Interview: Erdogan, the Referendum, and Turkey’s Future

by Derek Davison

On April 16, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and (most of) his Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a narrow victory, with a 51.4 percent majority, in a national referendum on changing Turkey’s constitution. That result was certified by Turkey’s electoral board on April 27. The vote paves the way for a sweeping overhaul of Turkey’s political system that will transform it from a parliamentary system with a ceremonial presidency to a presidential system with a strong and, some have argued, unchecked presidency. Turkish opposition parties have already appealed the vote, which drew heavy criticism from international monitors, but Turkish courts have rejected their appeal. Now the opposition has gone to the European Court of Human Rights, whose jurisdiction in this case, not to mention its ability to enforce a ruling against Erdogan, is questionable.

To understand how Erdogan was able to win and what his victory means for Turkey, and the world, moving forward, LobeLog spoke with Gonul Tol, the director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our interview.

LobeLog: The first question is, obviously, how was Erdogan able to win this vote?

Tol: I think if this referendum had been held a year ago, he would not have been able to win. A year ago, almost 65 percent of the Turkish people were opposed to switching to a presidential system. In the last year, the most important developments that led to his victory were the failed coup and increasing terrorist activity. Erdogan has always used the narrative of victimhood—that’s how he’s ruled the country since he came to power and that’s how he galvanized the voters and expanded his base. After the failed coup, he framed the presidential system—with him as president—as the only alternative to further chaos. So of those who voted yes, an overwhelming majority voted for Erdogan, and many of them didn’t really know the content of the constitutional changes. Those who voted “yes” mainly believed that it would be good for the country’s stability, it would be the only alternative to further terrorism, and it would be the only alternative to future coup attempts.

The short answer to your question is that the failed coup really helped Erdogan convince people, and of course there’s the ongoing fight against the activities of the PKK and the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). He used all of those and argued that he needed to be strong enough to provide stability. Otherwise, he argued, Turkey would see a return to the instability of the coalition governments of the 1990s and the terrorism of the 1990s. That’s how he framed it.

LL: One of the arguments we heard throughout the referendum campaign and in its aftermath is that, after several years of increasingly authoritarian governance—shutting down media outlets, imprisoning political opponents, purging critics from high-profile positions like academia—Erdogan had changed Turkish politics and media to make it impossible for the opposition to mount a real campaign. Is this a fair charge? How much did that matter?

Tol: Of course it did matter. If you turned on the TV, Erdogan and the “yes” campaign received 90 percent of the airtime. You have to consider the context. The most prominent challenger to Erdogan’s rule is behind bars, and that’s Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP [People’s Democratic Party] leader. The other opposition party, the CHP [Republican People’s Party], does not have access to mainstream media. Turkey is under a state of emergency, which means that the opposition was unable to hold rallies. So the only way for them to get their message across was over social media, and that’s a very limited audience.

There are four parties in the Turkish parliament. The leader of one opposition party [Demirtas] is in jail. Another opposition party [CHP] is not allowed to campaign. The third opposition party [the Nationalist Movement Party or MHP] was not in the opposition in this case, because they decided to work with Erdogan on the “yes” campaign. So while Erdogan was traveling the country (on state money) and using his strict control over media—newspapers, TV stations—basically there was no opposition. If you talked to people on the street about the referendum, they didn’t really know what the alternative was because they couldn’t hear the opposition’s message.

Framing the parliamentary system as an existential threat, referring to the failed coup, IS, and the PKK, and on top of that using all the state’s resources to campaign while denying the opposition the ability to campaign, that’s what handed Erdogan the 51 percent.

LL: There have been accusations that Erdogan and the “yes” campaign actually engaged in voting irregularities, specifically with respect to a late decision by Turkey’s electoral board to accept ballots that did not have the required stamp identifying them as valid ballots. Could that have affected the results, and how has it affected the perception of the results?

Tol: There have been allegations of fraud by the opposition, and there are videos circulating that appear to document fraud. However, the Turkish civil society organization Vote and Beyond looked into these claims and, while they found some irregularities, they concluded that these were not significant enough to change the outcome of the referendum. They also found that the majority of these irregularities happened in the Kurdish region. The fact that the vote was held under a state of emergency and that there are hundreds of thousands of displaced people in the Kurdish region, along with the electoral board’s last-minute decision to change the rules, all call Erdogan’s victory into question.

Turkish electoral law stipulates that ballots should be stamped by election officials and then placed in a stamped envelope before the envelope is placed in a ballot box. Unstamped papers, or papers within unstamped envelopes, are invalid by law. But the electoral board decided otherwise on the day of the referendum. This led to a strong statement from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that said the decision “undermined an important safeguard and contradicted the law that explicitly states that such ballots should be considered invalid.” This has turned the fraud debate into a serious concern for the legitimacy of the new system in the eyes of many.

