Turkey, in search of stability

Turkey, in search of stability

Fabio Squillante
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The results of the constitutional referendum of April 16 reinforce Erdogan's presidency, but increasingly reveal an internally divided country that is facing an economic slowdown and is ready to consolidate its good relations with the United States

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won his challenge, successfully obtaining the majority of the public votes in favor of a constitutional reform, at the referendum held on Sunday April 16. Turkey is therefore heading towards a presidential regime in which the head of state will have a huge amount of power, especially that of appointing 12 of the 15 members of the Constitutional Court. This system is expected to guarantee stability to a country that has, in the past, often suffered from political fragmentation, fibrillation and even military pronouncements. The context in which the referendum took place, and its result, are, however, far from capable of guaranteeing, per se, a consolidation of the country’s political system. Moreover, it cannot be ruled out that Turkey is heading towards a season of renewed internal tensions.

A shady, limited victory

With 51.4% of favorable votes, the constitutional reform – which should become effective in 2019, at the end of Erdogan’s current term – was in fact approved with a minimal margin: just 0.7%. Despite a hugely unbalanced referendum campaign in favor of the President, preceded by an intervention that excluded tens of thousands of officials, magistrates, police officers, military staff, journalists and teachers from the administration and public life. According to observers of the Council of Europe, the outcome of the vote could have been affected by the breach of certain electoral law regulations regarding the counting of votes, complaints that were promptly taken up by the opposition.

A still divided country

Despite the incessant pro-government propaganda, 48.6% of voters expressed their opposition to the reform: a sign of the extent of the divide within the country, and of the controversial nature of Erdogan’s leadership. The "no" vote won in south-east Anatolia, the Kurdish majority region, as well as in the major cities – Istanbul, Ankara and, especially, Smirne – which represent the heart of the country’s economic dynamism. Erdogan, however, does not seem to want to adopt an inclusive approach, but rather the contrary. During an assembly held at Ankara airport before a crowd of supporters, the president said that the "yes" victory demonstrated the unity of the Turkish people. He emphasized the country’s compactness beyond all political, ethnic and religious divisions (in the southwest, there is a very strong Alawite minority). Lastly, he claimed that he had supported a battle against "the powerful nations of the world," that have attacked Turkey "with a crusading mentality." A language that only recalls that of Islamic State militants, but that also equates, to a certain degree, political opponents to the "infidels."

Despite the incessant pro-government propaganda, 48.6% of voters expressed their opposition to the reform: a sign of the extent of the divide within the country, and of the controversial nature of Erdogan's leadership.

The influence of international tensions

It is a dividing line, which will further exacerbate tensions, in a country that is already deeply divided. The fact that the electorate of the Nationalist Movement (MHP) – a far-right party associated with the "Grey Wolves" which supported Erdogan’s reform – only minimally responded to their leaders’ instructions  is significant. The widespread opposition to the reform has certainly affected the growing Islamization of public life, the military intervention in Syria which has led to the death of many militants, terrorist attacks, tensions with neighboring and allied countries and, especially, the sharp slowdown in the economy, largely caused by the collapse in tourism flows and the reduction in foreign investment. These problems are unlikely to be resolved in the short term and could, in turn, become worse, heightening the population’s dissatisfaction. Stability will certainly not be favored by abandoning the prospect of European integration: a decision that Erdogan seems to have already made, as evidenced by his announced intention to convene a referendum on the death penalty – which is inconsistent with admission to the EU – and another on the continuation of negotiations for admission to the European Union.

A rediscovered agreement with Washington

Erdogan’s muscular attitude also suggests that the repression of political opponents will continue, as well as the iron fist politics against the Kurdish minority which, according to estimates, accounts for between 12 and 18 million inhabitants, out of a total of approximately 75 million. Ankara’s leader, however, seems to be able to rely on the support of the President of the United States, Donald Trump, who welcomed Erdogan’s referendum victory. This is a sign of how wrong it is to assume that Trump wishes to dissolve NATO, or, in any case, reduce its impact. Despite his declared willingness to reestablish dialogue with Russia, Trump seems to be well aware of Turkey’s historical role in the Atlantic Alliance, guaranteeing Russia’s containment in the Caucasus and in the Middle East. It is therefore no coincidence that Erdogan was among the first to applaud the missile attack launched by the U.S. against the Syrian airbase of Shayrat, and go back to demanding Bashar al-Assad’s removal from power. This step reestablishes the distance between Ankara and Moscow, and instead reconciles Turkey with its great traditional ally: the United States of America. This is something that should not be underestimated in the analysis of future developments in the country’s situation, and which could also influence Turkey’s relations with the European Union.