What Turkey’s Referendum Means for the Country’s Future

Turkey

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Wharton's Bulent Gultekin and Steven A. Cook from the Council on Foreign Relations discuss Turkey's referendum results.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has claimed victory following this week’s referendum that would would replace the country’s parliamentary system with a powerful presidential system — a move that could let him stay in office until 2029. Following a close vote — 51.4% for “yes” vs. 48.6% for “no” — international election monitors noted election irregularities and indicated that the vote was not a true measure of popular will. Chief among the problems they cited was media domination by the “yes” campaign. Opposition parties have demanded recounts.

The referendum will do away with Turkey’s parliamentary system, instead turning to an executive presidency with few curbs on the power of that office. The vote followed a failed coup in July 2016, and members of the opposition contend there has been a campaign of intimidation by Erdogan supporters to sway the vote that included the jailing of some journalists and opposition leaders. The country has also been under a state of emergency since the coup attempt.

There has not been this much election “unfairness” in Turkey since 1946, according to Wharton finance professor Bulent Gultekin, a top advisor to two former Turkish prime ministers and also formerly governor of the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey. “The legitimacy of the referendum is really in question,” he said. “He’ll have a very difficult time governing the country – there is a question of legitimacy…. There is also a sense of dissatisfaction … and people are feeling quite cheated.”

Gultekin made these and additional comments on the Knowledge@Wharton show, on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.) Joining Gultekin on the show was Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Cook is the author of the upcoming bookFalse Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Their discussion includes what is likely to happen to Turkey’s economy going forward, and the effect of the referendum’s results on Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union. Cook noted that Turkey is the only experiment in the Muslim world as a secular society, and there is a chance that effort could now be lost. “People are more worried about that sort of change and are more mobilized than in any other election.”

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: You’re seeing this unfold firsthand. How much concern is there over the vote?

Bulent Gultekin: There is quite a bit of concern in the country, and not [only] with the vote — even before that. There was a concern that the country was moving into some sort of a totalitarian regime, a one-man rule. Even though he’s supposed to be an impartial president, Erdogan has been acting almost like a man above the law. He has been pretty much violating the constitution ever since he was elected by popular vote in Turkey.

The reason for this election — I don’t think there was any real economic or political reason — is mostly for self-preservation. Erdogan doesn’t seem to trust the army, police and even probably his own party, especially after the coup attempt last July. Then there is another complication in Turkish politics that you don’t see elsewhere. We had this unusual affair [involving exiled cleric Fethullah] Gülen, who managed to infiltrate just about all institutions, particularly the judiciary, government, police and army. And I think that created some political infighting, or at least a fight within political Islam.

“[Erdogan’s] loss in major cities is quite a significant change. This is where people are mobilized. The rural areas are very strong in party apparatus.” –Bulent Gultekin

So, Erdogan wants to control, and he wants to be unaccountable. I think this referendum was about one man. And, of course, there is another reason underneath. Erdogan has been [fighting] with the Republican regime of modern Turkey [which has ruled] since 1923 [when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk became president]. He represents political Islam. He is the product of a secular society, but he always has these instincts to go back, or at least to use Islam for his political objectives. He’s been an exceedingly successful campaigner, and he has extremely well-oiled election machinery in the party.

I served as chief adviser to two prime ministers in Turkey. I served as the governor of the Central Bank…. In 1991, I even managed election campaigns for the ruling party. Then I set up my own party in 2002 to run against Erdogan and the ruling parties at the time. I’ve never seen such an election in the history of Turkey. That is, Turkey since 1946. The campaign was extremely unfair. They used the entire state support, which is illegal. And though successful from a political stance, [Erdogan] turned it not into a referendum on the constitution, or even regime change. He realized that he might have difficulty and turned it into more of a personality issue — whether they would choose him against the opposition — and he used Islamic themes [to win].

But despite all that, there have been significant allegations of fraud. My guess is that these allegations are serious. And it was pretty close – 51% to 49%. There is this very serious legitimacy shift. So Erdogan is going to have a very difficult time ruling.

Knowledge@Wharton: You mention the concerns over the voting in this referendum and the fact that there were many votes that were accepted that weren’t certified. They weren’t stamped as being official votes. So the concern is with the closeness of the referendum vote to begin with. If there were a number of votes that fell into that category, then it could potentially flip the result?

Gultekin: It could. I don’t have the data to say what would have been the case. The legitimacy of this referendum is really in question. But there are other issues that are silver linings in the whole thing. This time, the NGOs and the civil society were mobilized to a degree I have never seen in Turkey. The results are also quite indicative. The most important result of this referendum is that Erdogan lost Istanbul. That has been his power base since 1994, since he won the election as mayor. That’s very significant. He was expecting to win about 60% to 70%. But this did not occur.

