Referendum May Seal Turkey’s Drift Away From Europe
AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
Referendum May Seal Turkey’s Drift Away From Europe
AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

Aaron Stein is a resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. This article was published in collaboration with the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are the author’s own.

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On April 16, Turkish voters will head to the polls to vote on a slate of sweeping changes to the country’s constitution. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has spearheaded a nationwide campaign to get out the vote. Although the outcome is still too close to call, momentum appears to have shifted toward the “yes” camp in recent days. The proposed changes, according to the independent constitutional advisory body to the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission, “would constitute a decisive break in the constitutional history of the country [and] are not based on the logic of separation of powers, which is characteristic for democratic presidential systems.”

The controversial cancellation of pro-AKP campaign rallies in European capitals, coupled with outlandish charges of European “Nazism” from Ankara, has severely strained Turkish-European relations. And while a “yes” victory in this weekend’s referendum appears increasingly likely, these tensions show little sign of dissipating.

For the United States, Turkey’s membership in the European Union is a longer-term strategic goal intended to cement Ankara’s position as a key member of the North Atlantic and European bloc. However, the ruling Justice and Development Party has harnessed anti-Westernism during the campaign to galvanize public support in favor of constitutional reforms to the presidency that would, according to the AKP, increase stability, stave off future political crises, and reduce external meddling in Turkish affairs. This message builds on a rash of conspiracy theories levied against the United States and, to a lesser extent, European states surrounding their alleged involvement in last year’s failed coup attempt. In the wake of the failed putsch, the Turkish government jailed 47,900 people for suspected links to Fethullah Gulen, the self-exiled imam that Ankara blames for masterminding the coup. An additional 113,260 were arrested and released in the months following the coup, and of those, 41,499 have some sort of legal restrictions or cases pending.

The events of July 15, 2016, continue to reverberate in Turkish domestic politics. The most visible impact came shortly after the failed coup, when the leader of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli, endorsed the “yes” campaign. The coup saved Bahceli, who for months had seen support for his leadership plummet, in addition to an aggressive bid by a group of insurgent Turkish nationalists to take over the party. The rogue MHP members tapped into nationalist frustration about the party’s direction, following Bahceli's poor handling of coalition negotiations with the AKP after the June 2015 election. In the November re-run, the party barely passed the 10 percent threshold to enter parliament, losing 40 seats. They also won fewer seats than the Kurdish-majority Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP). The MHP, therefore, was completely marginal in Turkish politics at a time when the HDP and Erdogan were still benefiting politically from a recently ended cease-fire with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, an insurgent group active in Turkey since 1978.

A Political Realignment

The Turkey-PKK peace talks were held on and off between 2013 and 2015, and at one point looked set to result in the HDP giving support in parliament to Erdogan’s presidential proposal. This changed in June 2015, when the HDP increased its vote totals on an anti-presidential platform. The HDP’s electoral performance deprived the AKP of parliamentary seats and an overall majority. In the run-up to the June 2015 vote, Erdogan criticized the peace process he once led, prompting the AKP to freeze negotiations in March of that year. In July, the PKK ended its participation in the process, just days before the Islamic State group detonated its third bomb in Turkey targeting Kurdish or Kurdish-related targets. The blast in Suruc killed 33, and prompted a PKK-allied faction to retaliate against the Turkish state. For many Kurds, it is accepted as fact that the AKP gives support to ISIS, despite evidence to the contrary. The killing of two police officers prompted retaliatory Turkish airstrikes, setting in motion a cycle of violence that continues to this day. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced from urban areas in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast since the resumption of violence. The conflict has also claimed the lives of 897 Turkish security personnel, along with at least 392 civilians. The HDP leadership has also been targeted, with both of the party’s leaders, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, now in jail.

The conflict has realigned Turkish politics and given Erdogan a pathway to a strengthened presidency without Kurdish support. The AKP need only maintain support from its pious Kurdish constituency -- a smaller plurality than HDP voters, but nevertheless a reliable source of support for Erdogan. The real challenge for Erdogan has been to convince MHP voters that he won’t betray them and reach a political compromise with the PKK after being given more powers. The continued insurgency -- and the state’s heavy-handed tactics in suppressing it -- has helped solidify support for Erdogan, but suspicions remain. This is why the vote has been so close: The AKP is struggling to make deep inroads with hardcore nationalists.

To offset this weakness, the party did try to increase European turnout among the diaspora. These efforts -- combined with real concerns that Turkish religious officials were informing about fellow European citizens suspected of being sympathetic to Gulen to Turkish consular and intelligence officials -- prompted a European backlash. On top of this, the threat of European populists and anti-Muslim bigots prompted centrist politicians to sharpen their tone toward Turkey -- a politically easy thing to do, given the decline in Turkish democratic institutions in recent years. This cycle resulted in the tit-for-tat displays of nationalist bravado seen in recent months, and culminated in Turkey hurling personal insults at European leaders and repeatedly threatening to weaponize refugees.

Europe on the Ballot

Such harsh rhetoric and accusations have provided the backdrop for this weekend’s referendum, and there is little evidence to suggest that Sunday’s vote will put an end to it. President Erdogan is known to make wild foreign and domestic policy changes when he senses a political opportunity. Thus, the direction of Turkey’s Kurdish issue depends on how the MHP votes on April 16. If they underperform in the polls, Erdogan may recalibrate his approach to the HDP -- a far-fetched scenario, given that the party’s leadership is in jail. However, should the MHP outperform expectations and give a majority “yes” vote, he will be left with a new coalition with a mandate to continue with the current state of affairs. For Europe, the two issues are related, and ultimately tied to Turkey’s moribund EU accession process. The Turkish electoral process has not been a fair one, making scrutiny from European-linked institutions all the more likely. Calls from European officials and experts for transparent vote counting will undoubtedly infuriate Erdogan.

The same is true of the Kurdish issue and, more broadly, rule of law questions surrounding the mass arrests following the coup. These will continue to hamper EU-Turkish relations. The accession process has been functionally dead for years. Politicians in Ankara and Brussels keep it on life support for purely self-interested reasons. For Turkey, it is a means to criticize Europe, a politically beneficial position for the never-ending campaign cycles that have dominated Turkish society in recent years. In Brussels, the consensus views the unilateral ending of the process as serving Erdogan’s anti-EU narrative, and therefore being self-defeating. And, thus, both sides keep pretending. The truth is that electoral dynamics in both Europe and Turkey are pushing the two sides apart. The referendum simply magnified what was obvious. The question now is how the AKP gets to greater than 50 percent, and what Erdogan’s new coalition may signal for the future of Turkish domestic politics, independent of the accession process.