Turkish Voters Grant More Power To The President In Historic Referendum President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a referendum granting him sweeping new powers. Steve Inskeep talks to Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute about what it means for U.S. relations with Turkey.

Turkish Voters Grant More Power To The President In Historic Referendum

Turkish Voters Grant More Power To The President In Historic Referendum

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President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a referendum granting him sweeping new powers. Steve Inskeep talks to Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute about what it means for U.S. relations with Turkey.


The president of Turkey got what he wanted from a referendum over the weekend.


In a narrow vote, the government says Recep Tayyip Erdogan won changes to the constitution. The president becomes more powerful after the next election. And if Erdogan keeps winning reelection, he can stay in office through the year 2029.

INSKEEP: These changes are big enough that his opponents say Turkey's democracy is dying. And the changes affect a vital U.S. ally, which is part of NATO. Soner Cagaptay is watching all of this. He directs Turkish research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And he's on the line via Skype. Welcome to the program, sir.

SONER CAGAPTAY: It's a pleasure to be with you.

INSKEEP: I should mention that you've got a book out this week on Erdogan. Nice timing, well done. And it's called "The New Sultan," which doesn't sound very democratic. Does that mean he was already too powerful?

CAGAPTAY: He was already, indeed. Erdogan came to power in 2013. He became Turkey's prime minister as chief executive and then president as head of state in 2014. So he had already assumed a significant amount of powers. And I think yesterday's referendum makes him the most unassailable Turkish politician since Ataturk founded Turkey back in the 1920s, so definitely a leader of great consequence for Turkish politics. He has become the most powerful person in the country's history in at least a century.

INSKEEP: Although we should mention he's a democratically elected leader and, at least according to the government's count, this referendum received a narrow majority, around 51 percent. Is Turkey still a democracy?

CAGAPTAY: That's correct. And actually, that's exactly Erdogan's problem. He is democratically elected, but he's acting sort of like an Ataturk. What is an Ataturk? Ataturk tried to shape Turkey tapped down in his own image as a secular Western society. Erdogan is doing something opposite. He's shaping Turkey in his own image as a conservative Muslim and nationalist place, and he wants to do it by the force of his personality. And the problem, though, is Ataturk was not of course democratically elected. He was the country's founder. Erdogan is. And while half of the country loves Erdogan and adores him, the other half of the country despises him.

And the challenge for Turkey's that this puts Turkey in a permanent state of crisis. Erdogan's agenda actually threatens to split Turkey because yes, 51 percent has voted for him. And they like him as their beloved sultan. But 49 percent see him as their dictator, unfortunately, and that is not a recipe for stability for Turkey going forward.

INSKEEP: Can I just mention, a leader of that 49 percent of the opposition is questioning whether it was really only 49 percent. They have some doubts about the ballot counting. And the deputy head of one of the opposition parties says that they may take a challenge to the European Court of Human Rights or to Turkey's own courts. From where you sit, is there any reason to doubt the reality of a 51 percent margin in favor of this change?

CAGAPTAY: Turkey has had free and fair elections longer than has had Spain. Turkey has been holding free and fair elections since 1950. It's really unfortunate that there's a first time you see massive allegations of vote-rigging. I was following this as well, and I think that there is some ground to think that there may have been some irregularities. The election board deemed valid unofficiated ballot papers after the polls closed. So we don't know whether the amount of vote fraud was significant enough to change the outcome or more than 1 percent, but definitely something happened.

And Turkish courts are in general conservative in terms of overturning election outcomes. So I don't think anything will come out of it. But the problem is, in a country that's so deeply divided, where it's almost half and half for and against Erdogan, if you even have allegations of voter fraud, whether or not it happened, his legitimacy will be completely and constantly questioned by that half that does not vote for him. And I think that is a problem for him going forward.

INSKEEP: Was the playing field already slanted, regardless of any ballot rigging that there may or may not have been, just because Turkey's government has taken more and more direct control of the media and the opposition says they couldn't get their voices out?

CAGAPTAY: That is indeed the case. I think that the election yesterday was free and fair, despite those allegations of voter fraud. But the competition, or the contest running up to the election, was definitely not fair. The playing field was not fair for the first time. I could see many instances where, for instance, resources devoted to the pro-Erdogan, or yes campaign, far outweighed resources devoted by the government - that is resources devoted - to the anti-Erdogan, or the no campaign, so I think that's definitely not a fair race. And that is really where Turkey's problems are today, in the sense that it's such a deeply polarized society that it's not able to move forward in a unified fashion.

INSKEEP: Can the United States keep Turkey as a very, very close NATO ally as it becomes less democratic?

CAGAPTAY: That's probably going to be the case. Although Turkey's increasingly less democratic and increasingly deeply polarized, it's still a very important ally because it borders Iran, Iraq, Syria. It is the country that's going to help us defeat ISIS. It is right next to Russia. So whatever your U.S. policies are regarding those four countries, Turkey's essential. But mind you that the U.S. government still has not issued any statements or congratulatory remarks on the outcome of the referendum because I think we're all waiting to see whether the vote itself was free and fair.

INSKEEP: Soner Cagaptay, thank you very much.

CAGAPTAY: It's my pleasure.

INSKEEP: He directs Turkish Research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and joined us by Skype.

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