The loss in major cities is quite a significant change. This is where people are mobilized. The rural areas are very strong in party apparatus. This probably had a significant impact on the vote. This equation is not really very different from the U.S., if you look at the red states vs. the blue states. Turkey along the coastal lines voted predominantly no; the rural areas voted yes, and the southeast, Kurdish areas also voted no. So Erdogan managed to split the country into three.

But I would call this probably the beginning of his end. He’s going to have a very difficult time governing the country. There is a question of legitimacy. This has never happened in any election in Turkey. No one ever questioned the legitimacy. So I don’t know how long this is going to last, but there is certainly a very strong sense of dissatisfaction. People are almost feeling cheated.

Knowledge@Wharton: Erdogan’s expectation was that he would win about two-thirds of the votes. When the election cycle came around again in 2019, he wouldn’t have that much of an issue. Now that it’s 51-49, and you mentioned Istanbul as well, is he potentially a leading candidate, or do you not see him as even a potential leading candidate going into 2019?

Gultekin: He’s going to be the leading candidate. Erdogan has no choice. He’s like a man on a bicycle. He has no choice but to pedal. The moment he’s out, he’ll be in deep trouble. There are very serious allegations of corruption about him and his family. Many people argue that this is all to save himself and his family, which is a very sad thing to say about Turkey these days. But no, he will be in the running. It’s very difficult to make predictions in politics, but I won’t be surprised if they call an early election soon.

Knowledge@Wharton: What’s the reaction so far from Europe? Turkey has been trying to push, especially recently, to join the European Union (E.U.). I would think something like this would not sit well with the E.U.?

Gultekin: Well, there are two views. One is sort of a naive view that [Europe] might look at Turkey with concern. But I’m sure that a lot of countries — France, Austria and others — are experiencing relief that this is the Turkey they want to see. And this will be the end of Turkey’s adventure with the E.U. But they may worry about what might happen and how to deal with Erdogan eventually.

Turkey’s accession to Europe has never been guaranteed. Europeans have been pretty stingy about that. If they had really helped Turkey like the E.U. helped the Eastern European countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Turkey would have been in a very different situation. And I would call that Turkey paying a very high price for the Cold War, being pretty much left out afterwards.

Knowedge@Wharton: If Erdogan does win the elections in 2019, that sets him up to be President of Turkey for how long?

Gultekin: I’d say it’s going to be another two terms. So it will add 10 more years — almost 2029.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you think we will see more potential uprisings like [the one that] was attempted this summer in Turkey?

Gultekin: That was a coup. But we also saw civil protests a few years ago in Taksim. It all started with the protest to protect a green area in the center of the city. A sort of civil society in the country has been growing, which is very promising. I doubt whether Turkey will have another coup. The coup came from a group, the supporters of Gülen. There are a lot of unanswered questions about that affair.

“My guess is people are going to resist. People are not going to take freedom, secularism and democracy for granted. They just have to fight for it.” –Bulent Gultekin

Knowledge@Wharton: What do you expect, then, to see from the people of Turkey over the next several months?

Gultekin: There has been a pretty repressive environment in Turkey, in academia and elsewhere, and the media is pretty much nonexistent, pretty much owned by the government. It remains to be seen whether young people are willing to leave the country, or decide to stand up and resist — in the sense of fight or just work for the future of the country. There is some anecdotal evidence that a lot of youngsters want to leave the country. They always worry is it going to be tricky like Iran after Khomeini.

My guess is: I don’t think it’s going to happen. I don’t know if Europe is a better place nowadays for Muslims. Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country. My guess is people are going to resist. People are not going to take freedom, secularism and democracy for granted. They just have to fight for it. It’s not going to be easy, because Erdogan and these people, political Islam, have demonstrated that they have no ethics whatsoever. So anything can be expected. People are expecting the worst, but I think they will brace for it. Nothing will surprise them from now on.

Knowledge@Wharton: There was a call by the opposition for this referendum vote to be canceled. It doesn’t seem the chances of that happening are very high, correct?

Gultekin: There might be some technical issues that I don’t know, but my guess is this government is not going to pay any attention to legalities.

Knowledge@Wharton: What is the status of the Turkish economy right now under President Erdogan?

Gultekin: Right now the economy is doing reasonably well, but we see some signs of fatigue, because the growth rate is going to come down. Erdogan spent most of his time politicking, as opposed to building the country for the next jump — to get out of the middle-income trap. And, of course, the success has been pretty much maintaining a decent fiscal discipline. There was a massive stimulus in the economy, which is not going to be sustainable. So I expect because of the lack of investment over the last 10 to 15 years in the country, growth is going to come down. The population is young and is going to have a very difficult time with unemployment. So I don’t see the same high growth rate that we observed in the previous 10 years. As a result, I don’t expect bright days in the near future.

