On Sunday, a narrow majority of Turkish voters agreed to grant sweeping powers to their president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The referendum that accomplishes this was approved by slightly more than 51 percent of the electorate, amidst allegations of fraud by Erdogan and his backers.
Voters in Istanbul, Ankara, and other major cities rejected the constitutional changes proposed by Erdogan. Approval was due to voters in the countryside where, says David Pryce-Jones, illiteracy, gender inequality, and electoral fraud flourish
Erdogan’s constitutional changes follow a failed coup against him. Mass arrests ensued. According to Pryce-Jones, somewhere in the order of 140,000 people have been “pursued and purged.” Freedom of expression has vigorously been curbed.
Pryce-Jones views the constitutional changes as institutionalizing these conditions:
Parliamentary government is to be replaced by presidential government. The office of prime minister becomes superfluous, and is to be suppressed. The president remains in office as long as he wants, until 2029 is the rumor about Erdogan.
The president also gained greater latitude in appointing judges and prosecutors.
To obtain the extraordinary powers of the Turkish presidency, however, Erdogan will have to win the 2019 election. With his tightened grip and ability to profit from fraudulent voting, victory seems very likely. But the narrowness of Erdogan’s victory, including the fact that he failed to prevail in Istanbul (where he was once mayor) for the first time since 1994, suggests that his sailing may not be smooth, especially if the opposition can unify against him.
Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says:
This is a referendum where we had Kurdish voters in the east voting along the same lines as secular Turks in the west [note: of course, the choice in this election was binary]. It might be the beginning of a new era. There’s the potential for something more than a tactical alliance, but it requires visionary leadership. The numbers are there, the energy is there. Whether someone can tap into that is the million dollar question.
President Trump called Erdogan to congratulate him on the victory. This was a sensible thing to do, notwithstanding the substantial allegations of fraudulent voting. Turkey is a pivotal nation in the region. Trump needs to engage its leader on such issues as fighting ISIS, dealing with the European refugee crisis, and coping with Iran. Sunday’s vote provided him with that opportunity.
Trump may have an opening with Erdogan. Some observers believe the Turkish will undertake a charm offensive toward Europe and the U.S. in order to validate his new system. But Erdogan’s hope (if any) of “charming” the Europeans may founder on his plan to reinstate the death penalty.
To “charm” Trump, Erdogan probably will have to show flexibility on the question of which forces will lead the charge against ISIS in Raqaa. The Pentagon wants to use Syrian Kurdish fighters — the People’s Protection Units, or YPG — which Ankara views as synonymous with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has fought the Turkish government for decades. To date, Turkey has steadfastly opposed the U.S. on this matter.
Whatever else happens, we can be fairly confident that Erdogan won’t genuinely charm Trump the way he charmed former president Obama. Erdogan quickly became one of Obama’s favorite world leaders. He achieved this status without making any apparent concessions to the U.S. Obama simply seems to have like the cut of his jib, or perhaps his ability to wield power — a sad commentary on the former president in either case.
By contrast, if Erdogan wants to make headway with Trump, he will have to grant policy concessions that advance our national interest. In this sense, normal service has resumed.