A bleak or bright future for Turkey?

A bleak or bright future for Turkey?

Turkey will go to polls this Sunday to vote on a package of constitutional amendments that introduces a major shift to an executive presidential system from the current parliamentary system. The weeks-long campaign has visibly intensified as polling day approaches, with many saying it is still a close race between the “Yes” and “No” camps.   

The three main sponsors of the “Yes” camp - President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) - describe the package as a last resort to save the future of Turkey for stability, prosperity, etc. They claim that approval of these changes will help Turkey resolve all of its problems, particularly terrorism. 

The “No” camp, whose main driver is the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), depict the proposed amendments as the last step before the installation of one-man rule, at the expense of abandoning the country’s century-old democratic achievements. It challenges the “Yes” camp by arguing that these changes do not address Turkey’s most immediate problems, but only refer to Erdoğan’s ambitions to sweep more power. 

By the way, the other stakeholder of the “No” camp, the Kurdish issue-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) - which garnered more than 5 million votes in the last general election – has been unable to stage an efficient campaign as its two co-leaders, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, as well as a dozen of its lawmakers, have been jailed since late 2016. 

Among many other changes, the core of the amendments is the abolition of the Prime Ministry and the declaration of the popularly elected president as the sole element of the executive. The president’s weight in the appointments of key state bureaucrats, including in judicial bodies, will be increased, while parliament’s means to check the executive will be weakened. President Erdoğan has described this new system as the “Turkish model.”

Whatever the result of the referendum, it is sure that Turkey will enter a new era. If “Yes” wins, the country will step into a new reality full of questions. Although the main essence of the package will enter into force in 2019, the effect of the referendum result will start to be observed even on the day after the polls.  

If “No” wins, one of the most important questions is whether the result will be digested and democratically respected. One presidential adviser recently claimed that the presidential system project would not be shelved, but rather would be re-introduced after necessary changes. Nevertheless, the opposition will certainly claim a big victory, against all odds in a tough campaign process, if “No” wins.  

Ties with EU

There is no doubt that the result will be closely observed in the West and in the rest of the world, in a bid to understand what political consequences it will bring about. One of the most important determinants in the post-referendum period will be whether President Erdoğan takes any concrete steps for a revival of Turkey-EU ties. 

The intensity and tone of Erdoğan’s criticisms toward the EU as a whole and some of its prominent members, like Germany and the Netherlands, have lowered in recent days. 

In addition, Deputy Minister Mehmet Şimşek, Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekçi, and the few remaining pro-EU figures in the Turkish cabinet, are more frequently citing the importance of keeping Ankara-Brussels ties intact, saying both sides need each other. Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş said late on April 10 that the EU will “surely change its stance” on Turkey after the vote and will “sit around the same table” with Ankara. 

A pragmatic return?

Such discourse raises hopes for a fresh pragmatic return from Erdoğan to make a new start with Brussels and certain EU member countries. But there are different views on potential scenarios. 

For some, a win for “Yes” will ease conditions for a return to a pragmatic agenda between the two sides, as a more comfortable and relieved Erdoğan could start a new process with Brussels. 

Others, however, recall the report recently issued by the Venice Commission that harshly criticized the proposed constitutional amendments and stated that their passage could oblige the EU to revise Turkey’s status as a full membership candidate. If “No” wins, the “Yes” camp will likely blame the EU and the entire West, which would make the reconciliation of ties much more difficult. It is highly likely that prominent government figures, as well as President Erdoğan, could accuse the West of allying with the Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ) and other groups to block the constitutional amendments. 

However, there is another side of the coin. The damage given to Turkey-EU ties so far is so severe that there would be not much appetite on Brussels’ side for a speedy recovery with the Turkish government in the event of either result, at least until the German elections this fall.

Potential approval of the amendments will surely push the EU to scrutinize Turkey’s candidacy and the extent to which it still complies (or does not comply) with the Copenhagen Criteria. That means a pragmatic return to normalcy in Ankara-Brussels ties may not be as immediate as some government members envisage.