A referendum which will deepen Turkey’s crisis to new lows, but to a rupture point?

10 days to go and counting down, some 55 million voters of Turkey are heading for a referendum which will mark a historic watershed for the country’s identity, existential path, stability and endurance. In a nutshell, no matter what, it will be a shattering choice; and regardless which one wins, this 94-year old republic will see its crisis – which has been developing from June 2013 Gezi protests on – deepening even further.

At this stage, the views from outside matter especially.

Let’s have a look at two of them.

In an analysis dated April 5, Nicholas Danforth, a senior policy analyst for the national security program with Bipartisan Policy Center, offered his take, under the title, ‘Referendum Gives Turkey Two Choices but Little Hope’.

 ”Erdogan’s supporters insist that a Yes vote, by creating a strong presidential system, will put a permanent end to Turkey’s traumatic and recent history of military coups and terrorist violence. Critics, meanwhile, warn that by ratifying Erdogan’s authoritarian rule, the referendum will solidify Turkey’s transformation from a troubled democracy into a de facto dictatorship” summarized Danforth, concluding with a view that I agree with:

”Not surprisingly, independent observers almost all side with Erdogan’s critics in opposing the referendum. And yet, despite a general consensus that the stakes for Turkey and the region are high, there is reason to fear both outcomes could lead to continued chaos.”

Some other points from his analysis

  • Despite enormous pressure to support the president, many members of his own party are privatelyskeptical, giving further reason to think that No might prevail. Yet anyone who’s watched Erdogan’s run of political successes over the past decade and a half is hesitant to bet against him. Erdogan recently picked a high-profile fight with the Dutch to drum up support, and rumors are rife that he might take more dramatic measures against Kurdish terrorists in Iraq or Syria to inflame nationalist sentiment in the remaining two weeks before the vote.
  • To date, there is no evidence that the government plans to completely rig the results, but it does have plenty of dubious methods at its disposal to potentially pick up a few illegitimate points in a close race. A recent move to block opposition poll-watchers did not inspire confidence.
  • …If Erdogan cannot find the votes to win the referendum, he has plenty of other routes open for consolidating his power. In Turkey’s chaotic circumstances, he could simply find a pretext for postponing the referendum and continue to rule with his already considerable powers until circumstances were more conducive.
  • Even if the referendum fails, he could hold new elections, hoping that if smaller opposition parties fell below the country’s steep 10 percent threshold for representation his party would have the votes in parliament to amend the constitution directly without a referendum.

”The biggest question remains whether there is any outcome that could optimistically be expected to bring Turkey a period of much-needed political stability. Would Erdogan, either confident after a win or chastened after a loss, turn away from the divisive nationalism and confrontational populism that has increasingly defined his approach to politics over the past several years?” asked Danforth, and continued:

  • Erdogan has shown himself capable of remarkable pragmatism before, and knows he will ultimately need good relations with neighboring countries and his own people to make Turkey into the global power he aspires to lead. Yet barring a dramatic and unambiguous victory, it may prove difficult for Erdogan to shift course. Over the last few years he has put himself in a position where losing is no longer an option while the kind of decisive win that would give him a sense of security remains out of reach.
  • If a defeat in the April referendum emboldens the government’s opponents, Erdogan, with his back against the wall, would have only his hardcore supporters—and their fears—to fall back on for self-preservations. Were Erdogan to win the referendum by a narrow margin, perhaps amongst accusations of voting irregularities or even widespread protests, Erdogan would still feel under attack, likely leading to similar outcome.
  • That the results of the referendum are still in doubt is another reminder that Erdogan’s rule is not as secure as it sometimes seems. The danger for Turkey is that Erdogan has already accumulated enough power that, even in defeat, he could easily bring the entire country down with him.


In another analysis, titled ‘Ticking Clocks: Erdoğan and Turkey’s Constitutional Referendum’, Gareth Jenkins – a veteran observer of Turkey – a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies – concluded that, ”Whatever the outcome, the Turkish constitutional referendum on April 16 will not resolve the country’s chronic domestic instability, heal its deepening social divisions, revive its flagging economy or end its growing international isolation. But it will shape both the nature of the further turbulence to come and the duration of what is already the final stage of the Erdoğan era.”

