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Turkey Referendum: Erdogan's Narrow Win Comes With a Warning

This is not a sweeping victory, no matter how Turkey's president spins it

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks to supporters as he arrives at Eyup Sultan mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, April 17, 2017.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks to supporters as he arrives at Eyup Sultan mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, April 17, 2017. Credit: Murad Sezer, Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's referendum success on Sunday is still subject to the appeals that will be filed by his opponents over voting irregularities. But even if he passes this last hurdle, it will be a win with a warning. The gap between those who voted in favor and those who voted against the reforms that will grant Erdogan broad presidential powers without constitutional constraints are too narrow to be dubbed a sweeping victory of a majority of supporters over a marginal minority of opponents. Has Erdogan stretched the limits of his legitimacy too far this time? Has he managed to leverage the strong opposition to last year's coup attempt into support for him, instead of support for democracy? The results of the referendum don't provide clear answers to these questions.

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Erdogan won the 2014 presidential election with 51.7 percent of the vote, an approval rating almost identical to that garnered by his 'Yes' campaign in the referendum, so it's not clear whether those who voted 'No' are against Erdogan personally or are genuinely opposed to the reforms. The president's uncompromising fight to pass the reforms – including cursing European states, tagging his opponents as supporters of terrorism and presenting the referendum as a vote of confidence in him – made the Turks wonder whether they really want Erdogan to serve as president for over a decade, more than questioning the scope of his authorities.

Paradoxically, the nationalist party (MHP), from which the most fervent opponents of the Islamist movement have emerged, supported Erdogan – a decision that has caused an ideological rift among its followers. It's an interesting symptom of the dramatic change Turkey is undergoing under Erdogan, who has linked patriotism to support for him. He has been employing this strategy for the past seven years, especially since being elected president. The referendum was meant to frame in a constitutional way the political reality that he has been cultivating during his term. He has managed to neutralize the military, force the legal system to do his bidding and position religious education as equal to secular studies. As result, the question of who is a real patriot hovered over the polling stations.

The primary argument against the reform asserts that the new constitution, with all the authorities it grants the president, crushes the foundations of democracy. The reforms will obscure the separation of powers, turn the parliament into a tool at the hands of the president, allow the president to make appointments in the justice system and let him extend his tenure indefinitely. These claims, as right as they are, ignore the unique democratic structure that has characterized the state for more than nine decades. Those who yearn for Turkey's more democratic eras forget the military coups, the failure of coalition governments to manage the state, the deep economic crises that ensued, the persecution of the Kurdish minority, not only under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk but also in 1980s when thousands of villages were destroyed, and the violence on the streets. The residues of these eras, especially the financial crisis of the late '90s, brought the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power, with its social-democratic platform that was careful not to voice religious aspirations.

The absurd thing is that members of the European Union, afraid of the rise of a party with religious orientation, saw the military as a barrier to undermining democracy. They mourned the loss of the military's political power. But ultimately it was Erdogan who has been pushing for his country to join the EU, and who rightfully asserted that a military in a democratic state cannot be above the law or the constitution. Following the July 2016 attempted military coup, Erdogan pointed out that European states and the U.S. were quick to condemn human rights violations, arrests and wholesale purging, but did not voice opposition to the perpetrators of the coup.

For Erdogan, the European interpretation of democracy is warped, hypocritical and lacking in ideological context. Meaning, if a general headed the Turkish state, Europe would be more content. He translated this message into his constitutional reform. The Turkish democracy, as far as he's concerned, cannot be paralyzed when it comes to governability, which is why a presidential regime is warranted, with a leader with broad authorities who will rule for a lengthy period of time without being challenged by political rivals on a weekly basis.

If Erdogan's win is confirmed, he will certainly present it as sweeping victory reached despite what he describes as the harassment of Western states, political rivals and lobbyists acting on behalf of unknown forces that seek to destroy his regime. But even this victorious narrative won't hide the fact that half the population voted against the reforms. This half failed to present a popular alternative or to unite its ranks, and Erdogan can count on this in the future as well. The question now is which policy he will employ to keep the opposition divided. Will he renew the reconciliation process with the Kurds? Propose political partnership to the nationalist party? Release some of the tens of thousands who are under arrest? Or will he see victory as a signal to continue with the policy of brutal oppression? If he chooses the latter option, this might give rise to a new protest movement, like the one behind the mass rallies at Gezi Park in 2013.

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