The controversial referendum which consolidated the executive powers of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will negatively impact Turkey’s relationship with the European Union, and may doom prospects for Turkey’s EU membership, according to an Atlantic Council analyst.
“The EU process is like a zombie—it moves along, but it’s dead,” said Aaron Stein, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He said the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) “has already come out and raised some serious questions about the conduct of the election,” adding, “it is almost certain that elements of the European Union will say the same thing.”
In light of Turkey’s “considerable democratic backslide,” further demonstrated by Sunday’s referendum, “it looks poor for EU-Turkish relations moving forward,” said Stein.
On April 16, Turkish voters went to the polls to vote in a referendum which posed eighteen constitutional amendments designed to solidify and expand the powers of the president over the course of two years. According to Stein, “essentially what the eighteen amendments to the constitution do is indefinitely centralize decision-making inside of Turkey.”
The referendum passed with a narrow margin of 51.5 percent of voters in favor, and 48.5 percent opposed. This narrow margin of victory indicates “a very polarized society” in Turkey, said Stein.
Opposition pursues annulment of referendum
On April 18, Turkey’s main opposition party, the People’s Republican Party (CHP) announced they would pursue a bid to annul the outcome of the referendum due to a retroactive decision by the electoral board, which supports Erdoğan and his political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), to accept votes in envelopes which had not been stamped by the proper authorities. Stein described how envelopes containing votes are stamped twice “to ensure you cannot ballot stuff.” The concern about unstamped votes, whose legitimacy cannot be determined, has caused the CHP to challenge 1.5 million votes. A second opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), will challenge 3 million votes.
According to Stein, the changes imposed by the referendum, and the deep division exposed by the narrow margin of victory, will undoubtedly harm the security of the country. “There’s no coming back from this; the composition of the state has been changed radically with this referendum,” he claimed. “You now have a very centralized presidential system,” Stein said, which “will have lasting repercussions for Turkey, long after Erdoğan moves on.”
While European nations and institutions have voiced criticisms of the election, and the European Commission called for Turkey to hold transparent investigations into the claims of voting irregularities, US President Donald J. Trump called Erdoğan on Tuesday morning to congratulate him. Trump is the only Western leader to congratulate Erdoğan on the outcome of the referendum. “Doing so probably undercut a thought-out strategy about how to message [the impact of the referendum] in line with European allies and the findings of the OSCE,” said Stein.
During the call, Trump promised a strong US-Turkey partnership in Syria and Iraq, and used Turkish talking points in the read-out, suggesting that the two sides would cooperate against all forms of terrorism. However, according to Stein, the manifestation of this promise on the ground is “to be determined.” Currently, the United States is working with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of Kurdish troops, to reclaim Raqqa from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Ankara considers this faction of Kurdish forces to be terrorists.
“By all accounts Donald Trump was going against the advice of his own government about how to handle this,” he said. “This was a top-down, Oval Office decision” to call Erdoğan, not advised by members of the US government or the National Security Council. Until they determine a strategy in Syria, said Stein, “the plan continues for Raqqa.”
Aaron Stein spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Rachel Ansley. Here are excerpts from our interview.
Q: What does the expansion of Erdogan’s executive powers entail, and what is the practical application of these changes?
Stein: Essentially what the eighteen amendments to the constitution do is indefinitely centralize decision-making inside of Turkey. The big changes are that the president will be allowed to be a member of a political party again, so Erdogan will formally go back to being an AKP member, and therefore de facto become the head of the party as well. Secondly, the president will be able to issue decrees in areas where the parliament has not legislated, and those will have equal standing with laws passed in parliament. The third is that parliament will be expanded. This is important because expanding the number of members of parliament is akin to gerrymandering. It’s very much that decrees will become rule of law. Erdogan will have powers to select judges within Turkish courts. Alongside [changes in] parliament with the increased numbers of [members], this is worrying people in terms of checks and balances. One of the checks that is put out there by pro-government advocates is that parliament will be able to issue the budget and can initiate an investigation into the president, and then turn it over to the constitutional courts. However, the president will have great say over who is appointed to the constitutional court. [The ‘yes’ voters] were sensitive to the checks and balances argument because it is a losing argument; there are hardly any checks on the executive. But they were also open in that they did want to consolidate executive powers because they wanted the system to be more efficient and they did want to do away with weak, fragile coalition governments which had been the norm in Turkey before the AKP party.
