On Sunday, a very narrow majority of Turkey’s citizens passed a referendum that fundamentally alters that country’s constitution. BuzzFeed’s Borzou Daragahi and Burcu Karakas explain:
Proponents of a raft of deep constitutional changes that would transform Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system of governance claimed victory late Sunday night, with just over 51.2 percent of the vote amid record-high turnout, according to unofficial numbers released by state television and official news agencies. The country’s high electoral board confirmed victory for Erdogan’s “Yes” camp. . . .
The outcome was complicated by the narrow margin of victory, and the opposition’s allegations of voting irregularities. Turkey’s electoral commission announced at the last moment that it would accept ballots that lacked an official stamp, a change that prompted the country’s secular opposition People’s Republican Party to announce its intention to contest up to 2.5 million votes.
In many ways, a shaky outcome following a divisive campaign and allegations of political repression was the worst possible scenario for Turkey, suggesting that there’s a large and potentially destabilizing bloc of people in opposition to changes that include granting any popularly elected president the authority to issue decrees, name cabinet members, and declare a state of emergency and take unspecified national security measures without parliamentary approval.
The narrow victory left Erdogan flexing his authoritarian muscles even more, declaring, “debate about this issue is now over.” He also warned his Western partners to stop talking about it about the outcome. Foreign Policy’s Emily Tamkin noted that the precarious nature of the victory leaves Erdogan a bit vulnerable and in need of external validation:
It has been widely seen in the West as a power grab and rollback of democratic hopes many had for the country in the early days of Erdogan. The vote was marred by allegations that unstamped ballots were counted, despite the opposition’s protestations.
“Clearly, [he’s] sensitive on the issue of foreign acceptance,” Bulent Aliriza, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Turkey Project, told Foreign Policy. But the other result of the referendum is this: Turkey is going to further isolate itself from the European Union and the United States. . . .
The cloud over the vote is likely to cost Erdogan abroad. His argument on the international stage is that, while he may call European governments Nazis and jail journalists, he wins legitimate elections. These, however, were “really, really bad elections,” which may lead the United States and European countries to work not with but around Erdogan, [Freedom House’s Nate] Schenkkan said.
That seemed like a confident prediction when Tamkin wrote it yesterday. And, sure enough, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a pretty scathing preliminary finding on the fairness of the referendum:
The 16 April constitutional referendum took place on an unlevel playing field and the two sides of the campaign did not have equal opportunities. Voters were not provided with impartial information about key aspects of the reform, and civil society organizations were not able to participate. Under the state of emergency put in place after the July 2016 failed coup attempt, fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed. The dismissal or detention of thousands of citizens negatively affected the political environment. One side’s dominance in the coverage and restrictions on the media reduced voters’ access to a plurality of views. While the technical aspects of the referendum were well administered and referendum day proceeded in an orderly manner, late changes in counting procedures removed an important safeguard and were contested by the opposition.
The U.S. State Department took note of the OSCE finding, suggesting that there would at least be some repercussions from the way this played out.
It was at this moment that President Trump had the bright idea of phoning Erdogan.
As The Washington Post’s Carol Morello reports:
President Trump called to congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday after a referendum greatly expanding his powers, according to Turkish officials, despite a more circumspect State Department response to Sunday’s vote, which international election observers declared unfair.
Erdogan’s office said that he and Trump also discussed the situation in Syria, including the April 4 chemical weapons attack on civilians in Idlib province, and that Trump thanked Erdogan for Turkey’s support.
Lest one think that this is only the Turkish spin on the call, it isn’t:
Here's the readout of the Trump/Erdogan call. Trump congratulated him on the referendum pic.twitter.com/I7xUIvVNLD
— Rosie Gray (@RosieGray) April 18, 2017
Now there’s a way in which this isn’t as big a deal as many will claim this morning. As Heather Hurlburt and I discussed on Bloggingheads, this is one of those situations in which the United States has to wrestle between its long-term interest in promoting democracy and the rule of law and its short-term interest in preserving a vital alliance in a troubled region. As Morello noted:
Turkey remains a key ally in the campaign against the Islamic State and as the host for millions of Syrian refugees.
The United States flies bombing missions over Syria from Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, and almost 3 million Syrians are registered as refugees in Turkey, more than in any other country. The E.U. has sought Turkey’s help in stanching the westward flow of refugees.
To put it another way: If it were president Hillary Clinton or president Barack Obama at this moment in time, they probably would have publicly voiced qualms about the referendum while still maintaining a prickly partnership with Ankara. Heck, the Obama administration essentially followed this playbook with the Sissi regime in Egypt.
So why does this seem different? Probably for the same reason that it was a mistake for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to skip the release of the State Department’s human rights report. There is a difference between saying that sometimes democracy and human rights have to be subordinated to short-term geopolitical interests and saying that democracy and human rights are not a concern at all.
No, actually, this is worse than demonstrating indifference: Trump actually congratulated Erdogan on the outcome. Trump apparently thought it was a good thing that, despite all the flaws in the process, a bare majority of Turkey’s citizens voted to strengthen their populist leader. I don’t think any other post-Cold War president would have congratulated a democratic ally that held a flawed referendum leading to a less democratic outcome. This is not that far off from Trump congratulating Putin on a successful referendum result in Crimea if that event had been held in 2017 rather than 2014.
Public disquiet and behind-the-scenes pressure on key illiberal allies is an imperfect policy position. It is still a heck of a lot more consistent with America’s core interests than congratulating allies on moving in an illiberal direction. In congratulating Erdogan, Trump did the latter.
- Donald Trump is the president of the United States;
- Trump has little comprehension of how foreign policy actually works;
- The few instincts that Trump applies to foreign policy are antithetical to American values.