Turkey’s Transition

Michael Thomas

The April referendum in Turkey signals a possible turning point for the country. For years now, Turkey has been at the crux of several major geopolitical ‘tugs of war’. Geographically, it is wedged between a European Union that it has long courted for membership and an unstable Syria that is forcing swathes of refugees across the border to Turkey. Strategically, it is swaying between a long-standing relationship with the United States and an increasingly warm association with Russia. Domestically, it has been drifting from a successful democracy toward a far more authoritarian regime.

The Referendum

The result of Turkey’s April 16th referendum now seems likely to affect the republic’s relationship with each of the aforementioned forces. 58 million Turks voted in the referendum, which asked citizens to choose between keeping Turkey’s parliamentary system or abandoning it for an executive presidency. The broad referendum also proposed 18 constitutional amendments to change 70 laws. These amendments included a change to allow the president to declare a state of emergency without the cabinet’s approval; a change to allow the president (rather than parliament) to draft the budget; and a change to cut the number of supreme court justices from 22 to 13. With slightly more than 51 percent of the vote, Turkish citizens said “yes” to the referendum. The amendments will usher in a major transition within the country.

The results of the vote were met with much international and domestic criticism; and so too was the content of the referendum. While Turkey’s electoral board ruled the referendum valid, the country’s main opposition party called for a recount of 60 percent of the votes. A mission of observers from the Council of Europe backed this suspicion by saying that the referendum was an uneven contest. The US State Department also noted widespread irregularities in the voting process. Support for the referendum was also split along a strong urban-rural divide, as Turkey’s three largest cities – Ankara, Izmir, and Istanbul – all voted against the reforms. The referendum’s content has been criticized as a means of turning Turkey’s liberal-democratic system of government into a dictatorship.

While such criticisms are warranted, this shift in Turkey’s political structure did not occur solely because of the referendum’s outcome. At the heart of this shift has been Turkey’s polarizing president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan’s rule over fourteen years has exhibited increasingly aspects of authoritarian rule. When he assumed power as Turkey’s Prime Minister (the role of President did not exist yet) in 2003, Erdogan strengthened civil liberties, talked peace with the Kurds, and was viewed favourably by the EU. His rule brought several years of strong growth to Turkey, with international investors viewing the country as a favourable emerging economy for stocks and bonds. In more recent years, however, President Erdogan has jailed journalist and opposition politicians, virtually eliminated freedom of the press, politically brutalized Kurds and other minority ethnic groups, and poorly managed the country’s economy, resulting in a decline in economic growth. While Erdogan enjoys a seemingly cult of personality among pious, conservative and middle class Turks, who have seen economic and political gains under Erdogan, a large faction of the county’s citizens is strongly opposed to the increasing authoritarianism under his rule.

This growing opposition culminated in last year’s attempted coup. The effort to oust Erdogan and his AKP party from power was ultimately unsuccessful, and only pushed the president to strengthen his control over the Turkish public. In the coup’s wake, he placed Turkey under a state of emergency, arresting roughly 50,000 people and sacking 100,000 government employees. The state of emergency has been in effect ever since, and was extended another three months following the recent referendum. In the weeks that followed the coup, Erdogan made a series of appearances to remind the nation of its cost, indicating that Turkey’s stability rested on his continued rule. He also took the opportunity to blame the coup attempt on Fethullah Gulen, a seventy-five-year-old Muslim cleric who was once a major ally of Erdogan within the AKP, but is now living in exile in the hills of Pennsylvania.

US-Turkey Relations

The Gulen issue has further strained a US-Turkey relationship that has been evidently colder than relations in the past. Following the coup, Turkey asked the United States to extradite Gulen. The Obama Administration denied this request, citing that the executive branch could not simply extradite Gulen without the consent of the judicial branch. This resulted in much of Erdogan’s inner publicly demonizing the US. While Gulen has made few public appearances since moving to the United States, he continues to flood Turkey with audio and video recordings denouncing Erdogan and his government, though he denies having played a part in the coup attempt. America’s actions in refusing to extradite him have irked President Erdogan and his AKP government.

