Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cemented his control over Turkey Sunday, establishing a new political order out of the chaos that has gripped the country over the last couple of years.
With a narrow victory in Turkey’s constitutional referendum, Erdogan will now become head of government, in addition to being head of state. He will have the legal ground to rule largely by executive decree, something he has already been doing under a state of emergency.
Erdogan also said he plans to parlay Sunday’s victory into a referendum on bringing back the death penalty. Additionally, if twice reelected as president, Erdogan could serve as Turkey’s executive leader until 2029.
On Sunday, Erdogan’s “yes” campaign received about 51.4% of the vote. The “no” campaign received about 48.6 percent of the vote. Erdogan dominated rural areas and largely carried the middle of the country. Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, Turkey’s three largest cities, sided with the “no” vote.
The two main opposition parties are contesting the results, but Turkey’s electoral board has already signed off on Erdogan’s victory. While sizeable voter fraud in the referendum is possible, if not likely, the outcome of the vote was certain Sunday night.
During the campaign, the “yes” side dominated Turkish airwaves, benefitting from increased state control of the media. Also, some opposition leaders did not participate in the campaign because they were jailed during a post coup-attempt crackdown.
Erdogan’s victory on Sunday marked the completion of a dramatic turn of events from June 2015, when Turkish voters took away the ruling AKP’s parliamentary majority. Erdogan and the Turkish government responded to the 2015 electoral setback with militarism; Turkey bombed the Islamic State and resumed its war with Kurdish militants. Then, Ankara called new elections, and in the revote the rising nationalist sentiment allowed the AKP to reclaim its parliamentary majority.
As Turkish forces battled the PKK and its offshoots, and at least nominally waged war against the Islamic State, terrorism spiked in Turkey. In 2015, and particularly 2016, dramatic terror attacks became the norm, even in Istanbul and Ankara.
Then in July 2016, there was a coup attempt that left more than 300 people dead. The botched putsch resulted in another spike in nationalist sentiments.
After the coup attempt, Erdogan rallied his supporters against the forces of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, the PKK and others said to be conspiring against the Turkish state. Thousands of soldiers, bureaucrats, educators, politicians and others were arrested over links to Gulen and Kurdish militants.
Likewise, Erdogan took aim at the West, and particularly the EU, which he accused of trying to force its way of life on Turkish society. More recently, Erdogan lashed out at European countries, accusing them of being racists and Nazis.
Changes in Turkey
A trip around Turkey reveals certain freedoms are now diminishing. Freedom of movement in particular appears to be waning. Military and police checkpoints are abundant in the predominantly Kurdish Southeast, but it is also possible to run into them when on the road elsewhere in the country. While stopped at checkpoints, Turkish citizens must hand over their ID cards. Soldiers and police officers then check a database to determine whether or not individuals can proceed on to their destinations. Foreigners must hand over passports, and even westerners run the risk of being questioned and searched by Turkish soldiers.
Presumably, the clampdown on freedom of movement is preventing some terrorism. However, it is further agitating the Kurdish population, which already encounters armored vehicles, if not tanks, on city streets on a daily basis.
Choice in media is diminishing. Prior to the crackdown, one could pick up a Turkish or English copy of a Zaman newspaper chock-full of articles critical of Erdogan and the Turkish government. Last year, the government seized Zaman, a Gulen-affiliated publication, as part of the crackdown. The Turkish government also shut down or seized numerous other media outlets, often over purported terror links.
Signs and billboards serve as tools for government propaganda. In the heart of Ankara, a digital billboard glorifies Erdogan as the provider of grand infrastructure projects. “Everything for the nation. Everything for Turkey,” the billboard states beside a picture of Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.
In the lead-up to the referendum “evet,” or “yes,” signs and billboards were prominently displayed nationwide. Not so were “hayir,” or “no,” signs. Even when one enters Diyarbakir, the de facto capital of Turkey’s Kurdish area, drivers stare up at a seemingly endless display of flags with Erdogan photos as they traverse the main drag that leads to the bus station.
Nationwide, more and more women are wearing head scarves. Erdogan supporters argue the president and the AKP have restored freedom of religion in Turkey by allowing women to cover up while working at traditionally secular institutions where head scarves were not previously permitted. Critics, though, say more and more Turkish women are being pressured into covering up, and they risk their social advancement if they don’t comply with the Islamic custom.
Following Erdogan’s victory, supporters flooded the streets in celebration. In Central Ankara, drivers honked their horns and waved flags, some of which contained Islamic and Ottoman symbols.
Detractors, however, find themselves confronting serious concerns. Critics say the referendum victory cements Erdogan’s status as a dictator and gives him carte blanche to expand his authoritarianism. Many people view Turkey as now being on the path toward becoming a typical Middle Eastern nation with an Islamist regime. Some detractors are considering their options outside of Turkey.
Turkey’s relations with the West are certainly not expected to improve in the aftermath of the referendum. While Erdogan has called for bringing back the death penalty, Brussels has said doing so would end Turkey’s EU membership bid. If the relationship between Ankara and Brussels remains hostile, Erdogan may continue using the threat of flooding Europe with refugees as a means of doing business with the EU.
In neighboring Syria, the 6-year-old civil war is not resolved. Thus, Turkey continues to face an Islamist terror threat from the south. Also, with Ankara having hinted at another intervention in the region, Erdogan may have aspirations for greater military involvement in Syria, as well as Iraq. Amid the current climate of nationalism, as well as the euphoria in the aftermath of the referendum, some Erdogan supporters can be heard making comments about how they would do anything for the president and/or the country.
Domestically, the Turkish-Kurdish conflict is nowhere near resolved. Many Kurdish youth are PKK sympathizers or supporters and desire an independent Kurdistan. The resumed fighting over the last couple of years, together with the crackdown on civil liberties in the Southeast, appear to have exacerbated the conflict rather than bringing any sort of resolution.
Economically, Turkey’s growth has slowed in recent years. Also, the Turkish lira plummeted in value, and foreign investors have been put off by the terrorism and political instability.
Now, that there is more certainty about Turkey’s political direction the country’s credit ratings could improve and the lira’s slide could end. But the frequency at which businesses and assets have recently been seized by the state, coupled with Erdogan’s broad new powers, may continue to put off investors.
It remains to be seen whether Erdogan can deliver more accelerated economic growth, as he did as prime minister. As executive president, Erdogan is promising grand infrastructure projects — a new Istanbul airport, new bridges and tunnels, a rail line to Georgia etc. But if the tone of the digital billboard in central Ankara is a giveaway, Erdogan is offering Turks modern developments in exchange for old-fashioned submission to authority.