By Supna Zaidi Peery for Counter Extremism Project
Turkish voters will decide on April 16 whether their country’s parliamentary system, where the prime minister is chosen by elected lawmakers, should be replaced by a presidential model with a strong executive. Should the constitutional referendum pass, the role of prime minister will be dissolved, and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will have new and unprecedented powers to appoint his own cabinet and name top members of the judiciary. A yes vote will also extend Erdogan’s hold on power by making him eligible for two additional five year terms and give him the authority to dissolve parliament on national security grounds without the approval from any other government body.
The Netherlands and Germany entered the campaign fray since they host a large community of Turkish ex-pats who will be voting on April 16. Given the greater press freedoms in Europe, the “No” campaign has a stronger voice abroad than in Turkey itself. This has increased tensions between Turkey and the governments of Germany and the Netherlands, reminding the public of the growing clash between the autocratic tendencies of Erdogan and the more open societies of Europe vis-à-vis politicians. Erdogan has arrested hundreds of journalists in the past few years for criticizing his political positions, and even demanded in 2016 that Germany prosecute a comedian for satirizing him.
Polling suggests the support for Erdogan’s constitutional reforms are as close as 50-50 and as they have done in the past, Erdogan and his party, the AKP, have waged a campaign based on the need to respond to internal and external terror threats.
Regionally, Turkey continues to oppose the Assad regime, but has also tried to patch up differences with Russia and has also played a role in arming and training fighters that are slowing clawing their way toward the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa.
The April 6 U.S. bombing of a Syrian airbase used by the Assad regime to launch a chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhun, signaling a possible increase in U.S. involvement in the region, was supported by Erdogan. But Turkish support for a larger role in Syria is likely to wane in the long-term since the West’s anti-ISIS strategy heavily relies on Kurdish fighters – an ethnic group that the AKP and Erdogan consider a greater threat to Turkish borders than ISIS – and one whose demands at the end of the war will likely be recognition of a larger Kurdistan than currently exists in northern Iraq.
Should Erdogan prevail on April 16, and consolidate more executive power, the relationship between NATO member Turkey and the West is likely to deteriorate further. Erdogan may be intentionally gambling with Turkey’s western relationships in favor of cultivating a leadership role in Muslim-majority countries. Strong economic gains in the past 10 years gave Erdogan the ability to advance his neo-Ottoman agenda by building economic, charitable and religious ties from Bosnia to Pakistan. Moreover, Erdogan has used his international trips to Muslim-majority countries to push the argument that Muslim countries must unite in opposition to an anti-Islam agenda in the West. As a result, during the time Turkey has been stable and relatively prosperous, Erdogan succeeded in making himself popular among Muslims globally. Whether turning East is economically an effective strategy remains to be seen.
Erdogan’s over-confidence may become Turkey’s Achilles heel. If the constitutional referendum passes, the West will likely become warier of the Turkish regime in general, hurting Turkey’s economy in the long-run, though probably not hurting Erdogan and his family personally. Consequently, the economic power of Turkey, which is the engine of Erdogan’s soft power in the East, may lose steam, resulting in the AKP falling out of favor among Turks if the country’s economic growth rate continues to drop from a its high of 9 percent in 2012; to 6.1 percent in 2015; and to 2.9 percent in 2016.
Conversely, if Erdogan’s “Yes” campaign fails, the AKP is likely to also lose the next general election in 2019, having over-played its hand politically, providing Turkey’s secular parties an opportunity to prove they can again lead, despite Turkey’s complicated internal politics and thorny regional issues like the response to terrorism.