Following Turkey’s constitutional referendum many were quick to announce the end of democracy in Turkey. But Laura Batalla Adam argues that this is a narrow and incomplete reading of the results.
Laura Batalla Adam is secretary-general of the European Parliament Turkey Forum. This opinion piece does not reflect the official opinion of the forum or its members.
51.3% of voters backed the constitutional changes adopted in a hurry by the Turkish Grand National Assembly on 21 January with the votes of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the nationalist party (MHP), in the absence of a significant number of deputies from the second-largest opposition party HDP, as 13 members, including its co-chairs, are behind bars.
The pre-electoral environment was marked by the permanent state of emergency since the deadly coup attempt in July 2016. Over 100,000 people including civil servants, military, police officers, judges and academics have been arrested, suspended or dismissed over alleged coup links.
The number of jailed journalists has exceeded 150 and numerous media outlets have been closed down, amid increasing feelings of paranoia and fear among the society.
Turkey’s historic referendum to change the current system of government from parliamentary to presidential took place under this context.
Ahead of the vote, the Venice Commission warned that the amendments would give too much power to the president without the appropriate checks and balances to ensure a balance of power between the three branches of government. However, very limited discussion about the proposed constitutional amendments was allowed.
The preliminary findings of the OSCE/ODIHR international election observation mission confirmed that the election did not meet the international standards for a fair election, as the two sides in the campaign did not have equal opportunities. Despite all odds, the “No” camp still received 48.7% of the votes.
Turkey’s three largest cities, Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, representing approximately 65% of GDP, voted against the constitutional amendments. Interestingly enough, first time voters and under 24-year-olds, brought up under AKP rule, voted “No”.
Moreover, the narrow “Yes” victory also shows a significant number of AKP and MHP voters, 10% and 73% respectively, did not give their support to the amendments, preventing a more comfortable victory and signalling troubled times for the coalition and intra-party politics.
A question arises as to whether the result would have been the same in a normal political environment and a fair electoral process. Two initial conclusions can be drawn from the outcome of the referendum.
On the one hand, the fragile referendum support highlights the urgent need for a consensus-based approach where concerns over the constitutional amendments are taken into account during their implementation.
On the other, the results are yet another proof of the dynamism and the resilience of the democratic forces in the country.
Now it is time for the European Union to give the much delayed and needed support to the democrats of Turkey. Ending or suspending EU accession talks now would be a deadly blow to the democratic forces in the country and to the European Union’s credibility as a soft power.
Without the EU anchor provided by the membership perspective, the country is likely to slide further away from EU values.
After all dissenting voices have been practically eliminated at home, limiting cooperation between the EU and Turkey to trade, counterterrorism and migration, would lead to the abandonment of the country’s democratic forces, who already feel deeply disappointed at the way in which the EU has traded away human rights in exchange for a utilitarian relationship.
Rule of law and fundamental rights should be placed at the core of our relationship with Turkey. In this regard, the accession process remains the best tool for democratic change in the country, even if the process is frozen now and the outcome stays uncertain.
The EU should abandon the pragmatism that has guided its relations with Turkey in the past years and engage in an honest, sincere and open political dialogue, in which both sides can address their concerns, with a view to improving rule of law and fundamental rights.
From its side, the Turkish government should bring the country back to normalcy, abandon the confrontational style and polarising discourse, and address the current rule of law and fundamental rights deficits as a matter of urgency.
The accession process may continue to be frozen as long as there is no significant improvement of the political situation in Turkey. Contrary to what many critics propose, ending membership talks with Turkey would be a fatal strategic mistake, which would have irreversible consequences for future generations.
Instead, the EU should reinstate its transformative power and champion democracy in Turkey by promoting our common EU values and interests.