The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a panel discussion on April 12, 2017, which discussed Turkey’s key constitutional referendum proposed by the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), and what the election outcome means for Turkey’s future. The panel included Galip Dalay, research director of Al Sharq Forum; Ali Bakeer, political analyst and researcher in international affairs; Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Tarik Yousef, director of the BDC, moderated the event, which was attended by members of Doha’s diplomatic, academic, and media community.
In Yousef’s introductory remarks, he noted that the referendum vote would be a momentous event, with the potential to significantly change not only Turkey’s political system, but its economy and place in the region. He then asked the panelists what the implications of a “yes” vote would be for both Turkey and the region.
Dalay started by calling this the most consequential referendum since 1946, as it stood to rupture Turkey’s long history of having a partial or fully parliamentary system. Despite this, it generated little enthusiasm, because people were not convinced that much would change either way. Noting that the executive has already been making all of Turkey’s important domestic and foreign policy decisions, Dalay agreed that the referendum would yield minimal practical results, but he maintained that the legal and structural changes would be dramatic.
Turning to foreign policy, Dalay posited that Turkey has downsized its regional role. He identified three priorities: preventing the establishment of a contiguous PKK/PYD area, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency in Syria, and curtailing Iranian influence as much as possible. Dalay said these would remain the priorities, regardless of the vote’s results, until Ankara’s relationship with the PKK changes. Regarding Europe, Dalay said the government would probably try to mend strained ties, but if that failed, Turkey would become more inward looking and nationalistic in its domestic and foreign policies.
Bakeer began by stating that a “no” vote would be a major blow to the AKP and President Erdogan and cause some instability, probably with negative consequences on the economy and the president’s influence. This would curtail Turkey’s ability to accomplish its foreign policy goals and reduce its value as a partner in the region. A “yes” vote, Bakeer continued, would boost internal stability in the short and long run, and reflect positively on Turkey’s economy. While a “yes” vote would not be a “Moses’s staff” that solves all of Turkey’s problems, people would feel more confident.
Specifically, Bakeer noted that elections being less frequent would give the government more time to implement policies. Additionally, outside powers would be dealing with a stronger president, putting the leaders on more equal footing. This would also help Turkey influence events and pursue an assertive foreign policy, but that policy would be made by a select few, making it vulnerable to insular decision-making. Finally, Bakeer expected undecided voters to play a pivotal role, and noted that the AKP had used the recent clashes with European countries to sway some of them.
Unluhisarcikli described the referendum as a means of consolidating executive, legislative, and judicial power in the person of the elected president. In the proposed system, the president would be able to appoint and replace vice presidents and cabinet members, dissolve organizations such as the central bank, and issue decrees that will basically function as laws. Parliament would not be able to object unless it had a rare “qualified majority.” It is more likely that the president’s party would be in control of parliament, giving him tutelage over it. The president would also appoint six members of the pivotal judicial council, with parliament electing the other seven.
Unluhisarcikli explained that referendum supporters argue that the current system produces weak coalition governments that struggle to get much done, and highlight that Turkey is under siege from both external enemies and internal collaborators. Critics of the referendum fear that it will lead to a one-party state, as well as underdevelopment. Unluhisarcikli concluded that a “yes” vote would see Turkey trade its current “unstable stability” for “stable instability,” with the government being on firmer footing at the cost of rising political tensions.
Asked about Turkey’s image as a model for the region, Dalay and Bakeer noted that the region looked up to Turkey’s economic successes, which have faded, while Unluhisarcikli explained that external actors used that label to promote democracy. Regarding Turkey’s stability, Dalay said it depended on how the aftermath of the referendum would be managed, cautioning that a close vote would result in challenges over legitimacy and some instability. Bakeer argued that a “no” vote would cause the AKP to lose exclusive leadership, but that Turkey’s other parties are not capable of ruling. Unluhisarcikli expressed concern that the proposed winner-take-all system would create polarization and perhaps even undemocratic behavior.
In response to audience questions, Dalay said the process of Turkey joining the EU died in 2006-7, because of what Turkey wants. Unluhisarcikli blamed the EU for mismanaging the process, which had been helpful for Turkey, but added that the relationship was now poisoned. He suggested that Erdogan could seek Western recognition of a “yes” vote by releasing imprisoned journalists and politicians, but a “no” vote might be followed by the reinstitution of the death penalty, further damaging relations with the EU.
As for the United States, the panelists conceded that cooperation could increase if it confronted Iran, but they cautioned against taking the Trump administration at its word. Dalay noted that Turkey would have preferred that Washington make its aid to the PYD conditional, while Bakeer criticized the group’s violent and oppressive behavior and posited that only the Syrian people should have a say in who rules Syrian territory. In closing, the panelists sought to explain Western criticism of Erdogan. Bakeer suggested that Europe has double standards, and that Erdogan is justified in responding to incitement. Unluhisarcikli explained that Turkey should be held to a higher standard than other Middle East states as a member of NATO and the Council of Europe. Lastly, Dalay asserted that the recent criticism of Erdogan is because of the content of the referendums he put forward.
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Turkey does have an image problem in Washington. These problems cannot be fixed by a public relations campaign, but require action by the Turkish government.