Referendums and the Institutionalization of Authoritarianism in Turkey

By Cook, Steven A. | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Spring/Summer 2018 | Go to article overview

Referendums and the Institutionalization of Authoritarianism in Turkey


Cook, Steven A., The Brown Journal of World Affairs


On i 6 April 2017, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appeared before thousands of his supporters after the Supreme Election Board certified the result of a referendum held that very day. He declared: "I would like to thank all our citizens, regardless of how they voted, who went to the polling stations to protect the national will. The entire country has triumphed."1 For Erdoğan, the referendum was a reflection of "national will," which infused his and the Justice and Development Party's (AKP) long dominance of Turkish politics with 71 democratic legitimacy. In this regard, Erdoğan is hardly unique. Over the last sixty years, Turkish governments of a variety of political hues have gone directly to the people seven times to seek their guidance on the important issues of the day. In 1961 and 1982, Turks were asked to approve new constitutions; in 1987, they determined the political fate of politicians banned after a coup d'état in 1980; the following year, they rejected a proposal to adjust the schedule of local elections; almost a decade later, Turks approved the direct popular election of the president of the Republic; and in 2010 and 2017, they voiced their support for constitutional amendments. In each instance, Turks demonstrated that democratic procedures and practices had become embedded norms, reinforcing the claim that Turkey's political system was democratic, even if the country was not yet a consolidated democracy.2

Critiques of referendums are well known. Although referendums represent the collective preferences of the people-or at least, of those who vote-leaders often call for referendums in order to advance their own political interests and agendas. As a result, governments are hardly neutral, and officials often direct financial resources or use coercive measures to obtain the outcomes they desire. Leaders also control the timing of referendums, deploy information strategically about the issues at stake, and devise the question to be asked, thus increasing the likelihood of an electoral outcome favorable to those in power.

Of course, there are risks that citizens will defy the wishes of their leaders. Lawrence LeDuc has found that support for proposals in referendums tends to fall during the short and intense campaigns leading up to the polls, undermining the advantages of a public opinion assumed to be in favor of government proposals.3 Leaders were made painfully aware of this and other risks associated with referendums in 2016 when the British public voted for Brexit by a slim margin and when Colombians rejected the terms of peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known universally as FARC. Another recent example of low voter engagment came when Hungary's anti-immigrant referendum received 98 percent support-despite less than 50 percent of Hungarians voting-leaving Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who campaigned in favor of restricting immigration, with a symbolic victory.4

The Turkish leadership has similarly suffered setbacks when referendums have not yielded the desired outcome. For example, in 1987, the Turkish General Staff made clear their preference that party leaders who were banned after the military's 1980 intervention should be proscribed from returning to the political arena. Turks rejected the continued ban by only three-tenths of 1 percent.5 The government lost another referendum in 1988 concerning a technical change to the schedule of local elections that turned into a vote of confidence-another problem with referendums-over then Prime Minister Turgut Özal.

The AKP has been more successful with the three referendums it has held since 2007, prevailing in all of them. Of the three, only the 2007 vote advanced _ democracy. In that referendum, Turks overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that changed the way the president of the Republic is selected. Instead of the less democratic and cumbersome process-in which political parties nominated either a consensus candidate or their own candidates and a parliamentary vote determined who would be head of state-Turks now select their president through a popular vote. …

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