Social media seethed with outrage earlier this week after the American president made a phone call to congratulate the head of a NATO member on an important vote. On Monday Donald Trump reached out to speak with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the referendum that exchanges Turkey’s parliamentary system for one granting broad executive powers to the president. The “yes” camp carried the day with a slim 51 percent of the vote.
It was hardly the decisive mandate that Erdogan, the architect of the new changes, and their immediate beneficiary, sought. Rather, it’s more like a warning that he had better address Turkish voters’ key concerns—the economy, political stability, terrorism—or else he might expect worse in the 2019 presidential elections.
Trump’s call suggests that the new White House was in favor of the referendum, hoping for political stability and a confident Erdogan before it engages on a campaign to take Raqqa from the Islamic State (though the closeness of the referendum may presage the opposite—instability and a hypersensitive Erdogan). To the Turkish president, the call likely signals that he can once again count on a reliable NATO partner, one eager to reset America’s Middle East policy. That the call seems extraordinary, even repugnant, to much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment shows that the chaos unleashed by the Obama administration over the last eight years may have left permanent scars.
Much of the furor is a result of claims by Erdogan’s primary opposition, the Republican Peoples’ party (CHP) of irregularities at the polls and possible voter fraud, and demands the vote be annulled (which were rejected Wednesday by the supreme electoral board). Given that during the campaign opposition leaders were reportedly harassed, their rallies shut down, and granted only limited access to the official government media, it’s quite possible the actual results were tampered with. Then again, Erdogan and his Justice and Development party (AKP) have a long history of electoral success.
The AKP won three successive elections in 2002, 2007, and 2011, making Erdogan prime minister. When he ran for president in 2014, he won with 51.79 percent of the vote. In the 2015 parliamentary elections, AKP won a plurality of 49.50 percent. Sunday’s referendum was backed by a coalition joining the AKP with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which won 11.90 percent in the 2015 elections. Thus the Yes camp could have expected a more comfortable margin. As such, according to some Turkish analysts, the AKP-MHP coalition was counting on at least 56 percent. The final, not yet official, tally represents a loss of 10 points from the two parties’ combined 2015 election results. What happened?
Some former MHP figures turned against the coalition and supported the “no” vote against 18 constitutional amendments empowering the executive presidency. But most importantly, Erdogan lost a slice of his own party. According to exit polls, 10 percent of AKP voters went against the man to whom they’d previously said only Yes. Erdogan lost the country’s three largest cities, Izmir, the capital Ankara, and Istanbul, where he was twice elected mayor, in 1994 and 1998.
Maybe the election really was fixed, but if so it was clumsily done—showing that Erdogan’s hemorrhaging support, and in typical strongholds. But taking the results at face value, what were Turkish voters saying?
Turks have concerns about the economy, a high unemployment rate, three million Syrian refugees fleeing an ongoing civil war across the southern border, ISIS terror attacks, and the renewed three-decades-long war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). And then there are worries about Erdogan himself.
The country stood united after last year’s attempted coup, but there’s little doubt that Erdogan’s continued purges have left Turks unnerved. He has closed media outlets, and Turkey has put more journalists in prison than any other country in the world. And then there are the long-term dangers of Erdogan’s paranoid tendencies. The issue isn’t just his habit of jettisoning respected colleagues that he fears may threaten his hold on power, like former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu, but that his political circle seems to have shrunk to the size of his immediate family, thereby raising fears of a hereditary dynasty.
Turks are inevitably anxious about the very fact of the referendum and what it means. Turkish society is conservative, from devout Muslims to devoted Kemalists, keen to preserve the legacy of the country’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The referendum overhauls a system that dates back to the origins of the republic. Stable and healthy democracies are typically, and rightly, wary of tinkering with political institutions, and there’s no doubt that the close vote reflects the ambivalence of the Turkish public.
Erdogan opponents, as well as journalists and analysts in Turkey and in the United States, fear that the new amendments strip the system of its checks and balances. For instance, under the new system the president will now have the right to nominate a higher percentage of supreme court judges, five out of 13 rather than four out of 22.
But the amendments also limit executive power. For instance, to declare a state of emergency, the president needs the approval of parliament, which must approve all presidential decrees issued during the state of emergency. Another example: To override a presidential veto, the parliament needs only an absolute majority, or 301 votes out of the 600 members of parliaments. By comparison, the U.S. Congress needs a two-thirds majority in both houses to override a presidential veto.
Some critics are concerned that the executive will have more control of parliament now that the president is also permitted to belong to a party. For example, a president who is also chief of a party that holds the majority of seats in parliament is likely to find less preventing him from implementing his agenda. He can expect his deputies to follow the party line, while opponents have less power to obstruct.
And here we have come to the heart of the matter. Erdogan and other supporters of the referendum argue that the presidential system will unlock Turkish politics and usher in an era of political, economic, and social stability. Given the difficulties facing Turkey right now, this might be an overly optimistic view of the country’s near-term future, but it’s not difficult to see Erdogan’s main point. Why do the losers of elections get to obstruct the candidates and parties that win elections?