LL: Earlier you mentioned the margin of victory, which was very slim. Erdogan was clearly looking for a bigger victory that would serve as a mandate for his agenda and show broad public support for changing the constitution, but he didn’t get it. He’s now confronted by the reality that in a campaign in which he stacked the deck quite a bit in his favor, he still failed to convince almost half the country. Do you think the narrow margin of victory could, as some writers are suggesting, cause Erdogan to moderate his rhetoric and policies to some degree?

Tol: I do, and we’ve already seen that. If you look at the pro-government media and pro-government circles, there is a soul-searching going on. I’ve never heard this kind of self-criticism in AKP circles, especially from pro-government media. We’re seeing articles asking “what went wrong? What was the mistake that we made?” Very prominent, conservative, pro-AKP writers are saying that the “yes” campaign alienated people to the point that it lost Istanbul. The 49 percent who voted “no” can’t just be CHP and HDP voters—there must be a bloc of AKP voters in that group, which means that AKP alienated its own base, it alienated educated, urban AKP supporters. Why has this happened? Their answer is the very polarizing rhetoric coming from AKP officials.

So now they’ve launched this soul-searching process, and I think they’re asking the right questions. Just the other day I was watching CNN Turk, and the host was talking to a law professor, asking him whether it was possible for Erdogan to bring back the death penalty. The professor said that, according to law, even if he brings it back, he can’t use it on imprisoned PKK leaders, because you cannot apply it retroactively. The host said, “Well, who’s going to stop Erdogan?” This is unprecedented, in the sense that the mainstream media has been quite scared of Erdogan. They’ve had to pay a lot of fines for being critical of the government, so they’ve been very quiet about whatever Erdogan has been doing. That this is happening after the referendum means that people are less afraid, and there’s this newfound optimism.

Erdogan’s narrow win might be a blessing in disguise, in the sense that it may make him rethink his strategy, his rhetoric, because he lost all the major cities. He will be forced to recalibrate, because he really has to win back his own supporters. He also needs to fix the economy, which has been in a downturn that AKP has been ignoring. For that, he has to be able to attract foreign direct investment, and that requires a stable country. You can’t have the Turkish president cursing at the European Union every chance he gets. I think Erdogan is smart enough to realize that his current course is unsustainable. My hope is that this will have a moderating effect on his rhetoric and policies.

LL: Can you put Erdogan’s win into a historical context? Turkish democracy has always had challenges—repeated military coups, most infamously. Is this constitutional change simply another challenge, or is it, as some are suggesting, the end of Turkish democracy altogether?

Tol: It all depends on what the opposition does moving forward. There is a scenario that really scares Erdogan and that could, in fact, save Turkish democracy, and that is if the opposition unites in the 2019 presidential election. In a parliamentary system Erdogan was able to win election after election in part because the opposition was divided—he could capture 30-something percent of the vote and control parliament, that’s how the system works. But this may not be the case moving forward, in the sense that in the new system there will be two contenders [if no candidate wins a majority of the vote in the first round, the top two finishers face each other in a run-off], so that will mean that the opposition has to unite behind one candidate.

The fact that Erdogan only won narrowly on April 16 means that the opposition candidate could have a real chance in the 2019 election, and Erdogan could find himself completely out of the picture. What the new president does with these new powers is the question. Will they switch back to the parliamentary system? If that is the case, I think that would be great for Turkish democracy, because that means that one man tried to steal it, to switch to a presidential system to serve his own agenda, and yet the people said “no” despite all the problems the opposition encountered during the referendum. Going back to the parliamentary system will be the people’s response to Erdogan’s authoritarian turn. But, of course, the question is: would the new president do that? It all depends on negotiations between the opposition parties, if they can cut a deal and set a condition that whichever candidate wins will return to the parliamentary system.

But if Erdogan wins in 2019, then I agree that it is the end of Turkish democracy.

LL: Do you see Erdogan’s policies in Syria, in Iraq, and/or toward the Kurds in general changing now that the referendum has passed?

Tol: In the run-up to the referendum Erdogan used some very Turkish nationalist rhetoric and escalated the fight against the PKK—his goal was to galvanize the nationalist vote. So that’s why he was very interested in Syria, he was very anti-PYD, and he was also very anti-EU and anti-West. He pursued a very aggressive domestic and foreign policy. If he decides that he will not be able to mobilize the nationalists as much as he wants, he might decide to drop that nationalist strategy in order to appeal to the Kurds. So that would change his calculations and his policies.

If he decides to appeal to the Kurds instead of the nationalists, he might pursue a different policy in Syria—cooperate with the U.S. and maybe look the other way on U.S./PYD cooperation. But there have already been new cross-border operations against the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, which could indicate that he’s still counting on nationalist support. Domestically, if Erdogan decides that he needs nationalist support in 2019, he will continue pursuing the same policy toward the PYD and the PKK, nothing will change. In Iraq, Sinjar is a red line for the Turkish military, which doesn’t want to allow it to become the next PKK base in northern Iraq. Turkey has been carrying out cross-border operations in Iraq since the 1990s, so I don’t think that will change.

