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What will Erdogan’s new power mean for Turkey?

April 17, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
Citizens of Turkey voted Sunday by a thin margin to overhaul the country’s political system, which could lead to a major consolidation of power for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Jeffrey Brown talks to Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations and Kadir Ustun of the SETA Foundation about the ramifications of the controversial referendum.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In a controversial referendum yesterday, the people of Turkey voted by a thin margin for the biggest overhaul of Turkey’s politics since the founding of the modern republic.

Among the most significant changes, a transition from a parliamentary to a presidential system that could lead to a major consolidation of power by the nation’s leader.

Our Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Flag-waving supporters greeted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara today, after he won sweeping new powers in Sunday’s referendum.

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, Turkish President (through interpreter): We have put up a fight against the powerful nations of the world. The crusader mentality attacked us abroad. Inside, their lackeys attacked us. We didn’t succumb. As a nation, we stood strong.

JEFFREY BROWN: But amid the celebration, questions about the vote’s validity. Turkey’s main opposition party decried a decision by the national elections board to accept ballots without an official stamp.

BULENT TEZCAN, Deputy Chairman, Republican People’s Party (through interpreter): The only decision that will end the debate about the legitimacy of the vote and ease the people’s legal concerns is the annulment of this referendum by the high

JEFFREY BROWN: International observers pointed to the intimidation of Erdogan’s opponents.

WOMAN: Our team observed the misuse of administrative resources and the obstruction of efforts by parties and civil society organizations supporting the no campaign.

JEFFREY BROWN: The referendum passed with just 51 percent of the vote. It authorizes constitutional changes allowing the president to directly name government ministers and other senior officials, appoint half the members of the country’s highest judicial body, and declare states of emergency and issue decrees.

The outcome could also cement Erdogan’s hold on power for more than a decade.

Throughout Turkey, reactions were mixed.

MAN (through interpreter): It’s obvious that a large part of the society doesn’t accept this referendum.

WOMAN (through interpreter): I don’t know what the new system will bring, but I am happy because the person I support has become an executive president.

JEFFREY BROWN: Erdogan says the changes will bring stability, in a country battling the Islamic State group and Kurdish rebels. Opponents say he will be able to rule unchecked. They also fear he will reinstitute capital punishment.

He’s already carried out a wide-ranging crackdown since surviving a coup attempt last summer. The growing repression has strained relations with the European Union, a body Turkey is trying to join.

Germany’s foreign minister warned today the referendum could make matters worse.

SIGMAR GABRIEL, Foreign Minister, Germany (through interpreter): We will only be able to help Turkey if the country stays on a democratic path. For instance, the reintroduction of death penalty would be the end of the negotiations to enter the European Union.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Washington today, the White House said it awaits a final report by international observers.

And for more on this referendum and what it means, I’m joined by Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations. His forthcoming book is “False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.” And Kadir Ustun, the executive director of the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, a Washington think tank focused on Turkey and U.S.-Turkey relations.

Welcome to both of you.

Steven Cook, you wrote a scathing response to the vote. It’s provocatively entitled, “Rest in Peace, Turkey.”

Do you see this as a kind of existential threat to Turkish democracy?

STEVEN COOK, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, it is certainly the end of the modern Turkish state that was founded in the early 1920s.

We’re moving on to something else with President Erdogan’s accumulation of power. That may be something new, but also has echoes in Turkey’s past. And that is, President Erdogan has set things up so that he has so much power, he rules almost like an Ottoman sultan.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see in this, that kind of power for President Erdogan?

KADIR USTUN, SETA Foundation: Well, this was a historic referendum.

For the first time in modern Turkish history, the Turkish public, the civilians are deciding the form of government.

JEFFREY BROWN: As a positive. So you see it as a positive step potentially?

KADIR USTUN: Sure, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because this was needed?

KADIR USTUN: This was needed because you had two elected heads of government with overlaps and conflicts in their powers and responsibilities over each other.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what about that? That’s the argument that President Erdogan and his supporters have made, that this was necessary for the democracy to actually go forward.

