DON’T beat the air… it is too late now”. This was stated by President Erdogan of Turkey when he declared victory in a passionate speech in Ankara. In one breath, he appeared to reach out to his opponents, calling the results a “victory of everyone who said yes and no.” But in the next moment, he pledged to restore the death penalty and derided the oppositions plan to contest the result. On April 16, 58 million people in Turkey voted in a referendum that would change the way the country is governed. According to official results, supporters of the constitutional changes that seek to extend the powers of Turkey’s presidential office have won the historic vote being 51.3% to 48.7%.
The main opposition; Republican People’s Party (CHP), pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) and other critics argue the modifications will give too much power to one individual thereby undermining the separation of powers in the government. Thousands of people took to the streets of Istanbul and other Turkish cities late on April 17 to protest the results of the referendum. The protesters expressed anger about last-minute changes to the referendum voting procedures and an electoral board decision to allow as valid more than a million ballots cast without an official stamp. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE) deemed the legal framework for the referendum inadequate. However, the result was already a political reality.
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) believe that the new system will make Turkey more efficient and stable. For a country that has been under a state of emergency since a group in the Turkish army tried to overthrow government in a failed coup attempt that killed around 300 people. The “yes” vote in the referendum is nothing short of an endorsement of the current leadership style of Mr Erdogan, who has been acting as a de facto head of govt since his election in 2014 despite having no constitutional right to wield such power.
As much as this referendum will shape Turkey’s domestic politics in the years to come, it will also have a significant effect on its foreign relations, as well. So what can one expect from Turkey’s post-referendum foreign policies in the most happening region in the world at the moment? With regards to the Middle East, tens of thousands of Syrian citizens have sought refuge in Turkey.
The Kurdish question in the region is also an important one. Both the US and Russia are still supporting PKK-affiliated Kurdish groups in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria, even though Turkey has emphasised – time and time again – that it considers this issue to be a red line. In Iraq, Turkey is also facing similar problems due to the various encounters between the Kurdistan Regional Government, a Turkish ally, and the Turkmen groups that have been under Turkish protection. Erdogan has also indicated that Turkey may soon engage in a new cross-border operation by saying that the Euphrates Shield is not going to be Turkey’s final operation in region.
While, the president has not set a time-frame or a location for the forthcoming operation, public support for the Euphrates Shield Operation- launched in northern Syria in 2016-has always been widely endorsed which shows that the majority of the Turkish public would back another cross-border operation – especially if it is against the PKK or a PKK-affiliated Kurdish militia. The reality on the ground also decrees that if Turkey is going to start any new cross-border operation in the near future, its target is going to be Iraq. However, it must not be forgotten that the US wants to be in control of the outcome of both of all such operations, so it is highly doubtful that it would give Erdogan its assent for such an irruption. That said it must not be sidelined that in all probability Erdogan is planning another military operation given the previous operation’s success, to rally up support for his domestic politics. The area east of the Euphrates river, on the other hand, is under control of the US and at the moment, the US is preparing for the approaching Raqqa operation and so is unlikely to allow Turkey to come in and intrude in on the balance in this area.
Nevertheless, if Turkey decides to embark on a new cross-border operation, it cannot be determined if it will continue to be an active player in the region in the post-referendum period. So far, the referendum result has revealed a deeply divided country, nearly half of which now feels highly embittered. The result have no doubt tightened Mr. Erdogan’s grip on a country, which is one of the leading external actors in the Syrian civil war, a major way station along the migration routes to Europe and a crucial Middle Eastern partner of the United States and Russia. Only time will reveal what path Erdogan chooses. For now it seems he is bent on cementing his image across the region.
— The writer is Research Fellow, Institute of Strategic Studies, a think-bank based in Islamabad.