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  • Danni Luo

The Ramifications of Turkey's Constitutional Amendment

The constitutional amendment that now has both parliamentary and public approval gives Recep Tayyip Erdogan almost unchecked power.

Previously, the president did not have official executive powers – creating friction between presidents and their prime ministers. Mr. Erdogan is no exception; he forced his former Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu to resign after disagreements on policy last year. In 2019, this will all change. The role of prime minister will be abolished, the number of MPs in parliament will increase from 550 to 600, and the age requirement for parliamentary candidacy will be lowered from 25 to 18. Furthermore, the president will have the ability to be the leader of a party – whereas prior to the referendum, Turkey’s constitution did not allow the president to be partisan. The constitutional changes would also give the president power over the national budget. But Mr. Erdogan’s most contested abilities is his new power to dissolve the parliament, which will no longer be able to censure him.

Opposition party leaders argue that the referendum would destroy the parliamentary system entirely. Sezgin Tanrikulu, a senior MP in the People’s Republican Party (CHP), said that despite the flaws of Turkey’s parliament, it remains a place of diverse opinions. Mr. Tanrikulu warned that stripping the Grand National Assembly of its powers is not the correct way to address the political rifts in Turkey. Rather, it will exacerbate existing tensions and further polarize Turkish politics. He also noted that despite the fact that the CHP has proposed better constitutional amendments, such as changing the 10% electoral threshold for parties to gain seats in the parliament, and establishing a more independent judiciary system, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has ignored past efforts to reform the political system.

The CHP or the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) find it increasingly difficult to achieve their goals. The co-chairs of the HDP are currently imprisoned. Both opposition parties were targeted by the “Yes” campaign. Mustafa Sentop, Mr. Erdogan’s campaign chief, went so far as to suggest that those who vote No are agreeing with terrorist groups. The accusation carries immense weight in a country that has been in a state of emergency since the attempted coup in July 2016, and which has suffered a series of ISIL attacks. In particular, naysayers are connected to the cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who was accused of masterminding last year’s failed coup. Speaking against Mr. Erdogan has always been dangerous. Opponents are frequently labeled unfaithful to Turkey, jailed, and tortured. The situation has worsened since the latest state of emergency. Since then, tens of thousands of suspected Gulenists have been jailed and around 130,000 were removed from their jobs. Mr. Gulen himself has denied having any part in the coup, and has stated that it may have been orchestrated by Mr. Erdogan as an excuse to jail opponents.

There were violent attacks against both “Yes” and “No” voters during the campaign and the voting process, with significantly more attacks directed against Mr. Erdogan’s opponents. Three people were killed in Diyarbakir, a Kurdish city, while caught in what seemed to be a political argument. Two opposition party officials were attacked at polling station.

The resistance continues. Preliminary results estimate that “Yes” 51.3% won of the vote, with “No” voters gaining the majority in Istanbul and Ankara. Both cities are usually pro-AKP. Istanbul has not voted against Mr. Erdogan since 2002. It is not the margin of victory that Mr. Erdogan hoped for. His victory has granted him de jure the powers that he assumed de facto since July’s coup, removing his accountability to parliament. Yet Mr. Erdogan must run for reelection in 2019 in a country in which the validity and fairness of the referendum is bitterly questioned.

Statistically, there was heavy media and fiscal bias towards the “Yes” campaign. A study conducted by the TRT Haber, found that Mr. Erdogan and the AKP had received 19 times the screen-time as the CHP. The HDP received one minute of coverage overall. The “Yes” campaign also had the funds to campaign abroad, reaching millions of voters that were inaccessible to Mr. Erdogan’s critics.

Many call for a recount of votes. The referendum conducted under a state of emergency, and after the voting process was over, the supreme election board (YSK) decided to accept ballots sans official seals – an action that the Union of Turkish Bar Associations has denounced as illegal. There are as many as 2.5 million manipulated votes (double Mr. Erdogan’s margin of victory). 500,000 people, largely displaced Kurds, were disenfranchised due to their lack of addresses. While a recount is unlikely, the CHP shows no signs of backing down. Its deputy chairman, Bulent Tezcan, said that there was a record number of missing votes. The CHP plans to make its case before the European Court of Human Rights if Mr. Erdogan proves uncooperative. Meanwhile, the HDP has plans to contest two-thirds of the votes.

Mr. Erdogan’s troubled record with human rights does little to win him international support. Human Rights Watch finds that Turkey suffers from campaign violence, escalating tensions with the PKK, violence against women, and a severe lack of the freedom of assembly, expression, and association. A “dictatorship has been legitimized,” said Ece Çubuk, a Turkish-American at Boston University. “We expect it to have detrimental consequences to the country.”

