Transatlantic Take

The Constitutional Referendum Will Not Stabilize Turkey

Photo credit: Matyas Rehak /
On April 16, Turkey will hold a historic referendum on switching from a parliamentary to a presidential political system.

On April 16, Turkey will hold a historic referendum on switching from a parliamentary to a presidential political system. The proposed new system and the conditions in which the campaign has taken place have been criticized internationally as well as at home. Beyond the controversies around the referendum, the combination of the populist wave in Europe and democratic backsliding in Turkey is rapidly eroding the foundations of the country’s integration with Europe.

The Venice Commission — the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters — has criticized the substance of the proposed constitutional amendments, saying that the changes represent “a dangerous step backwards in the constitutional democratic tradition of Turkey” and stressing “the dangers of degeneration of the proposed system toward an authoritarian and personal regime.” It also argued that “the timing is most unfortunate and is itself cause of concern: the current state of emergency does not provide for the due democratic setting for a constitutional referendum.”[1] The proposed system would lead to a concentration of power in the hands of the president with very weak checks and balances. In addition to holding all executive authority, the president would exercise power over the legislative branch and shape the judicial branch.

Moreover, the referendum campaign has been neither free nor fair, with the government using public resources for its “yes” campaign, governors banning campaign activities by civil society organizations, and the media is extremely imbalanced in favor of the government’s campaign.

The challenge facing Turkish democracy is arguably an intensified version of the populist drive witnessed elsewhere. Poland and Hungary have adopted constitutional reforms giving the executive branch leverage over the judiciary. The new U.S. president has voiced his contempt toward judges and their decisions on multiple occasions in the short period he has been in office. Populist parties with similar agendas are challenging the democratic system in several European countries and pushing otherwise mainstream leaders to adopt similar rhetoric.

As a result of its tarnished image and the unpopularity of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has become a favorite campaigning theme for European populists. The crisis triggered by the decision of Netherlands to not allow Turkish officials to campaign among the diaspora on Dutch soil is symptomatic of just how fragile Turkey’s relations with its European allies have become. But the problems are not limited to the bilateral level. While EU member states are seriously considering suspending Turkey’s accession negotiations, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has called for formal monitoring of the country to be reinstated. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has reportedly replied “We should await the vote on the referendum in Turkey and everything else” to a question on whether negotations could be discontinued, rather than dismissing the possibility.[2]

In the context of the closely contested referendum, the reaction of the Turkish government to criticism has been anything but moderate. European governments are accused of being fascists, Nazis and crusaders on almost a daily basis during campaign rallies of the governing party. President Erdoğan is calling on his followers to vote “yes” to teach Europeans a lesson and is promising to revisit relations with Europe after the referendum.

Most polls suggest a neck-and-neck contest with no certainty of winning for either side. While the result is certainly not irrelevant, the fact is that neither outcome will deliver political stability. If the proposed system is adopted, it will lead to government stability at the expense of increasing societal polarization and political tension. The massive overhaul of the political system and redistribution of bureaucratic power may also lead to frictions within the state apparatus. Moreover, as the proposed changes cannot be fully implemented before both the next parliamentary and presidential elections are held — currently scheduled for 2019 — President Erdoğan might push for early elections rather than risk a long transitionary period. On the other hand, if the referendum fails, the government will create scapegoats, including groups within the ruling AK Party and probably go for early elections to eliminate them from the parliament.

The result of the referendum will also impact Turkey’s relations with its Western allies. Contrary to the rhetoric during the campaign, if the referendum succeeds President Erdoğan can be expected to make a charm offensive toward Europe and the United States to gain recognition for the new system. From a realpolitik perspective, such recognition is not impossible given the transactional nature of U.S.–Turkey and EU–Turkey relations. However, some of the damage done in terms of public opinion on both sides might be irreversible in the short run and will continue poisoning the relations. If the referendum fails, domestic considerations will continue to determine Turkey’s foreign policy decisions.

Turkey is in a protracted election cycle that started with the presidential election of 2014, followed by the parliamentary elections of June and November 2015, and reaching a new episode but not an end with the referendum. This cycle has produced political tension, domestic instability, an economic downturn and worsening relations with Europe and the United States. The outcome of this week’s referendum will not reverse this trend.


[1] On The Amendments to The Constitution Adopted by the Grand National Assembly on 21 January 2017 and to be Submitted to a National Referendum On 16 Aprıl 2017, Venice Commission,