STEVEN COOK: It’s actually kind of a funny argument, because this was never a problem until a few years ago, actually 2011, when President Erdogan, then Prime Minister Erdogan, declared that Turkey needed a new constitution.

The Turkish prime minister had been the head of the government. The locus of power had been with the prime minister. The president had a number of important powers, but was supposed to be above politics and a statesman.

Once it was clear that Prime Minister Erdogan was going to move up to become the president of the republic, then this issue became more and more urgent for him and for the ruling Justice and Development Party.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you both about the size of the victory, because it was actually smaller than expected and I think than Erdogan and his supporters thought. What does that tell you?

KADIR USTUN: An average of 52 to 53 percent was expected.

So it’s in that range. But this was about the referendum. This was about the system change. When you ask about people’s votes, about their parties, you will get similar numbers to the last election. So you see that people didn’t really vote along their party affiliations, but more on this particular change, whether we should go to a presidential system and whether what Erdogan is proposing is the way to go. And they voted yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see in the lower vote than expected?

STEVEN COOK: Well, it was an extraordinarily controversial move to fundamentally alter Turkey’s political system. And there is about half the country that is opposed to it.

And this is consistent with the AKP era, the Justice and Development Party era, where President Erdogan rules half of the country that supports him and seeks to intimidate the other half of the country.

There are allegations of electoral — questionable electoral practices, I should say. And the opposition is calling for an investigation into it. It’s unlikely that anything is going to change, but it does suggest a deepening of the polarization of Turkish society.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, does it suggest — do you see going forward that he will have to now reach out to opponents to be more accommodating or less so?

KADIR USTUN: Look, he has tried many times at parliamentary commission to draft a whole new civilian constitution, failed because of political realities.

And this was the product of a deal between the opposition nationalist party, MHP, and the A.K. party, and I don’t see this as changing the system wholesale in a desirable way.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what I’m asking is, what do you see changing the stance of President Erdogan? Does he reach out to opponents? Is he more accommodating to all Turks, or tougher?

KADIR USTUN: When you look at the Turkish political landscape, you see identity policies, these parties, Kurdish party, nationalist party, and CHP, are consolidated , just as A.K. Party’s votes are more or less consolidated.

You have that kind of situation in the Turkish political landscape. And that won’t change all that much. And we’re going to see in 2019, when you have the presidential and the general elections held on the same day, if there will be significant changes. But I don’t expect those votes to change all that much in the next election.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about the Turkish relationship with the West, especially the U.S.? What should the response be from the U.S.?

STEVEN COOK: Well, there’s a difference between what should the response be and what the reality is likely to be.

I think that the Obama administration over the course of eight years was too quiet about the excesses of Prime Minister and then President Erdogan and the deepening authoritarianism of Turkey.

It strikes me that President Trump will accommodate himself to this outcome, because his priorities lie with fighting the Islamic State. And, of course, the United States looks to Turkey as an ally in that fight.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, what do you think the U.S. response should be and Europe?

KADIR USTUN: In relations with the U.S. particularly — that’s what I’m focused on — there are significant strategic differences, especially with the U.S. support for the YPG in Northern Syria, the groups that are fighting ISIS, and that — they are linked to PKK.

And that’s a significant problem in U.S.-Turkey relations and on several other relations. But I think both sides will need Trump administration. Turks see Trump administration as a new opportunity. And they will need to talk more on this. And there have been talks.

And we see the lessening of those tensions. In the coming years, I do expect that to move to a better place. But in terms of this authoritarianism argument, I find it overly simplistic and sort of easy explanation, oh, Turkey is authoritarian.

That doesn’t answer the question about why 50 percent are voting for this party and Erdogan.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will leave it there and we will watch going forward.

Kadir Ustun and Steven Cook, thank you both very much.

STEVEN COOK: Thank you.

KADIR USTUN: Thank you.

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