Turkey’s vote for a strong executive presidency has left the country divided and at odds with Europe at a time when it is embroiled in the Syrian conflict and seeking to balance good ties with both Russia and the United States.
The April 16 referendum win gives the president powers to control the budget, appoint ministers, dismiss parliament, declare a state of emergency and rule by decree.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he needs the powers to revive the sluggish economy and overcome terrorism threats from the Islamic State (ISIS), Kurdish separatists and US-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gulen.
Victory for Erdogan was achieved by a narrow margin: 51.4% voted “yes” and 48.6% “no”.
Voting patterns reflected the deep divisions within Turkish society between the more cosmopolitan, educated, wealthy and secular big cities and Aegean coastal regions, which voted against the changes, and the more pious, conservative Anatolian hinterland, which has formed the bedrock of Erdogan support for nearly two decades.
Secular Turks fear Erdogan will use his new powers to further the Islamisation of society, restrict freedoms and crack down further still on dissent.
The opposition said vote counting rules were changed and ballot boxes stuffed with “yes” votes. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said the “lack of equal opportunities, one-sided media coverage and limitations on fundamental freedoms created an unlevel playing field” for the referendum.
The president said the OSCE should “know its place”. Erdogan would have taken heart though from a call to congratulate him from US President Donald Trump.
Whatever the personal chemistry between the populist presidents, the countries with the two biggest armies in NATO are divided by US support for Kurdish fighters in Syria, the US refusal to hand over Gulen and Erdogan’s rapprochement with Russia.
With Europe Erdogan is likely to have a tougher task after accusing its leaders of behaving like Nazis.
However, tensions with Europe are likely to boost Erdogan’s popularity at home and strengthen his position. The president said in his victory speech he could call another referendum on whether Turkey should abandon efforts to join the European Union. He also said he could order a vote bringing back the death penalty. The European Union said that would mean the end of Turkey’s entry bid.
Erdogan has some leverage with the European Union and could carry out his threat to abandon a deal to stop the 3 million Syrians in Turkey from heading to Europe.
Turkish troops have been blocked in Syria and prevented from taking part in the US-backed push to take the ISIS capital Raqqa.
At home, opposition leaders have taken heart from the narrow referendum result.
“This large an opposition is hard for Erdogan to ignore,” wrote Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.
“The biggest risk for Erdogan is that voters will hold him personally responsible: By making himself the country’s sole decision-maker, he has left them no one to blame but himself.”