Q: Will Erdogan’s consolidation of power help or harm the stability of the country?
Stein: Harm. There’s no coming back from this; the composition of the state has been changed radically with this referendum. Erdogan is mortal, he will at some point pass away. Then, another political leader will inherit the system and they will face a choice, which is: do I give up power to a healthier democratic system or do I consolidate it around myself? Human nature is to consolidate and to keep power. No one gives up power voluntarily. So, by changing the make-up of the state, by centralizing [power] so dramatically, you are re-writing what was a very imperfect, but nevertheless broadly European parliamentary system. You now have a very centralized presidential system that has no analogous structure in the West. This is a very Erdogan-specific thing to consolidate power around the palace, and they succeeded in getting it through. This will have lasting repercussions for Turkey, long after Erdogan moves on.
Q: Does the opposition’s challenge to the outcome of the referendum pose a threat to Erdogan?
Stein: The vote has been nothing short of controversial. What is causing people concern in this election is the decision made retroactively after the polls closed to accept ballots that didn’t have the proper stamps on the outside envelopes. The way it works is that the electoral board at the district levels stamps and then the local official who hands you the ballot stamps again. That is to ensure that you cannot ballot stuff. The concern is about the votes without stamps put on beforehand, and then were accepted retroactively as legitimate votes. The CHP, the main opposition, is pointing to 1.5 million votes they would like to challenge; the HDP is point to 3 million votes they would like to challenge based upon the logic that you cant’ tell if they were stuffed or not, and that’s been causing quite a ruckus in Turkish domestic politics once the polls closed. Whether or not they present a challenge to Erdogan, I am not sure. The board in charge of elections is close to Erdogan, is close to the AKP, and they have been pretty strident that the vote was legitimate. But there is a legal mechanism for people to challenge and you are seeing long lines in Ankara for people to register complaints with the proper authorities and file appeals about what they think is an unsatisfactory way in which the election was conducted. The AKP has made a big show of projecting authority in the days after the election because it was a narrow win. It was a narrow win with all these questions of the legitimacy of the election.
Q: Why is the narrow margin of victory significant? Could it impact Erdogan’s application of his expanded powers?
Stein: It is the country’s most important document, and it was put to a referendum, and it passed by a couple million votes—a very small margin. You have a very polarized society, fifty-fifty. What has to make Erdogan think is that in the 2019 election, he is vulnerable. This is the second time now that he has been up for election and squeaked just over 50 [percent] on the ballot. In a two-step process when you can consolidate around a candidate the opposition chooses, you can put some heat on him. Now, there are some major caveats to that. The “no” camp is spread across the majority of far-right nationalists, basically all of CHP, and the Kurdish HDP. Within those three political blocks, they all hate each other. That is where Erdogan benefits because the opposition is basically equal in force to the AKP, but they’re divided amongst three different factions.
Q: How will this impact the prospects of Turkey’s membership in the EU?
Stein: The EU process is like a zombie; it moves along, but it’s dead. The OSCE has already come out and raised some serious questions about the conduct of the election. It is almost certain that elements of the European Union will say the same thing, which creates cycles of tension. Electoral dynamics in Europe are not pushing towards expansion, especially toward a place like Turkey which has had a considerable democratic backslide. It looks poor for EU-Turkish relations moving forward.
Q: How will the outcome of the referendum affect the US partnership with Turkey in Syria and Iraq, and its stance against Kurdish militants?
Stein: To be determined. By all accounts Donald Trump was going against the advice of his own government about how to handle this. I would say that this was not a decision made by people in Ankara at the US embassy. I would say it was not a decision made by informed people on the National Security Council inside of our government. I think this was a top-down, Oval Office decision [to call Erdogan]. The call was brief, the call did discuss Raqqa, the call did have a lot of congratulations, but the plan continues for Raqqa. The big question mark is does the Donald Trump administration commit to using a large number of US ground forces, or does it incrementally increase the number of ground forces, and enable the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which is made up of Kurdish [militia]? If they do that, relations with Turkey are not going to be very good. What you are seeing, though, is that Donald Trump is the only Western leader, as of this morning, to have called President Erdogan to congratulate him. Doing so probably undercut a thought-out strategy about how to message [the impact of the referendum] in line with European allies and the findings of the OSCE.
Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.