Today, Turks will vote on a referendum proposing eighteen amendments to Turkey’s constitution. These amendments, if passed, will give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan practically unchecked, unilateral power. (For a detailed explainer of what is exactly in these amendments, see the must-follow blog James in Turkey.) Turkey’s current constitution, which was pushed through in the wake of the 1980 coup, is unquestionably flawed, but these amendments would irreparably undermine its democratic elements.
Since this is a referendum, Turks will cast ballots stating simply Evet (yes) or Hayir (no). Like most Turkey analysts, I believe it is most likely that “Yes” will win for a number of reasons, including the intimidation of “No” activists and voters, and the fact that most polls put “Yes” slightly ahead. A “No” win is not, however, outside the realm of possibility.
Over the past several weeks, dozens of largely excellent think pieces, interviews, and long-form articles have been published, exploring all angles of how Turks have come to vote on the country’s future and why individuals plan to cast their vote one way or the other. After the vote, no matter what the outcome, journalists and policy wonks will begin contemplating a new set of questions: What will Erdogan do now? And what does the outcome of the vote mean for Turkey’s political future?
The answer to these question will be remarkably similar, no matter which side wins. In the short term, opponents of Erdogan, professional politicians and ordinary citizens alike, will continue to be fired from their jobs and jailed on dubious charges. The only difference will be the excuses made for targeting and prosecuting these citizens.
If “No” wins, Erdogan, like the good populist politician he is, will likely go into persecution mode and claim to be the victim of a conspiracy. He will refer to the referendum results as a “coup attempt,” and blame them on meddling from religious leader Fethullah Gulen, who the government claims was the mastermind behind thwarted coup attempt last July. Leaders of the no campaign will be charged with crimes against the government and locked up in indefinite pre-trial detention. Individual voters suspected of voting “No” and towns that break in that direction will be punished with firings and denial of state resources.
“No” is unlikely to be the final answer, as well. Government officials have already hinted that a new round of voting will be planned if the referendum fails to pass on Sunday. Alternately, an early general election could be called, in hopes that Erdogan’s party, the AKP, wins a large enough majority to pass the referendum in parliament without forcing another nation-wide vote.
If “Yes” wins, all of the above will still happen, with the exception of the re-vote and early parliamentary elections of course. However, the framing of the persecution and prosecution of opponents will shift, to focus on the mandate the “Yes” win gives Erdogan to consolidate his power.
In other words, despite claims by the Turkish government and some Western observers that a “Yes” win will quickly bring stability to Turkey, Erdogan’s need to shore up power until the constitutional changes take effect means Turkey is likely to remain politically unstable for the next few years.
The restructuring of the government outlined as part of the “Yes” vote, will not take effect until 2019. Even after 2019, there is no guarantee that a de jure, rather than de facto, authoritarian system will usher in stability. Though there are significant differences between the two countries, Venezuela is but one example of a system where the consolidation of power in an authoritarian leader and a lame parliament fomented, rather than eased, political chaos.
This is not to say that Erdogan desires or is planning for long-term political instability in Turkey. As Howard Eissenstat persuasively argues in his recent report on the deterioration of Turkish democracy for the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), Erdogan has already effectively created an authoritarian government. Ultimately, what Erdogan desires is a post-totalitarian society. This post-totalitarian society, as defined by the Czechoslovak thinker and politician Vaclav Havel, is one where citizens almost unthinkingly fall into line behind state ideology, in the belief that they have no other choice.
If the result of the referendum is “Yes,” there will inevitably be op-eds arguing that Erdogan will unleash his Islamist ideology and bring “shariah” to Turkey. The state ideology that Erdogan will actually impose, however, is likely to be a “Turkish-Islamic synthesis,” in which Turkish nationalism is tied up with being Muslim. Ironically, this is the very same philosophy introduced in the wake of the last successful coup in 1980. There will be no compulsory hijabs for women or complete bans on alcohol, but conspicuous piety will be celebrated, more mosques will be built, and non-Muslim and secular citizens will be sidelined. Piety will be a sign of devotion to the Turkish people and nation-state.
All the while Erdogan will continue to enrich himself, his family, and his inner circle, espousing a Turkish take on the American Protestant gospel of prosperity.
Whether “Yes” or “No,” there is little doubt that the political future of Turkey is grim. The triumph of the “No” vote today may nominally be the better outcome, but, like the failure of the coup attempt last July, it will prove to be a hollow victory for Turkish democracy.