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Roundtable discoussion on the results and consequences of the Turkish referendum

The Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade organised a roundtable discussion on the results of the Turkish referendum on the 18th of April 2017. The invited guests were Zoltán Egeresi (IFAT, Centre for Strategic and Defense Studies), Nikolett Pénzváltó (Centre for Strategic and Defense Studies), and Máté Szalai (IFAT, Corvinus University of Budapest). The discussion was moderated by Péter Tamás Baranyi (Antall József Knowledge Centre).

Nikolett Pénzváltó presented the developments of Turkish domestic politics in the last fifteen years which led to the present referendum. The question of the presidential system is not a new one in Turkey – since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power in 2002, it was on the agenda several times. The direct election of the president, for example, (who will have had a symbolic role until the present constitutional amendments are in place) was adopted in 2007. Eventually, after the failed coup attempt in 2016, the leaders of the AKP thought that it is possible to obtain the necessary support for introducing the presidential system.

Zoltán Egeresi evaluated the Turkish referendum campaign and the results based on his personal experience. He mentioned that the turnout of Turkish citizens living abroad increased compared to the previous elections, however, this contributed to the growth of the ratio of “no” votes. Despite of the fact that president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became the face of the presidential system in all media outlets, it was prime minister Binali Yıldırım who led the referendum campaign officially. The results and the slight difference between the yes and no votes indicate that the governing party did not manage to persuade the whole society which remains to be polarised.

Máté Szalai emphasized the domestic and external pressure on the Turkish foreign policy. On the one hand, the Turkish foreign policy is determined by domestic political aims as the creation of “enemies” became a common tool in the case of for example, the PKK, the Islamic State, or – in the case of the referendum campaign – the EU and some of its member states. On the other hand, due to the constantly changing Middle Eastern regional system, the different actors prefer tactical, ad hoc cooperation than strategic alliances. Ankara had to accommodate its foreign policy to this factor as well. Such developments influence Turkish-European relations in three ways. Firstly, the strategic context – the NATO membership and the customs union – of the relations seems unquestionable so far. On the other hand though, secondly, this means that (within this framework) the relations are increasingly defined on the basis of mutual interests or quid pro quo cooperation and not on shared values. This implies that the EU accession process is not deemed a goal in Ankara but rather just a tool of foreign policy. Thirdly, the rhetorics and the actual political and economic relations may easily continue to diverge in the future.

The experts agreed that despite of the tight result, the outcome of the referendum was a political win for president Erdoğan. Nonetheless, due to the polarisation of the Turkish society, the support of the AKP may easily decrease in the future. This does not necessarily mean a loss in the elections in 2019 or even 2024 – the opposition lacks a charismatic challenger and the chance of smaller parties to reach the 10% threshold is getting more and more questionable.