President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Referendum Victory: Why It Is Bad For Turkish Democracy


In one sense, a referendum is democratic in its purest form: a vote for every person with the majority determining the outcome. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s announced victory on 17 April 2017 for an executive presidency is quite the opposite.

Turkey was called to vote in a referendum on whether or not to approve President Erdoğan’s new constitution on 16 April 2017. It was announced the next day that he had won with a narrow 51.4% in favour of granting him new, sweeping powers. “In the past it was the parliament who actually decided whether to make constitutional changes but today, for the first time, the will of the people has shown through this referendum,” Erdoğan said during his victory speech.

The new constitution abolishes his prime minister’s office and divides power between the Turkish parliament – which will legislate – and the president – who will act as the primary decision maker. One of the constitution’s architects, Mustafa Sentop, explains that the system follows the French and US system of a presidency. Supporters claim it is simply needed for an efficient government. This opinion is unsurprising in the context of the internal friction between the government and the PKK Kurdish militia group, and a failed military coup in 2016. Against this backdrop, the ruling AK party – co-founded and led by Erdoğan – has been able to drum up nationalist support.

Sentop’s point on the similarities between the constitution and the French/US presidential system is deceiving. While the US and France do have parliaments and an executive presidency, unlike these democracies, the Turkish parliament will not have any say on government spending or presidential appointments. Constitutionally, Erdoğan will have two five-year terms as president – with the potential for a third under particular circumstances – while he and the AK will be able to appoint loyalists to the highest levels of the judiciary, placing him beyond the realm of law.

This borders autocracy. The Venice Commission – a panel of multinational constitutional experts – said the new constitution “lacks the necessary checks and balances to safeguard against becoming an authoritarian.” It poses “a huge threat to human rights, the rule of law and the country’s democratic future,” states the NGO Human Rights Watch.

The Will Of The People…

The campaign was not transparent and took place “on an unlevel playing field,” according to the International Referendum Observation Mission. Those in favour of “Yes” had all the powers of the state to silence the “No” voters. The co-leader of a pro-Kurdish party, Selahattin Demirtas, faces terror charges and 142 years in prison. Similarly, songs have been banned and media outlets hassled. According to The Economist, a study of 168.5 hours of campaign coverage over 17 national television channels in early March showed that “Yes” supporters received 90% of the coverage.

Additionally, the ballots may have been manipulated. Up to 2.5 million votes were potentially tampered with, according to an Austrian member of the Council of Europe’s Observer Mission. Turkey’s own bar association suggested that the late decision by Turkey’s electoral board to allow unstamped ballots during the referendum was against the law and prevented official records from being kept, which may have impacted the results.

This referendum was organized in the midst of alarming levels of political repression, with tens of thousands imprisoned. The judiciary has lost 4,000 members, around 160 media outlets have been shut down, 6,300 academics are either in jail or have been fired, and around 4,000 social media users have been detained by police.

Turkey is already a fragmented by anti-governmental opinions; separatism in the south; and complicated foreign relations with a deteriorating relationship with Europe, on the one hand, and complex, aggressive relations with its southern neighbour Syria, on the other. President Erdoğan has manipulated and polarised a population who already feel unsafe into accepting his executive powers.

A referendum rarely solves a political dispute and often polarises a state. Even if the ballot was legitimate, which is highly unlikely given the observers’ findings, one has to remember that 48.6% (nearly half) voted against Erdoğan’s autocratic measures within a state that already possesses repressive emergency powers. Turkey is slipping down the path of an illiberal democracy.