet ministers. Additionally, the president will be awarded legislative powers, including the right to issue legally binding presidential directives so long as these do not transgress “basic rights” and that they are not contradicted by laws passed by parliament. The amendments further enable the president to call early elections, provided that these cover both the parliament and the presidency, and are supported by three-fifths of parliamentarians. The approved amendments also give the president the right to declare a state of emergency, or to propose a national budget to parliament.
On another level the President of the Republic will now be able to liaise more closely with his political party. Some observers have cautioned that, in the midst of deep political and social polarization, this might allow the presidency to be used in political disputes within the country. The amendments also pose wider relevance for the Turkish political system as a whole: they expand the parliament from 550 to 600 seats and allow any party which received 5% of the parliamentary vote (at present, the cutoff for seats in parliament is 10%) to submit a candidate for the presidency, provided they can secure the backing of 100,000 citizens to do so. Finally, the April amendments lower Turkey’s voting age from 25 to 18.
Fully 85% of 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 six of 81 provinces outright, 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 both parties backing the amendments, had polled a combined 61.4% of the votes at the last parliamentary elections in Turkey, compared to 51.4% of voters who voted yes to the amendments.
Nonetheless, votes in support of the amendments in majority-Turkish provinces in the south and southeast of Turkey did outpace electoral support for either the AKP or the MHP in the last legislative elections of November, 2015. This itself may be an indication of a fall in the popularity of the Kurdish Democratic People’s Party, an ally of the armed, leftwing Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Disenchantment with these Kurdish groups is likely born of their approaches to the crisis in Syria, as well as a desire for political resolution for the Kurdish question within Turkey itself.
Reading the Results
The AKP had hoped to win no less than 60% backing for its proposals. The sharp divide of votes cast, particularly in the large metropolises, took the ruling party by surprise. A number of factors contributed to the limited enthusiasm for the constitutional amendments, including:
Negative Campaigning: Instead of focusing on the positive reasons to support the referendum, Erdogan and the AKP’s campaign rhetoric painted the amendments as a vote against a conspiracy, based both within Turkey and abroad. Throughout festive campaign stops, Erdogan tied support for the proposals to opposition to “saboteurs and terrorists”, a mantra about which Turkish voters appeared increasingly skeptical. This attitude was bolstered by a major security crackdown following the failed coup of July, 2016, where thousands of people associated with Fethullah Gulen were arrested.
The Immense Depth of the Changes: The AKP failed to take into account the misgivings held by many in Turkey—not only in the urban elite—towards the extent of the proposed changes to the state structure and the relation of the state apparatus to wider Turkish society. Public responses echoed widespread worries that Erdogan was overturning a long-standing Ataturkist, secular regime in favor of a new, centralized “Second Republic” for Turkey. Allusions to Erdogan’s ostensibly authoritarian, autocratic personality, as depicted by his opponents, were not lost on the Turkish electorate.
Neglect of an Important AKP Constituency: The pro-amendment campaign was dismissive of an important section of the AKP grassroots, represented by such leaders as former President of Turkey Abdullah Gul, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and former Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc. Their treatment by the group spearheading the referendum led to some sections of the AKP’s rank and file, estimated at about 2% to 3% of the ruling party’s membership, voting against the amendments.
Nationalist Turks and Kurdish Separatists: The AKP was hindered by comments made by Shukri Kurabta, a presidential adviser and the purported architect of the new constitutional amendments, who called for the introduction of greater self-rule by Turkey’s regions shortly before the poll. While this may have served to increase support for the referendum amongst Kurds, it also alienated Turkish nationalists.
Failure to Attract the Youth: Despite the fact that the new amendments proposed by Erdogan aim to reduce the voting age from 25 to 18 years, the AKP has thus managed only limited success in making roads amongst young, first-time voters, even as an estimated 2 million voters were added to the rolls in Turkey.
While Erdogan may have succeeded in the constitutional referendum, the slim margin between the two camps of voters reflects political and social divisions that will persist until the next presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019—when the amendments would take effect. The fact that opponents of the referendum managed to secure over 48% of the votes suggests that future electoral showdowns will be difficult for both the MHP and the AKP. It would be a mistake to read the results of this referendum as a public mandate to unilaterally bring about social and political change to Turkey. This is particularly so if the AKP ignores the political opposition which defended democracy, and consequently the ruling party, against the July 2016 coup attempt. Sections of the political opposition may resort to a popular protest movement reminiscent of the protests surrounding the restructuring of Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park in 2014.
Erdogan’s confrontational approach, sharpened by his repeated threats to resort to referendums to push through other contentious issues and grandstand against the West—threatening to reintroduce capital punishment and withdraw the application to join the European Union—will only serve to sharpen these tensions. Indeed, Western responses to the poll result reveal increasing dissatisfaction with the AKP government, with a report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe already faulting the conduct of the poll, which it claimed fell short of international norms.
Turkey’s April, 2017 constitutional referendum will bear significance surpassing the choice between two competing modes of democratic government. The results have highlighted political and social 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. Erdogan would be well advised to cool his confrontational approach and return to business as usual, but it remains to be seen if he will do so. 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.
To read this Report as a PDF, please click here, or on the icon above. This Report was translated by the ACRPS Translaiton and English Editing team. To read the original Arabic version, which appeared online on April 19, 2017, please click here.