The Cable

With Reports of Unfree and Unfair Referendum, Turkey Isolates Itself Further Internationally

President Erdogan tells his critics, "know your limits," but perhaps it is their patience with his regime that is limited.

turkey ref ii

Only about 51 percent of voters supported Turkey’s national referendum, and the opposition is vowing to fight the results. But that hasn’t stopped Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s from declaring victory.

“The Western world attacked us. But we did not stop.” Erdogan said on Sunday. He called on foreign parties and countries to respect the results.

The referendum would greatly expand Turkish presidential powers, giving the president authority to issue decrees and appoint five or Turkey’s 13 Supreme Court justices (it also moves Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system). It has been widely seen in the West as a power grab and rollback of democratic hopes many had for the country in the early days of Erdogan. The vote was marred by allegations that unstamped ballots were counted, despite the opposition’s protestations.

“Clearly, [he’s] sensitive on the issue of foreign acceptance,” Bulent Aliriza, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Turkey Project, told Foreign Policy. But the other result of the referendum is this: Turkey is going to further isolate itself from the European Union and the United States.

The United States and the Europe Union withheld comment until hearing from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has 57 partner countries (including every EU member state). The OSCE took little time to weigh in. It issued a withering 14-page report on the Turkish government’s handling of the referendum on Sunday in which it blasted not only the campaign and media environment but also the government’s handling of voter registration and elections observers.

“The referendum took place on an unlevel playing field” and “voters were not provided with information about key aspects of the reform,” the OSCE said. The group suggested that any democratic process would have been problematic due to the diminishment of freedoms and restrictions on the democratic institutions since the state of emergency put in place after the July 2016 failed coup attempt.

Erdogan’s response to the OSCE? “Know your limits.”

The report was “unusually harsh” which puts the United States and Europe “in a bind in the very short term in how they’re going to interpret that,” argued Nate Schenkkan of Freedom House. Indeed, in the statement issued after the report, the United States, through acting State Department spokesperson Mark Toner, thanked the OSCE and said it looked to the Turkish government to “protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all its citizens.”

The cloud over the vote is likely to cost Erdogan abroad. His argument on the international stage is that, while he may call European governments Nazis and jail journalists, he wins legitimate elections. These, however, were “really, really bad elections,” which may lead the United States and European countries to work not with but around Erdogan, Schenkkan said.

The most direct impact will be on Turkey’s relationship with the European Union. The EU will likely halt negotiations for Turkish accession, although they likely won’t be formally suspended, Sinan Ülgen of Carnegie Europe said. “Formal suspension is tantamount to ending negotiations,” which would require unanimity to begin anew, he explained.

Erdogan’s vows to reinstate the death penalty will be a deal breaker for the EU, halting accession talks. Many thought talk of the death penalty was a “political ploy to capitalize on the nationalist vote before the referendum,” after which it would be sidelined, Ülgen said. But Erdogan vowed to bring it back on Sunday night.

The European Union is also now increasingly unlikely to allow visa-free travel from Turkey, which will lead Turkey to continue to threaten to break off the refugee deal that has helped curb migration to the EU.

The referendum’s impact on U.S.-Turkish relations is murkier, but it certainly isn’t positive. Turkish expectations were high for President Donald Trump’s administration, Aliriza said. Erdogan had soured on Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, who was working with the Kurds in Syria and refusing to extradite Erdogan bogeyman Fetullah Gülen to Turkey. But so far, the Trump administration hasn’t reversed course.

“The U.S. doesn’t have to announce rupture with Turkey,” David Phillips, a Turkey expert at Columbia University. But it might not be as friendly as it would if Turkey were working to cement its democracy. “Why would we bend over backwards to accommodate his dictatorship?” Phillips asked.

Those tensions could create a spillover out of NATO capitals and into NATO itself, either through less NATO cooperation or even by viewing Turkey as something less than a NATO ally.

“The idea that Turkey is an indispensable security partner is wrong. We need options,” Phillips said. He noted, “We should recall that NATO is just more than a security alliance. It’s a coalition of countries that share values.”

It is perhaps worth asking: why would Erdogan, who was already amassing power without a move that threw his electoral legitimacy into question, determine it was worth it to hold a referendum that would further polarize his own country while isolating it from its traditional allies?

“I don’t know if he knows another playbook. It’s his playbook, and it’s the one he always goes back to,” Schenkkan said. “He definitely thinks it works.”

Photo credit: Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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