Turkey Approves Sweeping Presidential Powers, U.S. Policymakers Respond


On April 16, amid contested balloting results and street demonstrations by opposition parties and voters, Turkey’s referendum vote came down in favor of expanding presidential powers for President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, granting him sweeping executive powers that rights groups viewed as potential “death knell” for Turkish democracy. Preliminary counts put the vote at 51.3 percent in favor and 48.6 percent opposed.

A last-minute order issued by the country’s Supreme Election Board, dominated by AKP members, allowed ballots without the official stamp to be counted. Turkish opposition parties immediately called for an annulment of the referendum results. Bulent Tezcan, the deputy leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), said by accepting unstamped ballots, the electoral body “changed the rules of the game halfway through the match.” CHP deputy Erdal Aksunger suggested that “2.5 million votes are in dispute, and in some areas, such as the predominantly Kurdish southeast, almost half the votes could be challenged.” According to the Los Angeles Times, Aksunger estimated that “1.5 million unstamped envelopes and voting papers were given to voters, and there were also many incidents in which envelopes and voting papers were stamped after the ballots were opened.”The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which monitored the polls,said the referendum took place on “an unlevel playing field” and decried some of the rhetoric equating a “No” vote with supporting terrorism.

A day after the referendum, President Erdogan told the OSCE monitoring body to “know your place,” rejecting its criticism and declared that Turkey did not “see, hear, or acknowledge the politically motivated reports” of the monitors. Human Rights Watch said, “In the days ahead the president and government should end the state of emergency and commit to upholding the human rights of all in Turkey regardless of political outlook.” The government extended the state of emergency for an additional three months on Monday.

The constitutional changes include the abolition of the prime minister post and transfer executive power to the president; permitting the president to issue decrees and appoint numerous officials; granting the president the ability to order disciplinary inquiries into civil servants, among others. Erdogan also flagged the potential for a referendum on Turkey’s continued effort to join the European Union, drawing concern from European leaders.  Analyst Steven Cook wrote after the vote, “The Turkish Republic has always been flawed, but it always contained the aspiration that — against the backdrop of the principles to which successive constitutions claimed fidelity — it could become a democracy. Erdogan’s new Turkey closes off that prospect.”

Ahead of the vote, POMED published a new report by Nonresident Senior Fellow Howard Eissenstat, “Erdoğan As Autocrat:  A Very Turkish Tragedy.” Eissenstat warned, “One of the core arguments that President Erdoğan has offered for expanding his power through constitutional reforms is that further centralization of authority will increase stability. Yet the experience of the past ten years has demonstrated that the opposite is true. Without reestablishing rule of law and the independence of state institutions, without creating opportunities for those out of power to participate in their own political futures, the instability that has rocked the country over the past five years likely will intensify. The tragedy of Turkey’s failure is immense.”

Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump called Erdogan to congratulate him on the referendum outcome. Trump has praised Erdogan in the past, notably on how he controversially dealt with the coup attempt in 2016. The U.S. State Department urged Erdogan “to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all its citizens — regardless of their vote on April 16.”

In stark contrast to Trump’s praise and the State Department’s wariness, congressional voices criticized the handling of the referendum. Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) on April 18 said: “Turkey’s creeping authoritarianism continues. All who value democracy, pluralism and Turkey’s key role in the region should be concerned about the elimination of important checks and balances in the Turkish system. Many Turks are concerned.” Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Turkey “a very vibrant democracy, and…one of our NATO allies,” but expressed “hope that the Erdogan government will have a complete investigation” on reported referendum violations. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) said, “The manner in which Turkey’s constitutional referendum was conducted… was disappointing… international observers have made clear that the referendum was conducted in a fundamentally unfair political environment that strongly favored one side.” He urged Erdogan to “recognize the need to pursue a balanced agenda that protects fundamental rights, and ensure voices of all Turkish citizens are represented in his government.”