Referendum win is only start of battle for Erdogan, New Turkey

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan achieved his long-time dream of an executive presidency in Turkey, but his narrow win came at a price, with almost half the population voting no, risking deeper polarization in Turkey.

Erdogan’s referendum win by 51.4 percent introduces sweeping new powers, with the biggest political revolution since the foundation of the republic.

The constitutional changes will transfer undisputed power to the hands of one man, allowing Erdogan to potentially rule until 2029, or even 2034.

Additionally, the president will have political, as well as judicial influence, and can dismiss parliament or ratify laws by decree.

The narrow victory came under controversial circumstances as the opposition accused the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of electoral violations and an unfair playing field.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and other electoral monitors were critical of the referendum campaign, with the Council of Europe stating the vote “did not live up” to its standards.

The criticism at home and abroad were brushed off by a victorious Erdogan, but he will remain acutely aware the battle in Turkey has just started.

The referendum victory coincided with the third extension of a state of emergency following the infamous failed July coup last year, which Erdogan blamed on exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, leading to a wide-range of crackdowns on the opposition.

With strained ties with the European Union, a floundering economy, a reenergized war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), terror threats across its borders, and an increasing national divide, Turkey’s next moves will have dramatic ramifications.

But, a further crackdown on media and the opposition, especially in light of narrow victory margins, risks driving Turkey into deeper instability.

Erdogan, Prime Minister in 2003, was instrumental in the revival of the economy, reigning in military powers, untying the secular constitutional noose, and bridging gaps with the long disenfranchised Kurdish population.

But his populism has become more regionalised, as a geographical heat map of voting indicated.

Strong support in conservative rural areas was in stark contrast to the larger cities, the Aegean and Mediterranean coast, and most of the Kurdish-dominated areas.

Erdogan and the AKP, must stem the polarization, loosen anti-terror laws, and stifling of opposition voices, or risk mass protests and instability.

One burning question is the Kurdish democratic opening which, after making positive strides, regressed back into a full-blown conflict with the PKK.

With the vote secured, Erdogan has a golden opportunity to dilute the strong nationalist hand vital to his victory, but a hindrance to peace with the PKK, and seek to resolve the increasing violence and instability that engulfs the Kurdish southeast.

In fact, voting in the Kurdish areas was not a rout by the “no” side by any means. The no campaign was victorious in 11 Kurdish provinces where the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) got most seats in the 2015 elections, but votes for Erdogan increased in comparison to AKP election faring.

The “yes” campaign won in 10 other Kurdish-majority or ethnically mixed provinces.

This was not something missed by Erdogan, who stated, “I kept watching the whole night. The times have changed. There is now a steady progress. I believe things will get better.”

However, the vote is not a comprehensive Kurdish endorsement of Erdogan. It is more likely a reflection of people tired of decades of war and turmoil on their doorsteps, placing them between repressive government policies and the PKK. 

Voting is acknowledgment Erdogan, as the strongest man in Turkey, holds the keys to elusive peace 

Another critical factor is economic health that is always a barometer of public sentiment.

As such, Turkey will need to revive the Customs Union with the EU, as their most vital trading partner, and mend tenuous relations.

Shortly after the referendum, Erdogan announced plans to visit Russia, China, and India.

Strong ties with these respective countries, including the US, where President Donald Trump gave a significant endorsement, calling and congratulating Erdogan, will help dispel any clouds of legitimacy. 

Turkey remains a vital player on the regional and international stage.

Moreover, EU leaders, as well as the US, will need a stable and pro-Western Erdogan now even more so with a consolidation of power.

However, the visit to regional powers on its eastern front will be used to ensure Turkey maintains leverage.

His threat to introduce the death penalty in Turkey, something that will certainly end any diminishing hopes of EU membership, is proof Erdogan is unwilling to be roped in by any side.

The referendum ends one chapter in Turkey and reopens another. But, the future stability and security are by no means concluded, and divisions between nationalists, secularists, Islamists, and Kurds will be difficult to heal.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

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