Once hailed as a model for Islamic democracy, Turkey plays a key role in both the Syrian refugee crisis and the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State. On April 16, however, Turkish voters appear to have approved sweeping constitutional changes that many opponents and observers see as another big step in a years-long march toward authoritarianism under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. University of Illinois political science professor Avital Livny specializes in the study of Turkish identity politics and is finishing a book on Islamic-based activism in Turkey and the wider Muslim world. She spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
What were the key changes approved in the April 16 referendum?
The constitutional changes ranged from more minor administrative tweaks to major changes to the structure of political power in Turkey. The president’s role has been greatly expanded while the prime minister’s has been eliminated – the president will now serve as both head of state and head of government. He will also now have complete authority to appoint and remove cabinet members, as well as the vice president, a new position.
At the same time, he can now maintain an affiliation with a political party, and presidential and parliamentary elections will now take place in tandem, to the likely benefit of the president’s party. And while presidential decrees are now subject to judicial review, the constitutional court has been shrunk from 17 members to 15, with the president having the power to appoint 12 and parliament the remaining three. Meanwhile, the entire system of military courts has been dismantled.
How were these changes justified and what are the fears of opponents?
These changes have largely been justified as a necessary corrective to the 1982 constitution, put into place during Turkey’s last period of military rule. But last year’s failed coup attempt has also loomed large: Erdogan has argued that the fracturing of power under a parliamentary system is inherently destabilizing and that the concentration of power in the president’s hands is a safer bet in terms of security, as well as economic growth.
Opponents of the reform package are concerned about the removal of so many checks on the president’s authority, especially at the expense of the judiciary. With the new constitution in place, Erdogan will likely remain unchecked at the helm of the Turkish state until at least the next presidential election in 2019, if not beyond.
What happens now, especially given that opponents are questioning the legitimacy of the vote?
It is difficult to predict the future, but it seems likely that this will remain a contested issue for some time yet. While President Trump seems to have accepted the vote, a number of international organizations have questioned its validity. Regardless, I expect Erdogan’s government will push ahead with the changes, and opponents will have little recourse but to go forward. Protests will likely continue, probably with renewed fervor. But the imprisonment of members of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey speaks to the risks involved in even peaceful opposition.
How did the Kurds figure into this vote?
The Kurdish vote was always expected to play a large role in the outcome. Whereas Kurdish political leaders had called for the boycott of a referendum in 2010, they were explicit in their support for voting “no” this time around. That said, there were concerns that the Kurdish community, clustered in the southeastern regions of Turkey, could be disenfranchised. An analysis of the preliminary vote tallies would indicate that this may have been the case. Turnout was exceptionally low in many of these areas, and there were fewer "no" votes than would have been expected given past electoral results.
President Erdogan and his AKP party are Islamic in their ideology, in a country that has traditionally kept religion out of politics. Some might see that as a key factor in their moves toward centralized control. But is that the case?
My reading of the situation is that Islam played a negligible role in the most recent campaign. Instead, it would appear to have been a pretty straightforward power grab. There were at least a handful of references to Islam during the campaign, but I have seen little evidence that the centralization of power is aimed at installing a more religiously based political system in Turkey. Sure, Erdogan's government will continue making religiously laden statements or even small policy changes aimed at appeasing the more conservative members of its base, but this is a far cry from shari’a law – even if it may feel like a big shift away from Turkey’s staunchly secularist past.
Many people have viewed Erdogan’s success as evidence of a religious resurgence in Turkey. But you argue in your upcoming book that this trend, surprisingly, has little to do with faith. Can you explain?
The success of an Islamic-based party in Turkish politics, along with the rise of Islamic-based economics, has been a shock to observers and participants alike. But I have found little evidence that religiosity is on the rise in Turkey, nor do the most-pious people seem to be the main constituents of these Islamic-based groups.
Instead, it seems that references to Islam are less about advancing some sort of an Islamic agenda and more about solving a quintessential collective-action problem: large-scale political and economic activity requires that individuals trust one another enough to be willing to work together. But levels of interpersonal trust in Turkey are remarkably low. By referencing an identity that most voters and consumers have in common, Islamic-based movements are able to tap into the feelings of trust that people naturally have in members of their own identity group, making political and economic cooperation possible.