After the 'yes' vote, what next for Turkey?

After the 'yes' vote, what next for Turkey?
Analysis: The result, by the narrowest of margins, may not be an immediate remedy for the country's problems, writes Cavit Talya.
6 min read
17 April, 2017
The 'Yes' camp backed greater powers for President Erdogan [AFP]
After a nip-and-tuck race, the Turkish electorate approved a series of constitutional changes that will effectively change the political system in the country.

With a turnout rate of 85 percent - one of the highest in the democratic world - 51 percent of voters backed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) proposed changes to the constitution.

The current parliamentary system of governance is to be replaced with an executive presidency, opening the way for the nominally "impartial" president to become a party political figure. The office of prime minister will be abolished.

Leaving aside minor changes regarding the number of members of parliament and the age at which candidates can stand for election, the new constitution is an unprecedented initiative to extend the powers of the presidency. 

Short-term consequences

In the aftermath of such a close vote, the legitimacy of the referendum will no doubt be questioned.

In voting under a state of emergency, in place for almost a year, and with members and leaders of parliament's third-largest group, the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), jailed - dissenting opinions will continue to voice their opposition to the new system.

Erdogan is expected to take over the AKP's leadership, effectively becoming the leader of the state as well as the leader of his party.

Erdogan told reporters in early April that he would rejoin the party of which he was the founding leader, should he be successful in the referendum.

The new constitution will not take effect before the next election, scheduled for November 2019. According to the changes, both parliamentary and presidential elections are to be held on the same day.

However, some articles concerning the senior judiciary could be implemented in the next few months.

Accordingly, the members of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) will be chosen either directly by the president, or indirectly by the parliament, which is dominated by the ruling AKP.

In other words, should the parliamentary seat distribution remain the same and Erdogan again becomes party leader, this will effectively mean that all the most senior judges will be entirely appointed by those in power.

Checks and balances

Erdogan's supporters say the new system will resemble that of France. But the fact that parliamentary governance is to be replaced with an executive presidency - simultaneously the leader of the country's biggest party with the power to appoint the senior judiciary - means there will be few agencies left to act as a check on the president's power.

Now the referendum race has been run, much uncertainty over the country's short-term future may have been resolved

The lack of structures to hold the president to account is likely to result in further uncertainty in a country divided between pro- and anti-Erdogan camps.

Turkey has been hit by several armed and bomb attacks claimed by the Islamic State group and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) over the past two years.

The declining security situation has not only resulted in an environment of fear, but has also had a drastic impact on the country's economy.

The tourism sector has nosedived over the past two years and foreign direct investment has taken a major hit due to economic uncertainty and the plummeting Turkish lira.

But now the referendum race has been run, much uncertainty over the country's short-term future may have been resolved, and the country may again become an attractive place for economic investment, while the Turkish lira could partially recover its lost value.

A question of authority?

Considering the bickering between Ankara and some European countries, and Turkey's neighbours, however, the new system may not be an immediate remedy for the country's problems.

One of Erdogan's main arguments in the "yes" campaign was that there was a question of authority over the executive branch.

He argued that, as the president elected by popular vote, he should have greater authority over the executive branch - nominally under the domain of the prime minister. The presidency is traditionally a ceremonial figurehead role, rather than an active political role.

But for 12 years, from 2002 to 2014, when he was elected president, Erdogan ruled as prime minister - and there was no question mark over who should lead the executive branch.

The 'question of authority' and the necessity of the primacy of the presidency was one of the principal arguments pushed by the 'yes' campaign

Two presidents, former Chief Justice Ahmet Necdet Sezer and the AKP's Abdullah Gul, served during Erdogan's tenure as prime minister, but (despite Sezer's frequent opposition as a secularist attempting to stymie the Islamist AKP), neither posed a serious challenge to his authority.

It was only after Erdogan's ascendancy to the presidency in 2014 and his subsequent disagreements with his appointed prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, did the question of authority become an issue.

The "question of authority" and the necessity of the primacy of the presidency was one of the principal arguments pushed by the "yes" campaign.

Blame the coalitions

Another leading argument of the "yes" vote was the need for a two-party system that would avoid the formation of "weak" coalition governments.

Drawing examples from the coalitions of the 1990s, the president and the ruling party stressed that one of the main causes of political and economic instability in Turkey was the divergence of opinions within coalition governments, which were weak and failing.

While the fragility of coalition governments is a reasonable point, Turkey has not been governed by a coalition for the past 15 years.

The dominance of the AKP in Turkey's recent history is clear, and the argument that the country's current problems are the fault of coalition governments from decades past will likely again be questioned given the closeness of the result.

Question of legitimacy

The new constitution will be adopted soon, that much is a certainty. But its legitimacy will no doubt be questioned.

This is a systemic change which will shake up the entire political structure, and critics will continue to argue that the vote, under a state of emergency, was not scrutinised in a consensual environment, and nor was it a document about individual rights and freedoms.

Turks voted on Sunday to decide whether Erdogan should continue to rule the country, or remain a figurehead at risk of unconstitutionally overstepping the boundaries of his presidential office.

Twenty-five million Turkish voters opted for the former. Twenty-four million of them, on the other hand, said neither.

They did not say "no" to changing the constitution. They said "no" to a constitution that did not consider their opinions.

On Sunday, half of Turkey's voters disapproved of a systemic change that was imposed upon them. While the legality of the poll is certain, and the result will no doubt stand, it remains to be seen whether the concentration of executive power in the presidency will be a guarantee of Turkey's future stability or prosperity.

Cavit Talya is a freelance Turkish journalist and analyst.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.