Erdogan signals new era in EU relations
By Sebnem Arsu
Turkey has voted to abandon its parliamentary system and to expand president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s executive powers, putting at risk what was already a fragile democracy, further polarising the country, and jeopardising relations with the European Union.
Sunday’s (16 April) referendum was itself marred by controversy due to allegations of voter fraud and technical irregularities, such as a six-minute freeze in the data systems of the electoral board during the announcement of the results.
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The razor-thin, 51 percent victory by Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) put a spotlight on the work of the international observer mission.
The OSCE, a multilateral European body that conducted the monitoring, said in a 14-page preliminary report issued one day after the vote that there were several fundamental shortcomings in the way it had been conducted.
The report gave ammunition to opposition parties’ attempt to contest the outcome.
The Council of Europe (CoE) in Strasbourg, another multilateral body in Europe that worked alongside the OSCE, also raised doubts on the result.
"In general, the referendum did not live up to Council of Europe standards," Cezar Florin Preda, the head of the CoE’s monitoring mission told reporters in Ankara.
"The legal framework was inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic process,” he added.
Complaints centred on a last-minute decision by Turkey’s Senior Election Board to change ballot validity criteria by saying that ballots without a control stamp would still be valid.
The change undermined an important safeguard and contradicted Turkish law, the international monitors said.
The criticism prompted an immediate and angry response from Erdogan as he addressed the AKP’s exuberant supporters in Ankara.
“First of all, know your place,” he said, referring to the OSCE team.
“We would neither see, nor hear, nor know about the politicised reports you prepare and just stick to our way,” he added.
Late on Sunday, hundreds of AKP loyalists had already dismissed the emerging fraud allegations at a mass rally in front of Huber Kosku, the president’s Ottoman-era waterfront residence in Istanbul.
The rally celebrated a win that many fear might further split Turkish society between those who unconditionally support Erdogan and those who see him as a menace to democracy.
Loyalists cheered in drizzling rain as their leader came out on a balcony dressed in his usual blue-checked sports jacket to delivery his victory address.
The balcony moment has become a new tradition after Erdogan led his party to success in five elections and two referendums since 2002.
“A historical decision has been made in the 200-year debate on the system of governance,” Erdogan said.
“We are about to realise the most important transformation of governance in our history,” he added.
Addressing the jubilant crowd, he dismissed the talk of fraud and kept up his provocative campaign rhetoric that has labelled his critics, both inside Turkey and in the EU, as enemies of progress.
Emre Kilic, 23, a geography student, his eyes full of admiration as he listened to Erdogan, told EUobserver: “This is pretty much a slap in the face of the European Union”.
“They’ve kept on criticising single-handed governance, but I think it’s the best way. It helps things work,” he said.
Some of the main constitutional changes will go into effect in November 2019, when the Turkish parliament will lose many of its executive powers and the office of prime minister will be dissolved.
It means that if Erdogan wins the next two five-year elections he will wield an unprecedented amount of power in the country of 80 million people until 2029.
Under the new system, which critics have likened to a sultanate, the president will be able to rule by decree,
rejoin his political party, control the budget, and appoint 12 of the 15 judges in the Constitutional Court.
The narrow, 51-percent win is likely to lead to snap elections in which Erodgan will try to increase his political mandate to redesign Turkey in line with the AKP’s Islamist views.
Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute and the writer of a book on Erdogan called The New Sultan, told this website: “His wings are clipped with such thin majority, allegations of fraud, and vote fixing so I’m sure he’s going to have early elections”.
“That’s clearly his agenda going forward”, he said.
Turkey’s main cities - Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir - voted No to the changes on Sunday.
Eastern provinces, where Erdogan has jailed dozens on mayors and politicians who sympathise with the Kurdish minority in a vast purge following the failed coup last July, also voted No.
But AKP supporters in Erdogan’s Anatolian heartland see no wrong in his actions.
They say the old model of double-headed, parliamentary-presidential governance had stalled Turkey on its path to becoming a regional and economic power.
They also say the country need stronger leadership at a time of multiple challenges, such as the war in Syria on its southern border, terrorist attacks by the jihadist Islamic State group and by Kurdish separatists, as well as volatile economic conditions.
Meanwhile, voting by Turks abroad showed a mirror image of the Turkish nation.
In a record-high turnout, the majority of religiously conservative and working-class Turkish expats in Germany, France, and in the Netherlands, voted in support of Erdogan.
But the more cosmopolitan and middle-class Turkish diaspora in Canada and in the US overwhelmingly rejected the constitutional changes.
Erdogan’s critics say one-man rule with no institutional checks ad balances will isolate Turkey in the international arena and undermine rule of law.
Kati Piri, a Dutch centre-left MEP who is the Turkey rapporteur in the European Parliament, said: “It’s clear that the country cannot join the EU with a constitution that doesn’t respect the separation of powers and has no checks and balances”.
“If the package is implemented unchanged, this will have to lead to the formal suspension of EU accession talks,” she said.
Piri spoke after Erodgan, in the run-up to the referendum, threatened to let millions of Syrian refugees flood into Europe because, he said, the EU had failed to fulfil its promise on financial assistance and on visa-free travel.
He said in his victory speech on Sunday that he might also reinstate the death penalty, signalling that the downward spiral in EU relations is set to continue.
“We will hear more anti-Western rhetoric, seeking imagined foreign enemies and a strong anti-Kurdish policy in Syria to boost nationalist support for the AKP,” The Washington Institute’s Cagaptay said.
He said Erdogan would seek a “super majority” in parliament in the likely snap elections.
Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who is now a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels, said that even if the elections do not take place, Erdogan will seek a new era in EU relations.
“While the talk about reinstating the death penalty was largely regarded as a bait for nationalist voters, Erdogan repeating and prioritising it in his post-referendum speech carries the will to redesign relations with the EU,” Ulgen told EUobserver.
He said it showed that Erdogan wanted to abandon political association with the EU in favour of purely economic ties in what “would undoubtedly hurt the depth of relations.”
'Never close the door'
In a joint statement late Sunday, senior EU officials including European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker, called “on the Turkish authorities to seek the broadest possible national consensus” in the implementation of constitutional changes.
They declined to speak out on the fraud allegations until the OSCE had published its final report.
EU member states’ ministers, who are due to meet in Brussels at a general affairs council at the end of April might be more outspoken, but they are unlikely to burn bridges with Erdogan, Piri said.
“Today’s outcome shows that there are millions of Turkish citizens who share the same European values and who chose for a different future for their country,” Piri said in a written statement late on Sunday, referring to the 49 percent of Turks who voted No.
“The EU should never close the door to them”, she said.