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Despite narrow victory, Turkey's president unlikely to pursue political reconciliation following referendum; presidential election likely by mid-2018

Published: 4/18/2017

Turkey's new constitution, creating an executive presidential office while dismantling checks and balances to its authority, was approved with a 51.4 per cent vote in a referendum on 16 April 2017.



IHS Markit perspective

Outlook and implications

  • The narrowness of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's victory and opposition complaints about election fraud are highly unlikely to lead to a vote recount, but risk undermining the international legitimacy of his executive presidency.
  • An early presidential election, which Erdogan needs to win in order to assume executive presidential powers, is likely to be called by the parliament by mid-2018.
  • The referendum victory is highly unlikely to bring an end to Erdogan's heavy-handed tactics, with pressure on the opposition media and private sector likely to intensify.

Risks

Government instability; Policy instability; State failure; Contract frustration

Sectors or assets

All

Erdogan speaks to crowds at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, following his referendum victory on 16 April 2017.

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Support for the new constitution, which will now create an executive presidential office with minimal checks and balances to its authority, was concentrated in areas outside of major Turkish cities, as well as Turkish constituencies in Europe. Key urban centres, including Adana, Ankara, Diyarbakir, Izmir, and Istanbul,all voted a majority 'no'. In the two largest of these cities, Ankara and Istanbul, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) had consistently prevailed in in prior electoral contests, indicating that a significant segment of traditional AKP supporters voted 'no', out of their concerns about the concentration of power the new system would entail.

The narrow win for President Erdogan came despite a playing field that was skewed in favour of the 'yes' campaign, in terms of both media coverage and the allocation of state funds. The unfair nature of the referendum was confirmed by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which announced after the referendum that it had been “contested on an unlevel playing field”.

The referendum outcome was marred by the Supreme Electoral Council's (Yüksek Seçim Kurulu: YSK's) decision to treat as valid up to 2.5 million ballot envelopes lacking official stamps, corresponding to 4.5 per cent of total votes. This raised accusations by the opposition that the result was manipulated by the government, with the Republican People's Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi: CHP) and Peoples' Democratic Party (Halklarin Demokratik Partisi: HDP) announcing that they would compile and submit formal complaints to the YSK.

Outlook and implications

The narrowness of Erdogan's victory and questions about election fraud are highly unlikely to lead to a reassessment of the results by the YSK. With no provision in Turkey's electoral statutes for appeals to the Constitutional Court, the YSK's decision about the matter is final and is unlikely to agree to even a partial recount of the votes.

A comprehensive overhaul of Turkey's state institutions is likely to be started in the six-month outlook. The transition process, which is likely to last at least two years, will entail the gradual integration of ministries to the presidential system as 'secretaries'. This is unlikely to result in a wholesale increase to contract frustration or regulatory risks for businesses, however, barring those which are perceived to be affiliated to the Gülen Movement or the opposition.

In order to assume the mandate envisioned for the executive presidency, Erdogan needs to win a presidential election, which is currently scheduled for November 2019. An early election is likely, however, before early 2018, given Erdogan's desire to ride a momentum of support. This is despite Erdogan's announcement, immediately after the referendum, that there will be no early election and that the current government will continue until the end of its mandate. The earliest date for an election is likely to be 1 November 2017, since this is the date at which all the MPs who entered parliament in the 1 November 2015 election will become eligible for parliamentary pensions. Erdogan needs the support of all AKP MPs to call a new election.

Opposition prospects

Erdogan is highly unlikely to see victory as a signal to end his heavy-handed tactics towards his opponents in favour of a reconciliatory approach. The experience of the referendum campaign had a unifying effect on the broad bases of opposition to Erdogan, which found a common denominator in the 'no' campaign's emphasis on democracy. Given the crystallisation of a near 50% opposition to the presidential system, Erdogan will need to keep the opposition divided. In particular, in order to prevent a rapprochement between Kurdish voters and secular Turks, the Kurdish-majority HDP will continue to be treated as the political extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Meanwhile, the nationalist MHP's integration into the government will ensure the continuation of the military campaign to defeat the PKK, reducing the prospects of a return to the peace process.

Foreign relations

Questions about election fraud, although unlikely to prevent Erdogan's consolidation domestically, nonetheless risk undermining the international legitimacy of his executive presidential ambitions. A key question will become how the US and European countries respond to Erdogan's consolidation of power. A disagreement with Turkey's Western allies would be likely to increase pressure on Turkey's ailing economy, which would undermine Erdogan's prospects for the presidential election. Having successfully passed the change to an executive presidency on the promise of stability and prosperity, Erdogan will now face the challenge of living up to his promise, without recourse to the former option of attributing politically damaging developments in the country to his limited powers as a non-partisan and ceremonial presidential mandate.

Erdogan is likely to seek to put an end to the EU accession process, which he probably sees as restricting his domestic freedom of manoeuvre. He is likely to use a referendum on the reintroduction of the death penalty, popular with his supporters and nationalists, as a means of forcing the EU's hand to terminate Turkey's accession bid. Erdogan already announced his intention to push forward with such a second referendum in his victory speech following the vote on 16 April.

In the three-month lead-up to the presidential election, a military intervention is likely against PKK bases in the Avashin, Basyan, Metina, and Hakurk regions of northern Iraq. Erdogan is likely to seek to benefit from the increased popularity he would stand to gain from such an intervention against PKK affiliates, with domestic public support for the nine-month-long Operation Euphrates Shield, which ended in April, never having dropped below 75%. With Russia and the US highly unlikely to allow Turkey to stage an intervention against the PKK affiliates in Afrin, Kobane, or Sinjar, the Turkish government is likely to opt for the relatively innocuous northern Iraq.

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