Religious rights after the referendum.

This is the first time that modern Turkey has been ruled by a religious government. The AKP is an Islamist government – a significant fact in a country whose founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, pushed for secularization. Under Ataturk, Turkey enacted laws that discouraged public practices of Islam, but Mr. Erdogan’s has loosened old restrictions, winning the approval of Turkey’s traditionalists and rural populations. Turkey is more than 95% Muslim. Ethnic tensions with the majority-Muslim and initial support for rebels in Syria have eroded some of the support that Mr. Erdogan won for his pro-Muslim policies.

Many religious Turks remember a time when expression of Islam was practically illegal. Women could not wear hijabs in universities, Civil Service, or serve in the military. For them, Mr. Erdogan’s victories (including this referendum) are not an autocrat’s attempt to gain power, but progress towards true religious freedom in Turkey.

Turkey’s unstable economy.

Mr. Erdogan promised to stop his post-coup crackdown on businesses after a “Yes” vote. Since July, the government has seized hundreds of businesses under suspicions of their links to Fethullah Gulen. Business leaders had hoped that this promise would translate into an end to the state of emergency – whose implementation may have contributed to the fall of the lira against the dollar. Mehul Srivastava, writing for the Financial Times, cites that the lira is the “worst performing market currency this year.” Continued political instability will only serve to exacerbate Turkey’s inflation and unemployment rates.

Perhaps the largest difficulty post-referendum will be attracting foreign investment. The recent growth in Turkey was fueled by private consumption, and may have been influenced by the government’s new methods for measuring economic growth. Moreover, GDP growth slowed down to 2.9% in 2016 from 6.1% in 2015. Tourism fell by nearly 30% after the coup and terrorist attacks by ISIL and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Yet, Mr. Erdogan’s supporters say that his government effectively addressed the hyperinflation and foreign debt of the 2000s, and believe that he can repeat his so-called successes. They also refer to his dedication to infrastructure, supporting the construction of more roads and hospitals. Certainly, one of Mr. Erdogan’s campaign promises was that new unity in the government will allow for more efficient policy and subsequently, more efficacy in addressing economic, social, and political crises.

Future relations with the European Union.

Turkey’s relationship with the EU is strained. The move to authoritarianism came among rising anti-Turkish sentiment in Europe. Throughout the campaign, Mr. Erdogan inflamed tensions with both Germany and the Netherlands. After the countries refused to allow Turkish MPs to talk to expat Turks, Mr. Erdogan accused both countries of Nazi practices, and Chancellor Angela Merkel of harboring terrorists. Even before the referendum, Turkish-German relations were sensitive. After the German parliament officially labeled murders of Armenians by Ottoman Turks genocide, Ankara and Berlin became chilly with each other. Now, Germany must face the fact that its Turkish population supports the expansion of Mr. Erdogan’s powers.

The referendum signifies a palpable shift away from pro-EU policy in Turkey. Mr. Erdogan has always preferred economic, rather than concrete political ties to the EU. The feeling is mostly mutual. Turkey’s latest cutbacks of media freedom, judiciary independence, and civil society post-coup were met with widespread criticism from the West. The updated services and agriculture added during Mr. Erdogan’s administration to the European customs union in Turkey will not be enough to save relations, especially not when Mr. Erdogan’s response to international election observers is that they should “know their place.”

Mr. Erdogan has also said that he would back reinstatement of the death penalty. This would make Turkey ineligible for EU membership, and end accession talks. The EU and Turkey will likely talk about their changing relationship soon.

Turkey’s role in NATO.

Mr. Erdogan says that the constitutional changes will allow him to be a more effective NATO ally in Syria. But these words come amidst worries that Turkey has separated itself from the West. Already, Turkish and U.S. interests are at odds in Syria. In the past, the U.S., UN, and EU have all asked Turkey to stop shelling the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group which Ankara has labelled to be an extension of the PKK. The later has threatened civil war in Turkey for Turkey’s attacks on Kurds in the Middle East. There was less Kurdish dissent during the referendum than usual. This might be because they too want stability after the failed coup and ISIL attacks.

For the U.S., the YPG is a crucial ally in the fight against ISIL. There is international fear that Turkey’s constitutional changes will encourage Mr. Erdogan’s anti-YPG stance. Turkey’s historical treatment of Kurds does little to ameliorate these fears. Future relations with NATO remain unclear, but Mr. Trump called to congratulate Mr. Erdogan on the referendum.

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