LL: As you mentioned a moment ago, during the campaign Erdogan took a very anti-EU and anti-West tone, which was partially dictated by events but also played well for him among nationalist voters. Now that he’s won, and with the possibility of Turkish membership in the EU still in a state of limbo, do you expect Erdogan to moderate his rhetoric on this issue, and can the Turkey-Europe relationship be patched up?

Tol: It’s complicated. Turkey has become a textbook authoritarian country, especially after the referendum, but there are also problems on the European front. Erdogan has pursued a very nationalist policy when it comes to the EU, and has said things he knew would please his nationalist supporters, who have become very anti-EU. But the same problem exists among European leaders as well—the hard right is on the rise, so European leaders are also using this populist rhetoric. And if you talk to European people and look at European societies, they are very anti-Turkey, anti-Erdogan. European leaders have to appeal to those sentiments, so when they criticize Erdogan they score points at home.

But there are also structural problems. Millions of Muslim immigrants in Europe are having problems with integration. Accepting Turkey is difficult for European leaders, and accepting an authoritarian Turkey is even more problematic. That’s why I think there’s skepticism in Ankara and in European capitals. Turkey’s potential membership in the EU is not a foreign policy issue for European leaders, it’s a domestic matter. Erdogan might tone down rhetoric, because at the end of the day Turkey and the EU have to work together. But the problems in the Turkey-EU relationship won’t go away any time soon.

LL: What do you see happening now in terms of Turkey’s relationships with the U.S. and with Russia?

Tol: The Turkey-U.S. relationship comes down to two main issues: the U.S.-PYD relationship in Syria and the extradition of [Turkish religious leader] Fethullah Gulen. I don’t see either of these things changing. I don’t think the U.S. will stop working with the PYD—as long as their priority remains defeating IS they will have to work with the PYD. The U.S. would have loved for Turkey to have had an alternative plan, to be able to commit thousands of troops, and then they would have preferred to work with Turkey and Turkish-backed rebels. But in the absence of that—and people in the Pentagon who have heard Turkey’s alternative plan never thought that it was realistic—the U.S. will keep working with the PYD.

As for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, I don’t see anything changing on that front either. There is a legal process that’s involved, and the Trump administration can’t really interfere with that, so it will take years to resolve. That’s going to complicate things as well—as long as these two issues remain, there will always be tension in the Turkey-U.S. relationship.

Erdogan’s relationship with Russia has been very complicated. When he decided to apologize to Russia for the downing of their jet, everyone—especially pro-government media—framed it as a “spring” in Russia-Turkey relations. But behind the scenes there was always tension. There was never really a spring. Turkey thought that if it cooperated with Russia in Syria, Russia would stop working with the PYD, and that never happened. Turkey came closer to where Russia stands—it stopped talking about toppling the regime, it didn’t get involved in Aleppo—but Russia never stopped working with the PYD; it may even be building a new military base in Afrin [the PYD enclave in northwestern Syria]. There are also still problems in terms of the sanctions that Russia imposed on Turkey in the wake of the jet incident. Russia hasn’t lifted its sanctions entirely, so that clearly indicates that there are still tensions. Historically there has always been an element of competition and skepticism in the Turkey-Russia relationship, and I don’t see that changing.

LL: Finally, talk about Turkey’s role in the wider Middle East moving forward, particularly how it will navigate the Iran-Saudi Arabia feud.

Tol: If you remember [former Turkish prime minister] Ahmet Davutoglu’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy of a few years ago, at that time (before the Arab Spring) Turkish soft power was high and Turkey had become a very popular country in the region—people were naming their children after Erdogan, Turkish soap operas became very popular. So you could see Turkey rising in the region, and I think one of the reasons for that was that the region looked at Turkey as a Muslim democracy, but also as a country where religious sensitivities, Muslim sensitivities, were respected. Turkey was seen as a rising Muslim power, and people saw in it things they didn’t see in their own countries—a growing economy and a strong democracy that was trying to become an EU member.

That story is not there anymore, especially after the referendum. Everyone is calling Turkey an authoritarian country, and that’s weakening Turkey’s image in the region. Before the Arab uprisings and before Turkey’s image was tarnished, it was playing a constructive role in the region, but I don’t see that anymore. It doesn’t have that power anymore.

When it comes to joining the anti-Iran movement, Turkey has already done that. Since King Salman took over Saudi Arabia, Turkey has made a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and joined the Sunni/anti-Iran camp. But there’s only so much that Turkey can do. There are centuries of competition in Turkey’s relationship with Iran, so there’s always going to be tension there. But on the other hand, neither country can completely afford to alienate the other. Turkey is dependent on Iranian energy, for example, so Turkey’s ability to oppose Iran is limited. It tries to balance its relationships with both countries, and I think that’s what we’ll keep seeing.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.