Erdogan Wins Vote to Gain Sweeping Powers in Turkish Overhaul

Updated on
  • Urban voters in Istanbul, Ankara rejected the referendum
  • State media tallies differ from official results: opposition

Erdogan Claims Win in Turkish Referendum

Turkey voted to hand Recep Tayyip Erdogan sweeping authority in the most radical overhaul since the republic was founded 93 years ago on the expectation he’ll safeguard security amid regional wars and kickstart the economy.

The referendum won approval of 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent of Turks, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency, as opposition parties alleged fraud and the European Union branded it as unfair. Once implemented, Erdogan will have authority to appoint ministers and top judges at his discretion and call elections at any time. It will also give him much greater sway over fiscal policy and may deepen investors’ concerns about the independence of the central bank.

The win “represents a blow to the assumption that liberal or even in some cases hybrid democracies are structured to prevent authoritarian figures from hijacking the political system,” Anthony Skinner, a director with U.K.-based forecasting company Verisk Maplecroft, said before the results were declared.

Erdogan triumphed by appealing to voters in the small towns that dot the Anatolian heartland where he won overwhelmingly. These Turks want a firm hand at the helm to combat the resurgence of terrorism, fight Kurdish separatism and Islamic State in Syria and defend Turkey’s global interests. The result is a victory not only for him, but for type of authoritarian system exemplified by Vladimir Putin that has gained admirers around the world.

“We want foreign countries and institutions to respect the decision of our nation,” Erdogan said in a victory speech from a mansion in Turkey’s largest city Istanbul, where supporters chanted that he should bring back the death penalty.

Istanbul Against

Support in urban centers was much weaker. The nation’s largest city Istanbul, where the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party Erdogan founded has never lost a general election, rejected it by 51 percent. So did Turks in the capital city Ankara and more secular coastal towns along the Aegean Sea, like Izmir. Voter turnout was 87 percent among the 58 million Turks eligible to cast ballots, according to projections.

Turkey’s main opposition party, CHP, has already said it would demand a recount of about 37 percent of ballots. Erdal Aksunger, the CHP’s deputy head, said Anadolu was “manipulating” results as it announced them.

While narrow, the victory is a remarkable turnaround for a president who just nine months ago faced down an attempted military coup. The uprising was quickly crushed and, armed with a popular mandate to consolidate his rule, Turkey’s leader of 14 years now has room to crack down further on his opponents. In the nine months since imposing a state of emergency, he’s already fired more than 100,000 people and jailed 40,000, among them academics, journalists and judges.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim called the win the ‘‘the best answer’’ to foes including the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is waging an insurgency in southeast Turkey, and sympathizers of Fethullah Gulen, an influential U.S.-based Islamic preacher Erdogan blames for orchestrating the coup attempt. The struggle against “internal and external enemies will intensify,” he said.

The 18 amendments to the constitution approved on Sunday include:

  • Abolishing the post of prime minister
  • Removing the requirement for presidential neutrality, which allows Erdogan to reinstate his affiliation with the ruling AK party
  • Enabling the president to stand in two five-year election cycles, and a third with parliamentary backing
  • Allowing the president to appoint six of a whittled-down panel of 13 top judges, with others chosen by lawmakers

The constitutional changes mean Erdogan could potentially hold the reins until 2029, a decade longer than the rule of Ataturk, the father of the modern secular nation that he has sought to roll back. Opposition politicians worry the new system will threaten the separation of powers on which liberal democracies traditionally rely.

Market analysts predict the victory will usher in a period of greater predictability and could lure back a bit of the foreign investment that’s fled the country in recent years. The lira will probably advance 2 to 3 percent in the next month, according to UBS AG projections before the tally.

Still, one reason the currency slumped by half in the past four years was Erdogan’s propensity to meddle in central bank policy by pushing for lower borrowing costs, a concern that won’t go away as interest rates climb. Turkey lost its investment-grade standing last year and growth rates are among the slowest of the century as tourism suffers under the weight of terror attacks.

“From a market perspective this is the best they could have hoped for: An Erdogan win, but only just,” said Timothy Ash, a senior emerging-market sovereign strategist at Bluebay Asset Management LLP in London.

Redrawing Alliances

Beyond Turkey’s Black Sea shores, Erdogan’s next task will be to reassess political alliances. During the campaign, a diplomatic row erupted between Turkey and European Union countries like the Netherlands that prevented Turkish ministers from lobbying the diaspora, a decision Erdogan denounced as Nazi-like.

That appealed to patriotic voters frustrated the bloc hasn’t admitted Turkey, a majority-Muslim country, after half a century of trying. Several Turkish officials said they’d press the EU harder for things like visa-free travel to citizens in exchange for upholding a critical deal on halting the flow of migrants to Europe. U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, needs the support of Turkey, a NATO member, if he’s serious about taking on Islamic State in Syria.

Erdogan will probably try to start a “charm offensive” toward to the EU and U.S. to validate the legitimacy of the new political system, said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the office director in Ankara for German Marshall Fund of the United States, a global think tank.

“If reciprocated he may reverse some of the democratic backsliding we have seen recently. However, if the charm offensive is not reciprocated we could see decisions such as reinstating of death penalty which would further and probably institutionally weaken Turkey’s ties with Europe," he said before the vote.

One-Man Rule

In his expanded role, Erdogan will become one of the G-20’s most powerful elected leaders. By channelling nationalist sentiment and slamming segments of Turkey’s older political elite, Erdogan tapped into the same forces that powered Trump to the White House, pushed Britain out of the EU and put Marine Le Pen within shouting distance of the French presidency.

His win is also part of a trend toward a more authoritarian style of politics mirroring Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China, where more and more power is accumulated around one person.

For Erdogan, it’s a culmination of a years-long effort to consolidate power. It intensified in mid-2013 with anti-government protests that revealed cracks in the popularity that helped the AKP win consecutive parliamentary elections starting in 2003.

Within months, he’d quashed a corruption probe targeting his government by purging police and judges he accused of being sympathizers of Gulen. Since winning the presidency in 2014 and turning what was a largely ceremonial role into a nexus of authority, Erdogan has taken an even harder line against critics.

Some of the approved amendments -- like the abolition of high military courts -- have immediate effect, with others enacted after elections scheduled for 2019, unless they’re called earlier.

“The approved constitutional changes will institutionalize a populist one-man system equipped with vast additional powers,” said Wolfango Piccoli, the London-based co-president of Teneo Intelligence, a political risk advisory firm. “There is also a considerable risk that the further consolidation of power under Erdogan will increase the volatility of the domestic political and societal backdrop.”

— With assistance by Constantine Courcoulas, Benjamin Harvey, Cagan Koc, and Isobel Finkel

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