Turkey’s Referendum

Is the referendum the right solution?

By Ramiz Colak


Crowds are crying, “Let the growth continue!” while they gather in the rally area. The streets are decorated with pictures of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and with posters which say YES. Today, Turkey is preparing for the constitutional referendum that will take place on April 16th.

In this referendum, citizens will be asked to vote on 18 amendments that will change Turkey’s existing parliamentary system of government to an executive presidential system. Under the proposed changes, the office of prime minister will be abolished, and the president will gain many new powers, including creating ‘small states within Turkey,’ dismissing the parliament for a re-election of deputies, appointing presidents of colleges, ministers and other high level public servants, and choosing half of the members of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors.

The referendum was proposed by the ruling party and strongly advocated for by President Erdogan. In recent speeches, the president praised the changes in the constitution as a necessary movement to achieve high economic growth and political stability. Yet, some portion of the population doubts that proposed changes will successfully promote either economic advancement or national security.

Terrorism has threatened Turkish security consistently over the last few years. Tens of serious terror attacks have hit highly trafficked areas including Ataturk Airport, Taksim Square and a peace rally. As a result of these attacks, mostly committed by ISIS, Turkey lost more than 300 civilians, and had around 500 more injured.  

The first impact of these terror attacks has been the fear that surrounds the nation. In the last years, Turkish citizens have become afraid to go to crowded public areas. Especially after ISIS attacked one of Turkey’s most popular and highly secured nightclubs during the 2017 New Year celebrations, once highly populated places became empty. Terror attacks have also affected the tourism industry. In  2016, many world nations added Turkey to their ‘countries that are not secure to visit’ list. As a natural consequence, the number of tourists visiting Turkey significantly decreased compared to previous years. Given that the total contribution of tourism and travel to Turkey’s GDP was 12.9% in 2015, a decrease in the number of tourists posed a notable threat to Turkey’s economic development.

However, the decrease in tourists was not the only challenge to Turkey’s economy. Another factor was the decreasing foreign investment. According to Economy Ministry data, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Turkey for the first half of 2016 plunged 54% compared to the same period last year, dropping from $10.5 billion to $4.8 billion. After the government declared a 9-month long state of emergency following the July 15 coup attempt, Turkey became even more risky for foreign investors. The government seized control of businesses and appointed new leaders throughout the second half of 2016. In response to these developments, S&P and Fitch cut Turkey’s credit rating on January 27, 2017.

Meanwhile, Turkey was shaken by the fast devaluation of Turkish lira against dollar: the  lira hit an all-time low of 3.77 against the U.S. dollar on January 10, 2017. The first impact of devaluation was high inflation rates. In February 2017, annual inflation and consumer price inflation hit 10% for the first time in the last five years. This unexpected inflation level further impoverished the majority of the citizens, since the unexpected and high increase in prices was not followed by an equal increase in wages. As a result, many citizens were forced to allocate most of their incomes to rising bills, rents and food costs, and minimize their personal expenditures. More serious impact of the lira’s devaluation was on Turkish businesses. By September 2016, the net foreign exchange deficit of nonfinancial companies increased to $213 billion, from 2015’s $176 billion.

The referendum is the government’s solution to these problems . In fact, in support of this proposal, some MPs of the ruling party and the president himself argued that if the office of presidency had acquired more political power, no terror attacks would take place in the country and the economy would be back at its pre-recessionary 2008 levels. Similarly, Numan Kurtulmus, Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, argued that the terrorist groups will be discouraged from making any further attacks if the referendum result turns out to be Yes.

Those who vote ‘No’ in referendum are critical of this reasoning. To understand their arguments, I interviewed Meral Aksener, former minister of interior and one of the leaders of the No movement. She pointed out that even if the referendum could solve today’s problems, it would not be sooner than 2019, the year that the changes will be implemented if referendum passes. It is therefore unclear how the government will be able to use the referendum to solve Turkey’s problems before 2019, despite the claims t that Turkey will be stronger in post-referendum 2017.

But on a deeper level, Mrs. Aksener believes that the referendum brings significant risks to Turkish democracy. The first change she criticizes is letting presidents stay affiliated with a political party while they hold office. “A president is the president of all, every citizen and every political party, thus we need to ensure that the president is objective while in office,” she argues. She also fears that the new system will end the separation of power in Turkey. While in the current system, the assembly, the president, the army and the judicial system all have separate powers and thus balance each other, with the proposed changes, president gathers all the power in himself, becoming the commander-in-chief of the Turkish Army, appointing most of the members of Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (the highest judicial council), and getting the power to dismiss general assembly and to call for the reelection of the MPs.

She notes that the referendum is not about President Erdogan. She summarizes, “Once the referendum passes, no matter who becomes the president, we give uncontrolled power to him or her and this can even worsen the existing problems in economy and security.”   

Muharrem Ince, the deputy of the first opposition party, CHP, takes a similar stance. In one of the recent rallies he organized, he mentioned that the president of the Azerbaijan appointed his wife as the first vice president in the country. Pointing out to recent corruption scandals, human rights breaches, and non-transparent governmental policies, he asks, “What if the president becomes more autocratic, who can stop him from doing so?”

The president has not directly responded to the claims of the opposition. But in the rallies, he calls the current political system old-fashioned and ‘two headed’ and argues that with the referendum, he will be able to immediately implement the right policies without being restrained by the assembly or other organizations.

Yet, despite the amount of political rallies, news and TV interviews, some are still undecided. While the polling agencies announce that they expect 52-53% of the total votes to be No, undecided people can change the results. On this issue, Fatih Celikbas, a Yale freshman who lived in Istanbul and Ankara for many years before coming to Yale, explains that in large cities like Istanbul and Ankara, more people are undecided or unwilling to share their political affiliations, and those people can change the foreseen result of the election.

There is only one more week before the referendum, but it is still hard to foresee what Turkey will wake up to in the morning of April 17th. Some speculate that the President might call for an early election if the referendum does not pass. Others fear that there will be no “turning back to democracy” if the result turns out to be Yes. Yet, given the political unpredictability that has dominated Turkey for the last few years, all we hope is that stability, human rights and economic development will return to Turkey soon.


Ramiz Colak is a freshman prospective Ethics, Politics, and Economics major in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at ramiz.colak@yale.edu.