Referendum may not end anything

Referendum may not end anything

Will Sunday’s referendum in Turkey on switching from its problematic parliamentary governance to an presidential system - with almost no checks and balances - provide Turkey its long sought stability, reliance and fast growth? Could it be possible for this country of over 80 million people of various ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds sustain stability in the event the highly polarized electorate approves, in a slim majority, the super presidential aspirations of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan?

Not necessarily because of the fear from the wrath of the absolute ruler of the country, but because of election bans public opinion polls can no longer be published. Yet, except some exceptional ones paid by the governing party or the presidency, the vast majority of the polls conducted till now demonstrate an expectation that the outcome of the referendum will be a cliffhanger one, with either the “Yes” vote supporting a shift to a presidential governance, or the “No” vote, demonstrating loyalty to parliamentary democracy, will be ahead with negligible, yet vitally important, percentage point difference.

Irrespective of what the outcome of the referendum vote might be, if indeed the difference between the “Yes” and “No” votes remain within a two percentage-point bandwidth; it could be comfortably argued that a campaign might be over but the war still not. Neither a razor thin victory of the president’s supporters can usher Turkey into a new era of fast growth in a consolidated stability – as the government argues – nor a razor thin “No” victory might put an end to the push of the “other half” of the country to make Erdoğan their new, elected, powerful president with the legislative, executive and judiciary powers in one hand. Even though for now almost the entire Turkish media might be feeling compelled to try to appease the government, the “other half” will find a platform to make its voice heard. At least, there will be electronic channels with which the opponents, despite all the curbs, might utilize to reach out to the masses.

Particularly, again irrespective of the outcome of the referendum, if Turkey cannot find ways of reintegrating itself into Europe, mend badly troubled fences with some major members of the European Union; the expectation of a fast economic recovery after Sunday’s referendum might be a wild dream. Naturally, Turkey’s current problems with Europe do not all stem from the country’s backsliding democratic performance. The rise of populist and rather shortsighted strategies bordering animosity against Erdoğan personally, were also among the major factors contributing to the current crisis-like situation in Turkish-European relations.

Erdoğan’s challenges that he would punish the EU governments once the referendum is over, as well as some European ministers suggesting a formal termination of accession talks with Turkey, hopefully will not be in the post-referendum agenda of the two sides. Europe has been one of Turkey’s most prominent trade partners. Put aside Germany, the “problematic Dutch” have been leading most EU countries in direct investments in this country. Continuing the “election time rhetoric” might not be the best way out for either of the two governments if they really bother with the huge and mutually beneficial interdependency of the two economies.

Even if Erdoğan might be convinced not to remember his declared “revenge” from “hostile European governments,” normalization in relations will take time. If the amendments are approved and the country moves to a presidential governance, a model the Venice Commission - the EU’s advisory body on constitutional matters - condemned as not only representing “a dangerous step backwards in the constitutional democratic tradition of Turkey” but also as a development that could carry the country “toward an authoritarian and personal regime.” Of course, the Venice Commission is just an advisory body and its reports and suggestions do not necessarily have to bind to either the EU or its governments. Yet, it is one of the most trusted advisory organs of the EU and its words are taken very seriously, particularly when it speaks on a country like Turkey, where there is a very long list of journalists, lawyers, prosecutors, judges, professors and writers imprisoned. 

Will it be possible to forge a new deal between the post-referendum Turkey, which is accused of parting seriously from the Maastricht Criteria and the fundamental political norms of the EU, and Europe, which is suffering acutely from a phobia of refugees?