As electors in France, Germany, and Britain head to the polls this year, the possibility of a fundamental reorientation of governing values looms over many of Canada’s European allies. However, it’s not just electoral politics which may have a major impact for Europe, and the North Atlantic alliance more generally. Last Sunday’s constitutional referendum in Turkey in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s camp emerged victorious may prove to be a turning point for Europe as relations continue to sour between Turkey and the EU.
The referendum won by a vote of about 51.5% for “yes” to 48.5% for “no”, almost identical to last year’s Brexit vote. At stake was the reorganization of the branches of government to reduce the independence of Parliament in policymaking, scrap the position of Prime Minister (which the current President held from 2003-2014), and enhance the powers of the Presidency. Voting “yes” meant that the President, constitutionally limited to two five-year terms, would become the head of state and have more input through direct appointments, state enquiries, decrees, and the ability to declare states of emergency.
While protests and demands for a recount erupted in Istanbul and Ankara against the results of the referendum, financial markets and government bonds in Turkey actually got a boost after the results were announced, anticipating greater social instability from a victory of the “no” vote. In light of a prolonged war effort in Syria, a migrant crisis which has been disproportionately borne by Turkey, an attempt at coup d’état, and a string of deadly terrorist attacks, stability seems to be much needed currency for many Turks.
Critics have almost invariably called this an irreversible move toward authoritarianism in a country which has at times struggled to maintain its democratic institutions. European observers have said the hastily arranged ballot spots and overwhelming support for the “yes” camp cast doubt on the reliability of the results. The state faces allegations of crackdowns against opposition and voter suppression, especially against Kurds, which officials say they will not investigate.
This referendum may have been the final battle in Erdogan’s war against the “bureaucratic oligarchy” which has been operating against the government, and beyond its reach, for quite some time now. The notion of a faction within society capturing the state has a long precedent in Turkish politics. The Janissaries, an elite military group in the Ottoman period, amassed enough political power to force three Sultans out of power before being violently quashed by the state in the 19th century. Since the establishment of the Republic in 1923, Turkey has endured four more coup’s d’état, and a failed coup last year, in which supporters of Erdogan’s rival Fethullah Gülen were accused of running a shadow government in Turkey as they were plotting to overthrow Erdogan. Whether true or simply a state-sponsored narrative, this was used as justification for one of the largest purges of public servants, military officers, intellectuals and journalists in modern history.
In 2003, Erdogan had begun a period of sweeping reforms to advance Turkey’s accession to EU, enhancing speech protections, minority rights and removing the death penalty. However, a changing European political climate has caused Turkey to backtrack on much of the reforms it has put into place, signaling it may no longer seeing EU membership as the ultimate aim of a modern Turkish state. Thus, the gradual but systematic consolidation of power by Erdogan and the AKP (Justice and Development Party) signals that challenges to the liberal state are no longer out of bounds. His victory in the referendum shows the power of a leader channeling the national interest to take back the state. It is another expression of the populist trend sweeping across the Atlantic and the European continent and positions Erdogan closer to Nigel Farage, Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen than it does to Arab dictators in neighbouring Middle-Eastern countries.
Despite notable tensions between Islamists and secularists, as well as ethnic nationalists and minorities, this referendum was ultimately about defining the nation. Erdogan’s record embodies the spirit of the new nationalism by empowering Turkish communities hurt by globalization while repositioning the country away from a “Western-oriented elite.” For the “no” camp, a diverse mix of young, educated people, urban dwellers, ethnic minorities and Kemalists who support the modernist and reformist vision of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, it was about “national nativism” and the struggle for their country to remain open to the world. And like many other democratic societies now facing challenges of anti-establishment movements, the thin margins of victory in Turkey demonstrate stark divisions that may escalate into further political instability.
This referendum may have major consequences for Turkey’s relations with the world, on both state and individual levels. The lead-up to the referendum was mired with disputes over the Turkish government lobbying for votes from Turkish citizens abroad, which culminated in accusations that Turks in Germany were getting propaganda, in violation of a 2008 Turkish which banned propaganda targeted outside the country. During the campaign process, Erdogan has accused German government of echoing the “Nazi practices” of the past for obstructing “yes” campaign events from taking place. In the Netherlands, there was nearly a diplomatic crisis as the government disallowed Turkish ministers from speaking out on behalf of “yes”. To every accusation of authoritarianism, he has responded in kind by calling out Europeans as the real Nazis.
The expansion of the Presidency will empower Erdogan to be decisive about handling assaults on Turkish sovereignty from ISIS and the Kurdish resistance in Syria, which Western countries have supported in order to fight the former. However, if the Turkish government government embraces the spirit of reduced openness too quickly, its reticence to deal with Europe (and likewise their own reluctance to deal with Turkey) could have mutually harmful impacts. The EU is Turkey’s largest trading partner. It could still benefit from a revival of the migration deal which would access to visa-free travel, and could be harmed by a reduction of exports to the European single-market (as it could also be harmed by protectionism in the US, which could stop the import of Turkish steel).
On the other hand, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump were quick to congratulate Erdogan on his victory. This could indeed be the start of a more stable period for Turkey, with greater strategic cooperation with both the US and Russia to replace Europe’s central place in Turkey’s foreign policy. This comes at a time when French Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has threatened to pull out of NATO. And while Trump has recently avowed the importance of NATO, his coziness with anti-establishment candidates and nationalist leaders indicates that challenges to the integrity of the alliance are just beginning. How Erdogan reacts to the potential reformation of the European project will be telling for the future of Europe, and Turkey’s place in it.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.