Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is closing in on capturing the executive presidency he has long desired and codifying it in law with a new constitution. But, whether or not Erdogan emerges victorious in Turkey’s upcoming constitutional referendum, the country will still be faced with critical issues that could prolong its destabilization.
Sometime in April, Turkish voters are expected to go to the polls in a referendum calling for transforming Turkey’s government from a parliamentary system to a presidential regime. The referendum proposes eliminating the prime minister’s post and establishing an executive presidency in which the president can maintain ties to a political party.
Erdogan could remain in power until 2029 if the referendum passes. If that is the case, Turkey will likely become more autocratic and Islamist, and Ankara’s political orientation will likely shift further away from the West.
If Turkish voters were to reject the constitutional changes, that would signal sentiments have swung against Erdogan’s authoritarian leanings, and the president’s political career would likely be in trouble. Many Turks believe the crackdown on dissent in the aftermath of last year’s failed coup has been too harsh. Also, Turkey is currently faced with an economic slowdown and a sharp devaluation of its currency.
Polls have shown a “no” result in the referendum is certainly possible. However, many circumstances surrounding the vote indicate Erdogan is likely to win. Nationalist sentiment is on the rise in Turkey as there has been renewed fighting between Turkish armed forces and Kurdish militants for more than a year. Also, Erdogan has used the coup and other events to create the image that outsiders are plotting against Turkey. Furthermore, Erdogan has kept Turkey in a state of emergency since last summer, which has allowed him to seize expanded power.
The leaders of Turkey’s nationalist party are now campaigning for the executive presidency, as is the case with the ruling Justice and Development Party. Erdogan also enjoys support from some Kurds who disavow the terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and who relate to Erdogan’s conservative leanings. Also, some Kurds who oppose Erdogan may boycott the vote, and many leading opposition figures and journalists are currently jailed.
While Erdogan may succeed in using chaos to create a new political order, it remains to be seen whether he can quell the chaos and restore order to Turkish society.
Both domestically and internationally, the Kurdish conflict is a central issue for Turkey. In recent months, Turkish armed forces have effectively been fighting Kurdish militants both in Turkey and in Syria.
The Kurds already have an autonomous region in Iraq, and they are closing in on something similar in Syria. Many Kurds are eyeing a united and independent Kurdistan, which would include parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. That possibility is the worst case scenario for Ankara, and thus the Turkish government treats the Kurds as its principal enemy.
In Syria, Ankara is not on the same page as either Washington or Moscow. Like Turkey, the Trump Administration is calling for a safe zone in Northern Syria. However, U.S. President Donald Trump wants a safe zone in order to halt refugee flows, whereas Erdogan wants one to stop Kurdish territorial expansion. Trump has made it clear his leading priority in the region is defeating the Islamic State, and the Kurds have been a top U.S. ally in the fight against IS.
Russia, which has been orchestrating Syrian peace talks along with Turkey and Iran, recently proposed a new constitution that would give limited autonomy to the Syrian Kurds. A deal like that could upend Russia’s and Turkey’s recent partnership on the Syrian conflict. Additionally, Moscow and Ankara still have disagreements over Assad, whom Russia has propped up and Turkey has worked to overthrow.
With an increasing number of Turkey’s nationalists backing Erdogan, the Turkish president will likely come under increasing pressure to continue the heavy-handed response to the Kurdish conflict. Consequently, more terrorism could ensue.
As with Kurdish militants, Islamic State terrorists have a destabilizing effect on Turkey. Early on New Year’s Day, an Islamic State gunman killed 39 people in an Istanbul nightclub in the latest in a series of high-profile attacks in Turkey. The ensuing investigation into the attack revealed numerous terror cells within Turkey and even Istanbul. Then on Sunday and Monday, Turkish police arrested a combined total of more than 800 people who are suspected of having links to IS.
In Syria, Turkish forces have been battling IS militants in recent weeks as a conduit for driving back the Kurds. Retaliation is likely for the blows Turkey has dealt IS in Northern Syria.
Economically, all three major ratings agencies have now downgraded Turkey’s sovereign debt to junk status. One factor in the downgrades has been political uncertainty. Domestic political uncertainty could fade following the referendum, but Turkey’s geopolitical risks will likely remain high. Terrorism, for example, has been a major factor in Turkey’s plummeting tourism sector.
In its latest figure, the World Bank said Turkey’s 2016 GDP growth was 2.1 percent, a full percentage point below the projected growth rate of 3.1. The World Bank is forecasting Turkey will have 2.7 percent growth in 2017.
Meanwhile, the lira has fallen to 3.75 to the dollar and worse, whereas it was less than 2 to the dollar a few years ago. Erdogan has responded by instructing Turks to trade in their dollars, but the lira has kept falling.
Socially, anti-western sentiment appears to be on the rise in Turkey. Many Turks are upset that the U.S. has backed the Syrian Kurds and has not extradited Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accuses of being the mastermind of the coup attempt. Also, Ankara has repeatedly accused Europe of being Islamophobic, and many Turkish citizens now hold the view that “Trump hates Muslims.” In a joint press conference last week, Erdogan reprimanded German Chancellor Angela Merkel for using the term “Islamic terrorism,” something that the Turkish president says does not exist.
Ankara has also lashed out at Athens in recent days for not extraditing Turkish soldiers who fled to Greece following the botched coup attempt. Ankara threatened to tear up its migrant deal with Athens in response to Greece’s Supreme Court rejecting an extradition request for eight Turkish soldiers. Erdogan has already threatened to send many of the 3 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey to Greece, as well as to Bulgaria, if the EU does not make concessions to him.
While Brussels and Ankara seem keen on remaining trading partners, Turkey’s hopes of joining the EU are fading — probably along with public support for EU accession. The upcoming referendum may be the last hurdle in transforming Turkey from a European-style democracy to a Middle Eastern-style authoritarian system.