On Sunday night, the outcome of the constitutional referendum will be known to Turkish voters and the result will be in the court of public opinion, nationally and internationally. Whatever the result will be, a more peaceful period is largely sought by the people, who have had enough political twists and turns since the coup attempt last July.
Probably for the first time in history, an electoral contest in Turkey has attracted so much attention, anxiety, and hope from around the world. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains a champion for many Muslims, living outside of Turkey. He also enjoys real support within Turkey, which after fifteen years in power, is not an achievement that can be overlooked.
The referendum to change the structure of governance in Turkey has been prepared in a very short time, giving important powers to a directly elected president of the Turkish Republic and establishing a French-style system of governance.
As the French Fifth republic, accepted in 1958, was tailor-made to suit General Charles De Gaulle. He was seen as a national hero who came back to save France during a difficult period. The amendments to the Turkish Constitution were very much inspired with the same approach.
In the proposed system in Turkey, the president would hold executive power and hold some legislative powers through presidential decrees and the power to veto legislative decisions by the parliament unless a qualified majority supports them. The system also gives the president the right to appoint his cabinet and all senior bureaucrats without the requirement of parliamentary approval. It is a purely presidential system of governance.
France in 1959 was in a dire situation, the war in Algeria was being lost despite military successes and the army was extremely critical of the weak governance in the country, made up of changing, weak coalitions. After the shameful defeat in Dien Bien-Phu, the military command saw the political authority as the main culprit for the absence of support and logistics during a colonial war. De Gaulle’s absence from power for almost twelve years helped him to stage a very successful “come-back”, to terminate the war in Algeria by agreeing to the independence of the latter, and by purging seditious generals and officers.
In Turkey, the situation, despite striking resemblances, is not the same, fortunately. However, there are two important destabilising factors. The first is the PKK, a dinosaur organisation, obsolete, dangerous and looking like the Khmer Rouge. The second factor is Fethullah Gulen’s crime syndicate, obviously the culprit behind the recent coup attempt and probably the most lethal threat to the Turkish Republic.
To fight against both of these factors, President Erdogan does not get any real support from the EU leaders. PKK-leaning Kurds are still heralded as “freedom fighters” by a number of circles in Europe, in spite of the criminal nature and deeds of the PKK. The organisation is outlawed but enjoys a wide degree of tolerance in Europe.
With regards to Fethullah Gulen, the situation is even more complicated. The Turkish government had immense trouble in convincing EU leaders and media that the coup attempt was authentic and was prepared and carried out by FETO. The fact that FETO-linked associations have been collaborating with governments in the EU created this scepticism among EU decision-makers.
Recently, the incidents in the Netherlands and the blunt and inept attitude of the Dutch Government created a major political fracas that got out of hand, resulting in a very harsh and insulting exchange between Turkish and EU leaders. Since both sides have toned down their criticism, the EU leaders have not made any statements about Turkey, after the injunction by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German President. Their mass media on the other hand continues to heap scorn on president Erdogan daily. The latter also criticizes EU countries for their pusillanimity in fighting terror organisations. However, both sides seem to have decided to wait for the result of the referendum.
If the result is a “yes” vote, as predicted in a number of polls, the EU will have to deal personally with the president of Turkey, Erdogan. At this juncture, some realpolitik will certainly prevail. However, it will take time and effort to mend the damage already caused to the diplomatic relations. The political stance President Erdogan will take at this juncture will be critical as to how Turkey-EU relations will develop in the near future.
There are two primary things that might lead to cutting of all relations with the EU. First, a reintroduction of the death penalty in Turkey will certainly see these relations critically deteriorate, realpolitik or not. Second, a referendum organised to continue or to abandon frozen accession negotiations will also certainly create an impasse between Turkey and the EU.
If the result is a “no” vote, obviously the mass media and a large part of the EU political elite will celebrate this as the beginning of the end for President Erdogan. There, things may take a nasty turn, because with or without the constitutional amendments, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan remains the strongman in Turkish politics. In view of the ineptitude of conventional opposition parties, there is no realistic path to a change of government in the foreseeable future. President Erdogan may be tempted to take revenge on his EU counterparts, which will not bode well for the future.
Whatever the result of the referendum, calming down the exchanges between Turkey and the EU is a must. The EU will have to deal with the elected President of Turkey, whether the parliamentary system is heavily amended or remains unchanged. Both sides need each other more than ever, and with or without the membership negotiations, the situation of the refugees and the revision of the Customs Union are of vital importance for both parties. Let us hope that serenity will prevail in spite of all the signs pointing in the opposite direction.