Erdogan's future choices

By George N. Tzogopoulos
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, April 21, 2017
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A man shows a ballot at a polling station in Istanbul, Turkey, on April 16, 2017. More than 167,000 polling stations across Turkey opened at 7 a.m. local time (0400 GMT) on Sunday for a referendum on expanding presidential powers. [Xinhua/He Canling]

For Turkish citizens to go the polls and participate in a referendum is nothing new. The April 16 vote was the seventh time they were asked to do so after one-party rule ended in 1950. It was also the third time during the years of Tayyip Erdogan, following the referendums of 2007 and 2010. Although every past vote had a special importance, the recent decision of the Turkish citizens will possibly open a new chapter in the country's politics.

51.34 percent of voters agreed with the constitutional amendment and 48.66 percent disagreed. This means that the parliamentary system will be transformed into a presidential one and the duties of the prime minister will be subsumed under the office of the president. President Erdogan will subsequently become more powerful holding executive powers.

Inter alia, he will be able to issue decrees on political, social and economic issues. As far as the parliament is concerned, its decision-making capacity will be diminished but it will still act as a restraining mechanism depending on its composition.

Under these circumstances, there are two main aspects which deserve careful analysis. The first is Erdogan's management of the domestic situation and the second is his future foreign policy. Starting with the former, the victory of the Turkish president gives the impression of a "Pyrrhic" one. Although approximately 25 million people approved his cause, circa 24 million citizens voted "no" The political landscape in Turkey is certainly fragmented and this grim reality is acknowledged by both Turkish and international commentators.

Erdogan has learned to live and politically survive in a country with deep cleavages, which have been even more apparent after the failed coup of July 15, 2016. His endorsement of political Islam along with his leadership style finds the Turkish society divided. However, the most significant challenge for the Turkish president is to deal not necessarily with the stance of his traditional political opponents and their supporters but principally with that of his traditional followers. Qualitative data of the April 16 voting behavior demonstrate that the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) did not have the expected performance in some of its strongholds.

Although Erdogan won the referendum, he is encountered with a serious dilemma for the day after. Should he continue with the same policies of the last nine months after the failed coup or does he need to change course and become milder?

A natural reaction will be to continue with the crackdown operations as long as the state of emergency will be enacted in the short-term and seek a general domestic balance in the medium and long-term. Erdogan's main priority will be to stabilize the national economy in order to regain trust among citizens. Latest numbers are not positive. Turkey ran a budget deficit of $3.7 billion in the first quarter of 2017.

Continuing with foreign policy, Erdogan can hardly risk isolationism. After the failed coup, he almost immediately improved Turkey's relations with both Israel and Russia. As far as China is concerned, co-operation against terrorism is perhaps the most important theme on the agenda. In the aftermath of the referendum, some Chinese analysts are skeptical. They link the new domination of political Islam in Turkey with Erdogan's toleration of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

In a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the September Hangzhou G20 summit he had promised to take all necessary measures and practically restrict the illegal immigration of Uyghurs from China into Turkey. Whether the Turkish president will keep this promise alive remains to be seen. However, he has no real room for maneuvering on the matter and he needs to follow the path of realism.

Erdogan's calculations will be similar in approaching the U.S. and the EU. The bilateral Turkish-American relationship is difficult but he is not interested in pushing it to the limit losing his country's strategic ally. By contrast, the Turkish president seems to cultivate good working relations with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump. The two leaders held a telephone conversation after the referendum as the latter wanted to congratulate the former and also discussed American actions in Syria as well as their collaboration against the Islamic State.

With reference to Europe, the bilateral Turkish-EU relationship is revolved around the refugee crisis and trade. Irrespective of the ongoing communication war between the two sides, no practical obstacles have undermined the good level of cooperation.

Some European commentators appear to be disappointed after Erdogan said that he could maybe hold a new referendum on Turkey's long-stalled bid for EU membership. Nonetheless, this road is practically closed. Ankara does not comply with the requirements while public opinion in both Turkey and the EU does not positively see such a possibility.

In the final account, Erdogan is still powerful to bargain with Brussels. It is not a coincidence that 63.1 percent of Turks living in Europe's most important country - Germany - which is around 450,000 people, voted "yes" in the referendum. Their stance sent a strong signal that he can count on the support of "Westernized" Turkish citizens.

For a few years Erdogan has been highly criticized in the international media discourse for his practices. This criticism is expected to increase in the aftermath of the referendum. But although the Turkish president is not seen with sympathy by journalists mainly in the West, no one questions his statecraft and his personal stamp on Turkey's national and foreign policies.

George N. Tzogopoulos is a columnist with For more information please visit:

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of

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