Could Turkey’s Opposition Gain from Erdoğan’s Referendum?

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves to children after the recent referendum. Ankara, Turkey, April 20, 2017 (Press Presidency Press Service/Associated Press)

While most analysts naturally tend to focus on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan increasing his powers following Turkey’s highly contested vote last Sunday, the introduction of a presidential system could unexpectedly favor his opponents. This might sound surprising given the polarization and arguments in the referendum campaign, but it is based on recent history such as the 2015 Sri Lankan elections, and the fact that a presidential electoral system, especially a two-round one, is more likely to incentivize defections within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

International media and organizations have rightly criticized the procedures and timing of Erdoğan’s April 16 referendum. Although those who follow Turkey are not unfamiliar with depressing news headlines, the most recent ones, such as “RIP Turkey, 1921-2017,” “Intimidation and Unfair Campaigning,” and “No hope for Turkey,” point to an irreversible transition to authoritarianism and that there is no silver lining to be sought.

Switching Systems

Such a transition to authoritarian rule might have taken place regardless of the outcome of the referendum. Nonetheless, the new presidential system creates a set of unfamiliar dynamics for Turkish political parties. During the referendum campaign the “no” side has rightly pointed to Turkey’s parliamentary tradition and lack of experience with a presidential system; yet this unfamiliarity might eventually harm Erdoğan more than his opponents. Turkey’s new presidential system includes two-round voting that makes smaller parties and their unsuccessful candidates potential kingmakers.

The Turkish president and AKP have been winning elections since 2002 under a highly problematic majoritarian parliamentary system that eliminated smaller parties through an electoral threshold of attracting 10% of the vote. Unlike consensus-based parliamentary democracies, where minority parties are proportionally represented and frequently serve as much-needed coalition partners, majoritarian democracies provide no credible guarantees for the inclusion of minority views.

Fragile Majoritarian Despotism

A presidential system, particularly when coupled with a two-round electoral system, may break majoritarian despotism just as easily as it can make it. Sri Lanka, one of the longest-living democracies in Asia, offers a recent example. After winning the civil war against the Tamil Tigers, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s grip on power seemed unshakable. He won the presidential election in 2010, swiftly arrested the opposition candidate, placed his family members in positions of power, and amended the constitution to abolish term limits for presidents.

Rajapaksa was poised to win another term, but a series of defections from his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), led by Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena, upset his plans. Accusing Rajapaksa of rampant corruption and nepotism, Sirisena put forward his own candidacy, supported by the opposition United National Party (UNP) and even former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, the daughter of SLFP’s founder.

In the 2015 presidential election, Sirisena received massive support from the Tamil and Muslim minorities and managed to win the presidency and form a ruling coalition between his faction and UNP. Rajapaksa’s constitutional amendments were repealed. Even though progress on transitional justice has been slow, Sirisena’s administration appears much more willing to negotiate with the Tamil National Alliance, the main minority party, on issues of devolution and post-war reconciliation.

An Alternative Scenario

Could something similar happen in Turkey? Right now this may seem like a fantastic scenario, but the post-referendum constitutional setup does not technically preclude it. Erdoğan won the referendum only marginally, an indication that his popularity is not as immense as he had hoped. In future presidential elections, the two-round system will allow opposition parties to coordinate and back the same candidate in the second round, even if they fail to do so in the first round. For all its problems, Turkey remains an electoral democracy and the opposition can still try to build an alternative majority.

Here is where the limits of the comparison with Sri Lanka become apparent. After the end of the civil war, the Sri Lankan Tamil politicians have moderated their demands, but a spirit of reconciliation and willingness to avoid the mistakes of the past also prevails within the Sinhalese majority. Despite the wounds of the war and sharp disagreements over human rights abuses, this spirit allowed politicians across a wide range of parties to agree on a minimally common agenda to unseat Rajapaksa from power.

In Turkey, the ideological distance between segments of the opposition—particularly between the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Kurdish-supported People’s Democratic Party—is still too wide to allow such a common agenda. This is underlined by the fact that MHP’s leadership officially backed Erdoğan, but many nationalist voters apparently did not follow the party line. AKP still commands a near-majority of the vote. Therefore, a transition will be much-dependent on a significant AKP defection.

Importantly, the Turkish political system will have to reach a new level of democratic maturity in order to build a coalition that could challenge Erdoğan’s monopoly of office, and do so in a way that would bring forward positive change.

Neophytos Loizides is Professor in International Conflict Analysis at the University of Kent. Evangelos Liaras is Assistant Professor of International Relations at IE University in Madrid and served as election monitor in Sri Lanka in 2010. This article was originally published on openDemocracy.