Similarly, certain actions taken by Erdogan over the past few years have not been viewed favorably with the United States. In part, this is a result of the warming of relations between President Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin. This has caused concern that Turkey may re-evaluate its commitment to NATO, and that Erdogan and Putin may form some kind of “strongman brotherhood,” creating a united front against western criticisms regarding their domestic and foreign policies. This strengthening relationship was further exemplified following the recent referendum when, shortly after the “yes” side emerged victorious, President Putin was one of the first world leaders to call and congratulate the Turkish leader.

But one of the few other world leaders to call President Erdogan with congratulations was Donald Trump. While Presidential congratulations to a leader that just dismantled several important components of his country’s democracy was baffling to some, it reminded others of Turkey’s crucial status as an ally in US counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East. Turkey has already been struck by several attacks claimed by Daesh (or ISIS) over the past two years. Public support for Turkey’s operations is very high, and President Erdogan has noted that Turkey may soon engage in further counterterrorism operations in the country. Turkey is also seen by many in the US security community to be a potential key player in an expanded fight against the Syrian government. This potential puts the United States in a difficult position with Turkey. While it has supported many authoritarian regimes in the past, supporting a once well-functioning democracy as it leans to authoritarianism may be especially tough for the US to accept.

EU-Turkey Relations

The relationship between Turkey and the European Union has become even more difficult than the US-Turkey relationship. Turkey has spent years courting the EU for membership, sometimes steering its policy in directions that may appear more favourable to the Union. However, many Europeans have had reservations about a predominantly Muslim state with volatile borders and a checkered human rights record join the EU. The stigma against Turkey has hindered Turkey’s EU efforts, and its government has slowly started to act in a manner that shows disregard for Europe’s wishes. Growing authoritarianism has been an important instance, and recently, President Erdogan willingly drew the ire of the EU through his claim that Turkey would reinstate the death penalty. While the past year has seen the EU-Turkey relationship sour, there may be deeper legal and institutional clashes between the two following the recent referendum.

Nothing may be causing more tension in this relationship than the global refugee crisis. Due to Turkey’s geographic position between Syria and Europe, Turkey now hosts the largest refugee population in the world. In 2016, the country agreed to halt the flow of refugees into the EU in return for financial aid from European governments. This has been a vital means of controlling the flow of refugees into the EU, and has been a positive step in warming relations between Turkey and Europe. However, Turkey’s borders are becoming strained by this responsibility. While maintaining an official open-door policy for the victims of the Syrian conflict, Turkey has absorbed about 2.5 million refugees and has spent nearly USD$9 billion in the process. The refugees that Turkey has received are also primarily Sunni Arab, which has added dimensions of sectarian and ethnic differences to the issue of integration into Turkish society. President Erdogan has claimed that Turkey no longer has the infrastructure needed to support the number of refugees that it has received, and that Turkey would effectively be closing its borders. Part of this decision may be due to the anger of Turkish officials over the lack of progress on certain provisions in the refugee agreement, such as an enhancement of Turkey’s status as part of an EU customs union or the provision of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in the Schengen zone. Blocking additional refugees from entering Turkey poses the possibility that they could once again flood Europe’s borders. This prospect alone could cause further strain to the EU-Turkey relationship.

While it is still too early to tell what impacts the referendum may have for Turkey, it is increasingly clear that the country is in transition. Despite maintaining the same leader for the foreseeable future, Turkey’s relationship with the United States, Russia, and Europe each seem poised to change.

About the Author

Michael Thomas is a second-year Master of Global Affairs student with major interests in global trade, international business, geopolitical risk and issues in the Asia-Pacific region. He has held positions at the Thai-Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Bangkok and Descartes Systems Group in Ottawa. He is the recipient of the Dr. David Chu Scholarship (2016), the Global Taiwan Research Project Award (2017), and the Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Award (2017). Michael holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Carleton University


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