2017 referendum in the Republic of Turkey: The new Turkish presidential republic


The International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) in Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses events in the Middle East and the Balkans. IFIMES has prepared an analysis in view of the upcoming referendum in the Republic of Turkey scheduled for 16 April 2017. The most relevant and interesting sections from the comprehensive analysis entitled “2017 referendum in the Republic of Turkey: The new Turkish presidential republic” are published below. 

2017 referendum in the Republic of Turkey:


The New Turkish presidential republic


In end January 2017 the Grand National Assembly of the Republic of Turkey on second reading approved the bill on amendments to the constitution. Turkish voters will have the final say in the referendum where they will decide on the disputable 18 amendments to the constitution. The referendum must be carried out, since the proposer (AKP) did not get two thirds of votes in the Parliament (367/550).


The ruling conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) (317/550) supported by the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) (40/550) only won 339 votes in favour of the bill on amendments to the constitution. Turkey's election commission confirmed 16 April 2017 as referendum date.


Since its establishment in 1923, the Republic of Turkey has had six referenda (in 1961, 1982, 1987, 1988, 2007 and 2010) on the constitution or constitutional amendments. The 2007 referendum was important since it introduced direct election of the president by popular vote.


At 2010 referendum 58% of voters approved the proposed changes that brought Turkish constitution in line with the EU standards with the aim to facilitate the EU membership process of Turkey.


The seventh referendum that will be held on 16 April 2017 will also be of historical importance for Turkey's future that may develop according to two scenarios.


According to the first scenario the Republic of Turkey would become a strong and stable state in which the President of the Republic would, similarly as in the USA, also perform the function of the prime minister. The second scenario would lead to weakening of the state and enable Turkish army to carry out a coup d'étatfor the fourth time, changing Turkey from a democratic and economically thriving state into military dictatorship that will suffer economic downfall. This would happen in a very sensitive period of time when the electorate is strongly polarised between the referendum supporters (conservatives, nationalists) and opponents (secularists, leftists, minorities, and after all also the Turkish army which is still very mistrustful of any attempts to encroach upon the foundations of Atatürk's heritage). In its foreign affairs Turkey has very poor relations with the countries in its direct neighbourhood (Iraq, Iran, Syria, Armenia and Greece), in the region (Russia) and with the EU.


Turkey's relations with Russia have not improved despite the attempts of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to smooth the disagreements regarding Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin. After the election of new US President Donald Trump Turkey's relations with the USA are not any better than they were under Obama's administration.


In this complex international environment Turkey would like to regulate its internal affairs with the referendum. In comparison with the neighbouring states Turkey has a great military, economic and political power, which makes it an important element in the regional balance of forces. This has been proven by the way it managed crises in the neighbourhood (Iraq, Syria, the Hamas movement etc.). Since it became a republic in 1923 Turkey has not had an opportunity to infiltrate beyond its borders due to its large capacity and excess power.



Europe limited Turkish influence in the Balkans, Caucasus and Central Asia


After disintegration of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, Europe limited Turkey's presence in the Balkans, especially Bulgaria, due to which Turkey lost its patronage over the Turks living in those countries. Russia did the same by limiting Turkey's influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia where a strong Turkish and Muslim minority lives. After its northern and western borders were closed, Turkey looked for ways to increase its presence in the south, trying to revive its historical ties with this region through the so called Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. Especially it concentrated on its southern neighbour Syria due to the vicinity and the Turkmens living there. For a brief moment Turkey was in the centre of international and regional attention, since it was in the position to play the leading role in the whole region. However, with the collapse of the Arab Spring and changes of circumstances in Syria after direct intervention by Russia, Turkey was eventually the biggest loser thanks to the insincere politics led by the West and NATO. The US-Russia agreement on Syria has, despite strong opposition from Turkey, led to the decision to cooperate with Syrian-Kurdish party YPG, which acts as a proxy for the separatist PKK party (the latter has been leading the fight against Turkey since 1984).


The referendum to be held despite CHP opposition


As regards Turkey's internal political affairs it should be stressed that the referendum will be held despite strong opposition expressed by the largest opposition party CHP (Republican People's Party) which believes that the proposed constitutional changes give excessive power to the president which will lead to dictatorship.


According to public opinion polls 60% of voters will support the referendum. The electorate in Turkey will comprise 55,336,960 voters in Turkey who will cast their votes at 164,000 polling stations, and 2,092,389 Turks living abroad who will be able to vote in 119 diplomatic missions and at 32 border crossing points.


The referendum idea is not a new one –it has been present for two decades. Nor is Erdoğan the first president to advocate changes of the constitution – former President Turgut Özal already attempted it in early 1990s The idea has been officially the goal of Turkish government ever since the Helsinki summit of the EU when Turkey officially submitted candidacy for membership in the Union. Constitutional reforms related to the limited role of the army and judicial reforms begun during Bülent Ecevit-led coalition government in 1999-2002.


Turkish voters have plenty of reasons to opt for YES at the forthcoming referendum.


They are aware that the present constitution was written in 1982, i.e. when the country was led by the military junta and two years after its coup d'état. The presidential system will end the period of political instability and weak coalition government that has had narrow majority in the parliament and has not been able to adopt important decisions.


The AKP party has strengthened its electorate among Turkish nationalists when it gained MHP's support regarding constitutional amendments. Throughout Turkey's history the republicans have always swung between the centre and the right political side. A typical republican voter is secular and nationalistic at the same time, hoping for a strong state with a strong leader like Kemal Mustafa Atatürk was once.


AKP has made visible achievements in Turkey's political and economic development. Economic growth, growth in BPD, reduction of poverty and unemployment, decrease in inflation and external debt – all these are the reasons that will convince the voters to vote for changes.


The war of words between Europe and Turkey regarding the presence of Turkish politicians at congregations in Western Europe is also a part of AKP's election strategy. The votes of Turks living in Europe represent only 6% of the electorate and are not really that much important for the referendum result.


The Netherlands and Germany help Erdoğan


With the war of words the EU has actually caused Turkish nationalists and other disappointed Turkish citizens who have been waiting for EU membership for several decades to give their votes to Erdoğan and his politics. The EU, especially the Netherlands and Germany, actually scored an own goal for Erdoğan's benefit. At the same time France did not fall for that and it allowed Turkish politicians to attend political congregations (611,000 Turks live in France). Analysts have estimated that Erdoğan will win at least 10% additional votes from this war of words.


Moreover, analysts believe that after the referendum Turkey's relations with the West will normalise. After all, Europe needs Turkey and Turkey needs the EU.


Elections are like a big bazaar where one can find what is needed to mobilise the masses. Turkish politicians are aware that they cannot build external politics and defence on confrontation and by referring to Europe's hostility towards Turkey and Islam.


The EU should be aware that with populist speech against Turkey it does not contribute to calming the relations not only with Turkey but also with the Islamic world.


The new Turkish presidential republic


TheIFIMES International Institute believes that the result of the upcoming referendum in Turkey will represent a milestone in the modern Turkish state and pave the way for the new Turkish presidential republic. As such the presidential republic will further change and regulate the balance of forces on Turkey's internal political scene as well as at the regional and international levels.                                                                                                                                         

Ljubljana, April 6, 2017