17/04/2017 9:36 PM IST | Updated 17/04/2017 10:28 PM IST

Erdogan's Referendum Was Neither Free Nor Fair

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Erdogan greets the crowd, who were waiting to celebrate the results of the referendum, after he arrived in the Esenboga International Airport in Ankara, Turkey on April 17.

ISTANBUL — In 1946, members of Turkey’s ruling party made the momentous decision to transition to a multi-party system and usher in democracy to Turkey. In the eyes of political scientists, this is an event with few precedents elsewhere in the world. The political theorist Samuel Huntington, in an article concerning authoritarian regimes, defines Turkey as “the most clear-cut instance of the shift from an exclusionary one-party system to a competitive system.”

And now with more than seven decades of experience with multi-party politics, Turkey has been largely successful at preserving its self-imposed democratic system, regardless of its imperfections and despite a handful of military coups. But Sunday’s referendum, which approved a change from a parliamentary system to a presidential one and will allow the winner of the next presidential election to take full control over the government, was arguably one of Turkey’s most problematic political votes to have been held under an elected, non-military administration.

The referendum will have far-reaching implications for Turkey. The position of the prime minister has now been abolished. It is clear that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has run Turkey for almost 15 years, has no desire to share power with a political partner. Moreover, the referendum took place under a state of emergency proclaimed after last year’s attempted coup. Since that traumatic event, more than 100,000 public sector employees have been dismissed, the rule of law has been suspended and numerous media outlets have been shut down by force.

In such an atmosphere, there are serious concerns about the democratic legitimacy of any debate about altering the country’s political system. Indeed, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe expressed concern about the validity of the vote, saying the referendum had taken place on an “unlevel playing field.”

Throughout the campaign preceding the vote, there was scarcely any discussion of the proposed constitutional changes.

For one thing, the co-chairs of the HDP (the third-largest party in Turkey’s parliament and the one whose main base of support is Turkey’s Kurdish population) are currently under arrest, as are numerous HDP deputies and mayors. The HDP was unable to conduct an effective campaign leading up to the referendum. In addition, Turkey’s media and academia — which would normally take a leading role in weighing any changes to the country’s political system — have been operating under severe constraints due to the state of emergency. As a result, the task of campaigning against the proposed changes mainly fell to Turkey’s main opposition party, the CHP. But the center-left CHP’s influence over Turkey’s electorate was limited.

Erdogan’s referendum strategy was based on consolidating his appeal to right-wing voters. He formed a partnership between his party, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and the nationalist MHP. Sunday’s vote was less a referendum, which occurs when a society decides to make a change to its political system through meaningful debate in a democratic setting, than a plebiscite, which is merely meant to test public opinion rather than to have a binding effect.

With little room for real debate, the “referendum” merely serves as a rubber stamp for the country’s leader. Throughout the two-month-long campaign, there was scarcely any discussion of the proposed constitutional changes. Instead, everything was reduced to the question of whether to end or to prolong Erdogan’s tenure. On the final day of the campaign, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim effectively admitted as much: “There wasn’t a chance to talk about the content [of the referendum].”

Everywhere in Turkey — in the streets, in public squares, on television, in the newspapers — the “yes” campaign dominated. Making full use of the public funds at its disposal, the AKP appealed to voters’ emotions, portraying itself as full of valor and zeal. There was no sign of the skeptical, critical, deliberative atmosphere that is a precondition for any constitutional referendum. Leaders of various parties never appeared on television to debate each other in front of the nation. Even more troublingly, those in the “no” camp were, at times, accused of being terrorists or coup supporters. In the absence of free debate and other democratic conventions, the referendum simply became a plebiscite validating the country’s transition to one-man rule.

There was no sign of the skeptical, critical, deliberative atmosphere that is a precondition for any constitutional referendum.

But despite the unequal, unfair conditions that prevailed, Erdogan achieved his objective by only a hair’s breadth, with only 51 percent of the vote. Opposition parties made allegations of voting irregularities and questioned the legitimacy of the result. A majority of voters in Turkey’s big cities (including Istanbul and Ankara) and in the Aegean and Mediterranean regions voted no. Even the district of Uskudar in Istanbul where Erdoğan has a house voted no. His steadiest support came from the more conservative Anatolian heartland and the Black Sea provinces.  

Given that Turkey has been governed under a state of emergency for nine months — with the rule of law suspended, heavy pressure on the media and a campaign environment that was neither free nor fair — it is all too obvious what kind of presidential system awaits Turkey. Opposition parties have described Turkey’s new political order as a one-man regime. Erdogan has described it as a “Turkish version” of the presidential system. This system is undoubtedly quite different from its U.S. counterpart — it has more in common with the dysfunctional presidential systems of Latin America. Under Turkey’s new presidential system, the president will have ultimate authority over all three branches of government: legislative, executive and judicial. Any checks and balances will be ineffective.        

The new system can only be expected to lead to further uncertainty and instability in Turkey over the coming years. Since being president in 2014, Erdogan has effectively governed the country singlehandedly, and serious political and economic problems have resulted. Turkey is reeling from last year’s coup attempt, terrorist organizations are carrying out gruesome attacks and the Turkish lira is steadily depreciating. It is worth asking whether one man is likely to solve all these problems or only exacerbate them further.

Those in the 'no' camp were, at times, accused of being terrorists or coup supporters.

Who will be vindicated in the years to come? The residents of Turkey’s big cities and coastal areas, who desire a more pluralistic political model as well as integration into the global system? Or conservative voters from the Anatolian heartland, who have eagerly adopted the government’s populist message and see one-man rule as the answer to Turkey’s woes? 

The shift to one-man rule opens Pandora’s Box for Turkey because, despite using state resources for the “yes” campaign, Erdogan’s referendum still only passed with 51 percent of the vote. Such a narrow win despite the cards tipped in his favor equates to a defeat — a Pyrrhic victory. This realization was clear in Erdogan’s subdued rather than celebratory tone when he gave his “victory” speech on election night. Given that about half the population is not behind him, he knows this will not end well for him when he is unable to resolve Turkey’s myriad of challenges all on his own.

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