This ‘final stage of Erdoğan era’ is a view that leaves me wondering, since I am not that sure whether the referendum will extend Erdoğan’s full-scale domination over Turkish politics into 2020’s. But let’s leave it at that and see how Jenkins reasons over the impacts of the historic vote:

  • Regardless of his long-term goals and dreams, during the AKP’s first years in office, Erdoğan had built a growing popular support base through largely democratic means. However, in recent years – and particularly since the failed coup of July 2016 – democratic norms and practices have been so eroded that it is no longer possible to talk of Turkey as a functioning democracy or a country governed by the rule of law. But the repression is also a sign of desperation, a tacit admission that Erdoğan can no longer remain in power without it.
  • Opinion polls currently suggest that the constitutional referendum on April 16 is too close to call. If Turks reject Erdoğan’s plans to introduce an executive presidency and formally concentrate virtually all political power in his own hands, he is expected to call an early general election, probably in fall 2017 – in the hope the AKP will secure a substantial parliamentary majority and enable him to continue with what is already a de facto autocratic presidential system. Although this would buy Erdoğan some more time, it would neither resolve Turkey’s mounting problems nor result in an easing of his still growing authoritarianism.
  • Erdoğan would be aware that, in the event of a “No” vote, his critics and opponents – included the currently cowed dissenters within the AKP – would be emboldened. If anything, he could even become more repressive in his desperation to cling onto power.
  • Nor would there be any prospect of a respite if Erdoğan won the vote. Most of the new presidential powers envisaged by the constitutional changes are not scheduled to come into force until November 2019, after simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections. Erdoğan would unlikely wait that long. Indeed, from his perspective, it would be very risky for him to do so.
  • Starting during the Gezi Park protests, and increasingly since 2015, Erdoğan has made his political survival dependent on maintaining a siege mentality amongst his supporters. It is a psychological rather than a merely juridical State of Emergence, in which he — as the embodiment of the “national will” – is under constant assault from foreign conspirators and their treacherous domestic collaborators. The result has not only been severe damage to Turkey’s social fabric and international reputation but also to its faltering economy – and the short-term measures that were recently introduced to boost the economy in the run-up to the referendum are likely to come with a high medium-term cost that will exacerbate an eventual hard economic landing.
  • In addition, the cumulative impact of constant social tensions, actual and anticipated terrorist attacks, conspiracy theories and rhetorical histrionics are already engendering widespread fatigue. In the continued absence of any achievements of his own, Erdoğan is likely to persist with his politics of fear.
  • But he cannot maintain the current momentum until November 2019 without suffering a backlash, not least as a result of public weariness. Yet neither can he allow tensions to subside without the risk of attention shifting to his failure to provide solutions for the country’s problems.
  • Disturbingly, even though his growing authoritarianism suggests some form of awareness that power would otherwise slip from his hands, Erdoğan also appears increasingly unable to understand – or is indifferent to – the consequences of his actions. Indeed, the more he fails to deliver on his promises of peace, prosperity and international prestige, the more self-confident he seems to become.
  • One explanation may be Erdoğan’s isolation in what appears to be an echo chamber of trusted advisers in his grandiose palace on the outskirts of Ankara.
  • When combined with the increasing pressure on his domestic opponents and critics, such statements have ensured Erdoğan’s irrevocable alienation from the EU and the US.
  • Despite the delusions of Erdoğan’s hardcore supporters, Turkey is not strong enough to flourish in isolation. Indeed, Erdoğan’s relentless purges are accelerating the hemorrhaging of the country’s human resources – and further reducing its ability to resolve its own problems, much less shape the future of its region.
  • Autocrats have a habit of remaining in power long after rationality suggests that they should have gone. However, there currently appears little prospect of Erdoğan realizing his ambition of remaining in office for at least the next decade.
  • A “Yes” vote on April 16 would not be regarded as legitimate, either internationally or by his domestic opponents, although it would prolong his political life expectancy. A “No” vote would shorten it. But, whatever the outcome, Turkey is unlikely to enjoy stability – much less peace, prosperity and prestige – while Erdoğan remains in power.

These are the two views that demand attention.


I would to a broad degree agree with them, ending with some additional remarks of mine:

  • 10 days and the ‘yes’ votes are on the rise, Erdoğan’s strategy vis a vis his fierce critics in the West and amongst Turkey’s allies is to achieve a vote support above 55 % – from his vantage point 60 % would be a psychologically critical threshold to claim legitimacy. If so, this would create a new momentum of tension – and perhaps divisions – amongst the allies. Erdoğan may be counting on that countries like Japan, China, Russia, South Korea, the UK and Brazil may choose to accept the result, while the EU, bent under the pressure of the refugee crisis, may choose a softer line behind closed doors.
  • Any new intervention across the borders into Iraq and Syria may, although could boost the nationalist vote into his favor, could evolve into a factor driving Turkey into deeper chaos, and eventually shorten Erdoğan’s political path.
  • A final point is, whether or not the total collapse of the rule of law is sustainable. Erdoğan seems keen on burning the bridges with the European Court, and regardless of the yes or no vote winning, a clash between Council of Europe and Turkey seems inevitable. Part of the lawlessness has to do with the arbitrary confiscation of vast properties and assets that once belonged to Gulenist businesspeople – which according their calculations surpass $ 100 billion – which may cause high unemployment, further loss of trade, as well as deep apprehension amongst the foreign investors.


About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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