The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Erdogan won more power but lost legitimacy in Turkey’s constitutional referendum

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a rally of supporters a day after the referendum in Ankara, Turkey, Monday. (Burhan Ozbilici/Associated Press)

A few months ago, Marc Lynch and I asked whether there was any hope for Turkish democracy. We concluded that despite all potential concerns with the slide to authoritarianism, “the electoral system remains a silver lining, demonstrating the possibility — however distant it appears at this moment — for autocratic ambitions to be checked at the ballot box. As long as that chance exists, Turkey’s slide to authoritarianism will remain partial and potentially reversible.”

On Sunday night, the referendum results dashed that sliver of hope for Turkish democracy, formalizing a de facto presidential system in place since the failed July 2016 coup attempt. In the first such challenge since the 1940s, opposition groups and international observers alike have questioned whether the referendum was free and fair. The shift to a presidential system promises to reshape the political system, entrench a one-man-rule institutional structure and perpetuate the marginalization of opposition groups.

Electoral fraud allegations

The victory for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came amid a highly critical election observation report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) that suggested, “The SBE [Turkey’s Supreme Board of Elections] issued instructions late in the day that significantly changed the ballot validity criteria, undermining an important safeguard and contradicting the law.”

Similarly, the opposition challenged “the legitimacy of the referendum after the election board made a last-minute decision to increase the burden needed to prove accusations of ballot-box stuffing.” Thousands took to the streets in protest of the referendum results, across the country. Erdogan blasted OSCE and condemned critics’ “crusader mentality” in his defense of the official referendum results.

And while these allegations will cast doubt on the legitimacy of the referendum outcome, the results will unlikely change. The ruling party holds extensive influence over the judicial branch and the Supreme Board of Elections that oversees elections in the country. A mere two days after the referendum — as the opposition formally filed petitions to challenge the referendum results — Erdogan met chief justice of the Constitutional Court Zuhtu Arslan, fueling speculation about executive overreach. Following the swift rejection of a petition by opposition parties to cancel the referendum outcome, the Constitutional Court remains the sole body to decide on the referendum results.

What do the reforms entail?

The “yes” vote in the constitutional referendum has replaced the long-standing parliamentary system with a presidential one that allows the president to simultaneously lead a political party in the parliament. Although this change may appear benign at first, when coupled with judicial appointment powers of the president, it is likely to undermine the separation of powers. Members of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors — the body that oversees the entire judicial branch — and the Constitutional Court will be appointed by the president and the parliament, in which the president’s party will have a plurality, if not outright majority. This allows the president to have virtual control over the entire judicial body.

The executive branch will also have complete immunity from parliamentary oversight of cabinet and bureaucratic appointments. The president can be prosecuted only if a supermajority of members of the parliament approves, an extraordinarily high threshold. In other words, the reforms grant virtual immunity to the president.

Last but not least, the president will have the power to draft the government budget and send it to the parliament for a vote, without amendment provisions.

Democratic legitimacy matters

The referendum process has clearly showcased how the idea of democratic representation and institutions matter for leaders, even those who gravitate toward authoritarian rule. As political scientist Andreas Schedler argues, “By opening the peaks of state power to multiparty elections, electoral authoritarian regimes establish the primacy of democratic legitimation …[these] regimes institute the principle of popular consent, even as they subvert it in practice.” Legitimacy plays a central role as leaders attempt to minimize dissent and shore up support.

However, not all Turkish citizens are buying into this legitimacy. Despite all the state resources at its disposal, overwhelmingly favorable media coverage and suppression of the “no” campaign, the ruling party barely won, with 51 percent of the votes.

Turkey’s President Erdogan has gone to extremes to win Sunday’s referendum. Here’s why.

With the global rise of populist authoritarianism, leaders are holding elections not just to maintain the facade of democratic politics. There is genuine interest in ruling with the support of a majority, which contrasts sharply with forms of authoritarianism that endorse outright dictatorship or holding elections to win them with 90 percent.

The “majoritarianism” of populist leaders, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Erdogan and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, allows leaders to justify discarding fundamental democratic freedoms such as press freedom and the protection of minority rights in the name of, ironically, democratic politics.

What now?

The constitutional reforms adopted in the referendum will unlikely alter Turkish politics or Turkey’s slide toward authoritarianism. Rather, the amendments will transform a de facto presidential system into a de jure one. Erdogan has enjoyed virtually uncontested power over the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government for some time now. With the formalization of this power, he can solidify his rule with legal immunity.

Critically, the main concern for Erdogan and the ruling party is not just losing power in elections but the serious possibility of prosecution after such a loss. In this regard, Erdogan is on an irreversible path.

Yet high levels of societal polarization, tense foreign relations — most recently with the Dutch — and ever-greater levels of anti-American and anti-Western discourse are unsustainable in the long term. One of the government’s first orders of business may be addressing political and societal polarization, as Prime Minister Binali Yildirim alluded following the referendum. But the government’s resolve and ability to pursue depolarization remain to be seen.

Listen to a podcast with Marc Lynch and Lisel Hintz on Turkey’s referendum

The referendum paved the way for an Erdogan era that could last until 2029. While the Turkish government may downplay conflict, grave electoral fraud allegations will nonetheless fail to mend the stark social and political divides in the short term. If  Erdogan decides to take a divisive and confrontational stance in the face of these allegations, the opposition backlash carries the serious risk of domestic conflict and violence.

Though the referendum might offer Erdogan encompassing political power and domestic political stability in the long run, election controversy has blocked the popular legitimacy he so desperately sought.

A. Kadir Yildirim is a research scholar at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. He is the author of “Muslim Democratic Parties in the Middle East: Economy and Politics of Islamist Moderation,” (Indiana University Press, 2016).