Turks have voted to give their president sweeping new executive powers. Supporters of the constitutional change—President Recep Tayyip Erdogan chief among them—argue that the country needs a presidential system (rather than a parliamentary one) to respond quickly to threats at home and abroad. Opponents of the constitutional amendments argue that they’re nothing more than a power grab by Erdogan. The results leave the country sharply divided. A little more than 51 percent of Turks voted in favor of the executive presidency, with a turnout of over 85%. The referendum results fell largely along rural/urban fault lines—the Anatolian heartland voted overwhelmingly for Erdogan’s proposed changes, while the three largest cities (Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir) all voted against.
But the referendum is just the beginning of the story. Here’s what happens next:
1. Erdogan gets to work
Opposition parties have pledged to contest the referendum results, but don’t expect anything to change. Erdogan has already gotten parliament to extend the state of emergency, allowing him extraordinary powers to manage dissent; he will then hold a special AK party conference where he will officially resume his role as chairman, allowing him to decide which members of his party will stand for elections. Expect a cabinet reshuffle shortly thereafter; Erdogan will reward those ministers that campaigned vigorously for the referendum and sideline those who didn’t (with the added benefit of blaming these individuals for the relatively close outcome). All this sets the stage for…
2. Early elections
Winning the referendum was only step 1; now Erdogan must win an election. Next elections are scheduled for November 2019, but Erdogan has three reasons for moving them up to 2018, or even fall 2017. First, Turkey’s economy is worsening; unemployment hit a 7-year high in early 2017. General unemployment is at 13 percent, while youth unemployment is at 24.5 percent. Erdogan knows he better get his vote sooner rather than later.
Second, the longer he waits, the more often he has to push for extensions of the state of emergency he needs to advance his argument that “I alone can save Turkey” from traitors and terrorists. While Erdogan has firm control of his AK party, the opposition remains disorganized; while the Republican People’s Party (CHP) will likely remain the main opposition force in Parliament, early elections would give smaller-scale parties like the National Movement Party (MHP) and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) as little time as possible to get their act together.
3. Oppressed opposition parties
Both the MHP and HDP barely cleared the 10 percent threshold of support needed to enter parliament in November 2015 elections, and things aren’t getting easier—since this past summer’s failed coup attempt, Erdogan has shuttered more than 150 media outlets; Turkey’s press freedom, already under threat, has fallen to 151 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Erdogan has also purged political opponents from the military, universities and government ministries. According to the International Referendum Observation Mission, more than 100,000 political opponents have been arrested under emergency decrees, 40,000 have been detained, and more than 150,000 civil servants have been fired from their posts all together. Yet the opposition knows that if it doesn’t mobilize before the next elections, Erdogan will be much tougher to deal with after them.
4. An even frostier relationship with Europe
Europe wasn’t thrilled with the referendum outcome, especially because Erdogan spent the past few months framing the referendum as “us vs. the West”, a message that obviously found resonance with a large swath of Turkish voters. Turkey-Europe relations became even more strained as Erdogan attempted to woo Turkish voters living in Europe by dispatching government ministers to lead pro-referendum rallies in European cities; when the governments of Germany and the Netherlands refused to allow the rallies to take place (citing security concerns), Erdogan called them Nazis. In the end, 63 percent of Turkish voters in Germany voted in favor of the referendum, as did 71 percent of Turkish voters in the Netherlands and 65 percent in France.
Looking ahead, the real concern for E.U. leaders is not Turkey’s hopeless bid to join the union but the 3 million Syrian and other migrants that Turkey is housing as part of a broader EU-Turkey deal; Erdogan has threatened more than once to push as many as possible of the migrants toward Europe. As part of the deal, Turkey was supposed to improve press freedom and drop talk of a reinstatement of the death penalty. That hasn’t happened. In short, E.U. leaders must contend with the reality that Turkey is starting to look less like Europe and more like Russia.
5. A worsening dilemma in Syria
The referendum victory may well embolden Erdogan to play a larger role in neighboring Syria, especially if he feels under threat and needs to manufacture a geopolitical crisis to mobilize nationalist voters. That’d be a risky, if still remote, move. Beyond the hundreds of Turkish casualties and millions spent, Turkey’s intervention has already stirred up geopolitical trouble. In November 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian jet over the Syrian-Turkish border. In December, an off-duty Turkish police officer assassinated the Russian ambassador to Turkey in Ankara to protest Moscow’s involvement in Syria. Erdogan and Putin have since smoothed things over, but how long that will last is anybody’s guess.
As Turkey stumbles along in Syria, Erdogan’s strongman image will suffer, particularly because he’s been unable to check the progress of Syrian Kurds, who hope to carve out a homeland for themselves in parts of Syria that President Bashar al-Assad can’t control. That might encourage the more militant of Turkey’s Kurds to push for their own territory as well. And that’s a problem that becomes more dangerous and expensive for Turkey every year as Erdogan refuses compromises with Kurdish moderates.
In other words, the challenges ahead for Turkey are just beginning.
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