The AKP wins elections because, as the numbers across Turkey show, it is the country’s only national party. After more than 15 years, the CHP has not learned how to win at the polls. The presidential system will make it harder for them, perpetual also-rans, to block their opponents. Under the new presidential system, if you lose the presidency, for instance, and a majority of parliament, you’ve lost big. Elections have consequences.
This may be another reason why some AKP voters opted for No. Sure they might love Erdogan and wish him to govern Turkey forever, but he is not immortal. As the referendum showed, he is not even politically invulnerable. What if Erdogan doesn’t solve Turkey’s problems in the next two years—the economy gets worse, there are more ISIS and PKK attacks, etc.—and the CHP manages to run a candidate capable of winning the presidency? What if it wins a majority of seats in parliament, too? Then it would be the AKP that gets shut out.
Turkey is not destined for dictatorship, as many journalists and analysts here and in Turkey have been arguing since Sunday. It’s an imperfect and immature democracy, and whether it changes for the better or worse will be determined in due course by the actions taken by Turks. As author of those changes, Erdogan has made himself the second most important political figure in the history of the republic, overshadowed only by Ataturk. While celebrating his victory, Erdogan, a highly emotional man who takes every success, setback, and slight personally, can hardly help but also see the vote as a warning, issued to him by the Turkish public: Fix it or else. With the work he has ahead he can count at least one blessing—Barack Obama is no longer in the White House.
No, Turkey’s problems are not all Obama’s fault. Erdogan committed many foreign policy blunders all on his own. Perhaps most importantly, he provoked a break with Israel, and while Ankara and Jerusalem have since patched up minor differences, the once strategic relationship is unlikely to be repaired while he governs.
Still, the Obama administration added to Turkey’s woes. The main venue was Syria, where Russia was supporting forces in the conflict that Turkey opposed. When Moscow brought down a Turkish plane in 2012 and Obama officials backed the Russian version of events, Erdogan began to understand there would be no help coming from his NATO partners, because the alliance’s driving force had its own ideas about the region and how to reshape its role there. The nuclear deal with Iran was the Obama administration’s key initiative, and the deal as Obama conceived it required realigning American regional interests with Iran. This meant tilting against traditional Middle East allies, pre-eminently Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.
When Turkey petitioned the Obama White House for a tougher stance on Bashar al-Assad, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Davutoglu that the United States wasn’t there yet. Later, the Turks even produced evidence of Assad’s chemical weapons use. But Obama couldn’t be budged. He didn’t want to risk the possibility that Assad’s patron Iran might walk away from the nuclear deal.
Thus Obama’s focus in Syria was on the ISIS. Everyone was going to fight Sunni jihadists exclusively and leave Assad and the Iranians alone. Anyone who didn’t would become part of the problem. Obama was looking at Ankara. In an effort to refocus Erdogan’s attention, the Obama White House threatened Turkish stability by partnering with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), an armed Syrian affiliate of the PKK, which has been waging war against Turkey since 1984. It is a mark of the madness of the Obama years that the White House turned against a NATO member to back a Stalinist group that the United States has designated a foreign terrorist organization.
Even more bizarre, and dangerous, was the fact that under Obama NATO’s prime mover gave Russia room to re-enter the Middle East, after four decades. Vladimir Putin’s September 2015 escalation in Syria to spell depleted Iranian forces and defend the Assad regime planted Russia on the eastern border of America’s key regional ally Israel, and on NATO’s southern border, Turkey. Erdogan had no choice but to go to Moscow with hat in hand, just like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
America’s traditional regional partners are understandably relieved to see the new White House isn’t just clapping backs and making promises to restore credibility. After all, the issue with Obama wasn’t credibility, but that he turned on American allies and empowered their adversaries. The Trump administration’s support of Saudi Arabia’s conflict with the Houthis, strong and public backing of Israel, the strike on Shayrat airfield in retaliation for Assad’s chemical weapons attack are steadily convincing Middle Eastern powers that the new White House has returned to the traditional American view of the region.
Erdogan, too, may be seeing light at the end of the tunnel. The strike against the Assad regime shows that, unlike the Obama White House, the Trump team sees Syria as a larger problem than just ISIS. Moreover, as Eli Lake reported last week, there’s a real debate in the administration about how to manage the ISIS campaign. If the Pentagon has become accustomed to working with the YPG, other Trump officials understand the strategic limits to the partnership. The YPG is incapable of holding Arab territory; is hostile to America’s Kurdish allies in Iraq; has cooperated with Russia, Iran, and Assad; is at war with a NATO member, Turkey; and has alienated enough Kurdish communities in Turkey that Erdogan picked up an additional 500,000 Kurdish votes in the referendum.
The Obama White House set traps throughout the region, for American allies and its successor. The Trump administration’s Middle East policy is still taking shape as it reaches out to traditional allies. Trump’s phone call told Erdogan that the Americans on the other end are again listening.