April 20, 2017 10:00 am JST

Turks vote to strengthen Erdogan's grip on power

Narrow referendum win for constitutional amendments sparks opposition

SINAN TAVSAN, Nikkei staff writer

Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrate the result of a referendum solidifying his power in Istanbul on April 16. © Reuters

ISTANBUL Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has claimed a narrow victory in a referendum on constitutional amendments granting him unprecedented powers, despite fierce criticism from opposition parties.

The approved amendments will replace the parliamentarian system that has been in place since Turkey's establishment in 1923 with an executive presidential system. According to provisional results announced late on April 16, these amendments were approved by a slim 51.4%, well below the 55-60% Erdogan had been predicting.

Two opposition parties, meanwhile, are demanding a recount of the ballots or even a new referendum, citing widespread irregularities in the voting process. The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) has said it will challenge the results in court if need be, though political analysts see a change in the outcome as unlikely.

On April 17, international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who monitored the voting reported irregularities and announced the referendum "fell short" of international standards. In particular, observers pointed to a controversial last-minute decision by Turkey's electoral board to accept ballots that did not have official stamps, saying the move undermined safeguards against voter fraud.

Neither the EU nor the U.S. State Department had commented on the referendum outcome as of April 18. While they waited for the OSCE to issue its final report, however, Erdogan on April 17 blasted the body's preliminary conclusions, telling international monitors to "know your place first."

The referendum process as a whole was controversial, as it was carried out under a state of emergency that has been in place since the failed coup attempt in July 2016, in which more than 250 people died. During that incident, parliament was bombed and Erdogan narrowly escaped assassination. The president later called on citizens to take to the streets to show their opposition to the coup's plotters. His handling of the situation proved popular, boosting his support rate.

"Erdogan probably thought it was time to move forward [with his plan for an executive presidential system] due to the inspiration he took from the spirit of national unity that emerged after the bloody coup attempt," Editor-in-Chief Murat Yetkin wrote in the Hurriyet Daily News.

During the state of emergency, in which the Erdogan administration has the power to rule by decree, more than 120,000 public servants have been sacked or suspended and close to 50,000 people arrested. More than 150 media outlets have been banned, and around 150 journalists are currently behind bars. The co-chairs and 11 other deputies of the third-largest pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) have also been arrested, crippling the party's ability to campaign against the constitutional amendments.

PUMPED-UP POWERS Despite the extraordinary circumstances under which the referendum was held, the people have apparently given the green light for Erdogan to assume sweeping new powers. These include the power to prepare the budget, appoint members of the high judiciary, appoint and sack cabinet members and bureaucrats without parliamentary approval and declare a state of emergency. The president will also be able to dissolve parliament, although this will trigger simultaneous presidential and general elections.

Moreover, the position of prime minister will be abolished and the president will be allowed to serve as a political party member. This means Erdogan can serve as chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which he co-founded. Because party chairmen have the last say over MP candidate lists in Turkey, Erdogan will be able to directly influence legislation via his control of the ruling party. The vote also allows Erdogan to run for two terms as president, meaning he could stay in power until 2029.

According to constitutional law professor Osman Can, the amendments will further erode the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances, leading to a "one-man rule." His views were echoed in a recent report by the Venice Commission, a legal advisory body of the Council of Europe.

Erdogan is expected to register as a member of the AKP once again soon after the referendum results are officially ratified. This would pave the way for him to become party chairman at a possible extraordinary party congress held ahead of the presidential and general elections scheduled for 2019, when the new administrative system will take effect.

Erdogan and ruling party executives dominated TV airwaves during the referendum campaign, with the president arguing that the new system will bring political stability and robust economic growth through faster decision-making and rapid execution.

In his victory speech, Erdogan said, "Now we will shift gear and go faster. God willing, there will be no more spinning wheels." Turkey's gross domestic product growth was 2.9% in 2016, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute, a far cry from the 2011-15 average of 7%, even after recent upward revisions.

Government officials have acknowledged the need for structural reforms, such as changes to the tax code and labor market. However according to Abdulkadir Selvi, an influential political analyst close to government, "close to 2,500 existing laws, regulations and parliament by-laws will be amended" for harmonization with the presidential system. Markets fear this means the economy is not at the top of the government's immediate agenda.

Burak Kanli, chief economist of Finansinvest, agrees that structural reforms might not be the first priority but said the government will focus on improving the economy in order to secure a win in the 2019 elections.

For the president, the alarm bells on that front may already be ringing. The recent referendum marked the first time Erdogan has lost the majority of a vote in Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, and Ankara, its capital. Many other industrial cities, as well as Antalya, the country's main tourism center, also voted down the referendum. Experts say voters in these areas were responding to the slowdown in the economy and the drastic decrease in tourist numbers due to Turkey's foreign policy choices vis-a-vis Russia and Syria.

In his victory speech, Erdogan said he will not call an early election. This "was clearly a positive message to foreign markets in the short term," according to Kanli. "However, investors will be following developments in Turkey's rocky relations with the European Union on matters like Erdogan's recent comments on reinstating capital punishment and deciding the fate of EU accession negotiations."

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, agreed that an early election is not Erdogan's priority but said the possibility could not be ruled out. "If the international community, including the EU and U.S., as well as the remaining half of the public question the referendum's legitimacy and pressure Erdogan, he can call an early election while opposition parties are weakened."

Others have voiced concern about the polarizing nature of the referendum and its narrow result. "This small margin is unfortunate for Turkey, as such a drastic change is preferred to have a broader agreement in society," said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of think tank EDAM.

The referendum marks the president's 12th consecutive election victory since he helped found the AKP, but triumph at the polls does not guarantee smooth sailing. "Erdogan has reached his goal after working for it for 10 years, and he has started a new era," Yetkin wrote in his column in the Hurriyet Daily News. "But his job is now more difficult than ever."

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