The Referendum: Turkey's Most Important Election Ever

The Referendum: Turkey's Most Important Election Ever

But what comes next may be even more important.

Sunday’s referendum was the most consequential election in Turkish history, but what comes next may be even more important than the vote that happened over the weekend.

While the Turkish people technically voted on about eighteen proposed amendments to their constitution, it all boiled down to a simple “Yes” or “No” vote on a new presidential system of governance. The amendments included sweeping changes from the previous constitution—written by the Turkish military after the last successful coup—and would abolish the office of the prime minister, turning the country from its historic parliamentary system to an executive presidency.

Turks voted by the thinnest of margins with just over 51 percent of the voters saying “Yes” to the presidential system that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his allies have been championing. Using the full weight of the Turkish state and every opportunity to label the “No” camp as synonymous with backwardness, Turkey’s dark past, and terrorism, the surprise was not the ultimate result but just how divided and polarized the country has become in the last several years.

To understand how Turkey got here, the context is key. Turkey’s parliamentary system predated the republic and made it through the War of Independence, successive coups and various strong leaders, but ultimately fell thanks to a confluence of domestic and international events. Last year’s July 15 failed coup attempt, renewed terrorist attacks from the Kurdish separatists PKK and ISIS has put a premium on predictability and stability.

Erdogan’s victory in the constitutional referendum paves the way for Turkey’s further departure into a new system of governance envisioned by one leader without precedence with little room for any alternatives within his own party or opposition. Although the country has historically held referendums, the outcome of the April 16 event is by far the most consequential. Erdogan’s total dominance of the Turkish state has now been accelerated and legitimized—a process that cannot be easily reversed. The next major opportunity comes in 2019 when Erdogan will stand for the all-powerful presidency against a deeply fractured and weakened opposition.

That election in 2019 will largely play out in the country’s emerging rift between urban and rural and secularism and Islamism. Erdogan’s failure to secure victory in Turkey’s key metropolises, both of which his party currently controls, and particularly Istanbul, where he once was mayor, epitomized the simmering regional divisions boiling along ideological and religious lines. Domestically, Erdogan’s continued hold of Turkey’s helm is feared to accelerate Turkey’s departure from Kemal Ataturk’s secular republicanism while embracing a “new” populist Turkish nationality of Islamic religiosity. This is not something new for Erdogan; ever since the Gezi park protests of 2013, he has chosen to divide and conquer to win at the ballot box which works in political campaigns but makes governing and uniting almost impossible.


It is worth noting that the “Yes” vote was correctly predicted by the polls, unlike every other major global referendum in the last year. With no clear leadership alternative to Erdogan, Turks voted for the predictability of his rule over the instability and uncertainty of a “No” vote. Turkey’s growing nationalism championed by Erdogan has turned this global crossroads inward leading to questions of what comes next for this critical NATO ally and G20 member.

What comes next for Turkey will depend both on how Erdogan forges ahead with the deep polarization domestically and reactions internationally. Given the volatile neighborhood in which Turkey lies, events in Iraq and Syria also have a tendency to overshadow events along with spillover terrorism that has plagued the country for the last several years. While Ankara’s foreign policy will likely remain unchanged, particularly in the face of Syria’s ongoing civil war, Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman ambitions and rhetoric may lead to Turkey’s long-term assertiveness in regional affairs.

Relations with the EU were already tense and now may be dead after Erdogan’s proclamation of a referendum on the death penalty. Talks of EU membership are also likely dead. Meanwhile, the first congratulatory call from the West came from President Trump who is seeking to put America first by strengthening bilateral relations through short-term deals and pragmatic transnationalism. Without the leverage of EU membership or concern for Washington’s focus on traditional issues such as democratic checks and balances, freedom of the press, or human rights Erdogan will have a free hand to shape his foreign policy along the domestic lines that will now drive Turkey.

A more nationalist and isolated Turkey fighting over the results of this referendum are in no one’s interest. Therefore, finding areas of common ground and interests, despite all of the obvious problems, will be critical in the days ahead. Focusing on the future—including the 2019 election—may be the only path forward. The question for the “new” Turkey remains: What path will be taken? Focusing on predictability and stability in an age of populist nationalism does not bode well for a nation once heralded as a Muslim-majority capitalist democracy.

Joshua W. Walker, PhD (@drjwalk) leads the Japan work at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and is Vice President at APCO Worldwide where he leads the APCO Institute

Image: Flickr/Pedro Szekely