Knowledge@Wharton: Good morning, Steven Cook. What was your reaction to how the referendum played out?

Steven Cook: Well, it was not pretty by any stretch of the imagination, and there are obviously allegations of electoral fraud. All that being said, however, President Erdogan has already made it clear that there is going to be no way that the outcome will be reversed. And Turkey’s authoritarianism will deepen as he takes up more and more power, scheduled to begin with the general elections of 2019.

Knowledge@Wharton: So what are the expectations that he will continue as president in 2019 at this point?

Cook: I think it’s abundantly clear that he is going to be the AKP’s (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) candidate. Just as they have dominated the media landscape and other areas of the country in order to get the outcomes that they wanted in both this referendum as well as the general elections of 2015, one will expect that the party and President Erdogan will pull out all the stops to ensure that he is once again reelected, and that he will stay in power until 2029 and perhaps even beyond.

Knowledge@Wharton: The accepting of the ballots that weren’t certified is obviously the big point of contention in this whole process. Here in the U.S., almost every time we have some sort of election, there is concern of some level of election tampering. So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that this is occurring in this referendum vote.

Cook: Well, we shouldn’t be. Although, in 2010, the AKP-dominated Parliament passed a law that would have made it more difficult for this kind of electoral tampering, ensuring that unsealed, unauthenticated ballots were not counted. This time, they used their influence with the supreme election board to ensure that those ballots were counted. So they ran counter to their own law in order to secure this electoral outcome for President Erdogan.

American presidents overlooked some of the excesses of the Turkish government, in order to secure their cooperation for a variety of other purposes.” –Steven A. Cook

Knowledge@Wharton: I want to get your opinion on how this plays out in Europe, and the impact that this has in that region, since Turkey has been trying to see if they can get into the E.U. for quite some time now?

Cook: Turkey has had a long-term goal of joining the E.U. But that has been on life support at best for the last 10 years or so. Europeans haven’t wanted to walk away, because they didn’t want to be accused of double standards and being Islamophobes. And the Turks haven’t walked away, because they didn’t want to let the Europeans off the hook. I can’t imagine that the result of this referendum, which gives President Erdogan sweeping powers and undermines checks and balances in the system, will enhance Turkey’s candidacy for E.U. membership. And, of course, President Erdogan has already announced that there may be a referendum on the continuation of Turkey’s candidacy. So Turkey is isolated from its European partners, in part because of crises that the Justice and Development Party manufactured in the run-up to this election, stirring up trouble among Turkish populations in Holland and Germany. Then there is this question of E.U. membership and whether Turkey will walk away.

Knowledge@Wharton: What is your greatest concern now for Turkey going forward, assuming that President Erdogan wins reelection in 2019?

Gultekin: Erdogan was greeted very warmly in the U.S. and Europe when he won the election. I haven’t changed my mind since 2002. Erdogan is more of a counterrevolutionary. I think he has been known for that, and he never actually hid that. So what I worry about is the change in the regime. And this country has been the only experiment in the Muslim world as a secular society. And that may be lost if they continue in this fashion. I don’t want to say it’s going to be lost. But that’s the highest and worst risk. That’s the most dangerous thing that might happen.

Will it happen? We shall see. I think people are more worried about that sort of change and are more mobilized this time than in any other election, because they see the dangers of complete reversal of the regime. That’s what I see as the most problematic or the most profound change. In the West, with the economy and [other factors], we’ve had crises back and forth, and will eventually come back to some sort of equilibrium. But a fundamental shift in the orientation of this country is quite crucial, not only for Turkey, but for the Muslim world and the Middle East. And Europe, for that matter.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you make anything of President Trump calling President Erdogan to congratulate him in the wake of this referendum vote?

Cook: Well, it was certainly odd, given the fact that the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) observers called the referendum unfair. It puts the U.S. in some strange company, with, for example, the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas, or the Palestinian authority, the government of Djibouti in Turkmenistan. Those are the people who have called President Erdogan to congratulate him.

But my sense is that President Trump’s call was an effort to mitigate the tension between the U.S. and Turkey as the U.S. accelerates its operations against the Islamic State in Syria, in cooperation with Syrian Kurdish groups that the Turks regard as terrorists. It’s a fact of life that Turkey is strategically important to the U.S. and that Ankara sits literally at the geographic center of some of America’s most pressing foreign policy problems. [In the past] American presidents overlooked some of the excesses of the Turkish government, in order to secure their cooperation for a variety of other priorities.

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