The affirmative response to April’s constitutional referendum will have wide-ranging repercussions for Turkey, both domestically and externally.
On 16 April, the Turkish electorate narrowly voted affirmative to reconfiguring the country from a parliamentary to executive presidential political system. The result of 51.4 per cent to 48.6 per cent, will hand sweeping powers to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has publicly campaigned for the switch since 2011.
The changes, which are to be implemented by 2019, effectively enshrine Erdoğan’s de facto executive role. The president, who was hitherto nominally restricted to ceremonial duties, will have the authority to issue executive orders, directly appoint senior civil servants and judges, declare states of emergency, and appoint vice presidents. The position of prime minister, who previously served as the head of government, has been abolished.
Initial reports from monitoring organisations indicate some level of fraud around the electoral results. An Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observation mission’s preliminary report on 17 April has identified a pro-government media atmosphere in the run-up to the election, with biased media coverage heavily favouring the ‘yes’ camp.
The OSCE’s observation mission also identified the detention of multiple journalists over the past year as creating an atmosphere of intimidation around the campaign. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a free speech advocacy NGO based in the U.S., in its most recent estimate from December 2016, claims 81 journalists are currently jailed in Turkey, with other international organisations claiming numbers of over 200.
Although the OSCE report was broadly supportive of the technical elements of the voting process, it raised concerns over the electoral council’s last-minute revoking of a rule that each ballot be officially stamped. The electoral council instead said that ballots would be assumed legitimate without evidence to the contrary. Multiple opposition parties, including the country’s second-largest party the CHP, have claimed that this decision invalidated the results, and contested the validity of the referendum verdict. On 25 April, the supreme court declined to hear the opposition case.
There were sharp geographical divides in national voting patterns. For example, the country’s three largest urban centres, including the capital Ankara, the financial centre Istanbul and the port city of İzmir, voted against the proposals. The referendum result has already triggered large-scale protests throughout these cities, with large marches held on 18 April in the Beşiktaş and Kadıköy districts of Istanbul. Security forces have responded forcibly to the unrest, with tear gas deployed against protesters, and a subsequent nationwide dawn operation arresting dozens of anti-government activists at their homes.
A2 assesses that disorder is likely to continue and escalate, particularly if opposition parties continue to provide evidence of tampering and unfair practices in the referendum. Although foreign interests have not been directly targeted, there is a substantial risk that premises and personnel will be inadvertently caught up in any subsequent violence. Security forces will almost certainly respond severely to any demonstrations, with Erdoğan already dismissing criticism of the referendum as extremist and law enforcement units detaining people who have questioned the validity of the results, either publicly or online.
This unrest poses a direct security threat to staff deployed to urban areas, as there is a substantial chance they will be caught up in protests. These cities are home to numerous foreign companies and personnel, and have traditionally been secure places to live and work. This means that companies are unlikely to have developed shelter-in-place and emergency-response plans, and therefore security managers should attempt to create comprehensive response procedures for large-scale unrest as soon as possible.
Another area of the country which overwhelmingly rejected the referendum was the south-east Kurdish-dominated area. This region is home to various Kurdish non-state armed groups (NSAGs), primarily the powerful, well-resourced and combat-tested Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The pro-Kurdish HDP party has already heavily criticised the result as undemocratic, and it is likely that Kurdish NSAGs will use the referendum result as a reason to escalate their insurgent operations against the Turkish government and security apparatus. This poses substantial risks for companies present in south-east Turkey, such as mining facilities, given the difficulty of mitigating security risks in an active conflict zone. Security managers operating in these high-risk areas should ensure withdrawal plans are in place, to be immediately triggered in the event of a breakdown in the security environment.
European capitals have responded cautiously to the referendum announcement, while avoiding being overly critical. The Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, for example, said the result demonstrated deep divisions within Turkish society, and called on the president to be mindful of this when implementing any constitutional change. A public statement by the U.K. government, moreover, reinforced Turkey’s position as a British strategic ally, but expressed concern over the findings in the OSCE report.
If the Turkish government uses force against protestors, or begins to dismantle any process of checks and balances against the executive authority, European Union countries will likely sharpen their rhetoric. This will have several immediate repercussions.
First, any country that strongly criticises the referendum result will elevate the security risk to its own citizens currently in Turkey. A Norwegian journalist was attacked on 13 March by a local mob after he was mistaken for Dutch, following a diplomatic spat between the Netherlands and Turkey. It appears that security forces showed no willingness to intervene in the situation. This incident demonstrates that hostile rhetoric not only has immediate security implications, but that Erdoğan supporters will not differentiate between citizens of different European countries.
The CHP has already unsuccessfully appealed the referendum result to the Council of State, the country’s supreme court. Other prominent opposition parties, including the HDP, have also expressed their discontent with the fairness of the referendum. Erdoğan has already demonstrated he is willing to move against lawmakers who have publicly criticised him, for example by arresting the two co-chairs of the HDP in November 2016 on charges of sympathising with the PKK.
Although such extreme action has been traditionally restricted to Kurdish politicians, A2 assesses that the government would be willing to take similar steps against CHP lawmakers and party activists if they perceive them as a significant threat. This would sharply undermine national political stability, as opposition parties could declare the government illegitimate. This could take the form of refusing to co-operate with the government on policy, attempting to block legislation and rhetorically undermining the legitimacy of the administration. Such political infighting, which could trigger major unrest, would distract the government and weaken its ability to govern.
Such weakness could increase the chances of another attempted coup by the armed forces. Although the security apparatus has been thoroughly purged following last year’s coup, sufficient concern from within these institutions could cause elements of the armed forces to attempt to overthrow the government. If such a coup succeeded, Turkey would immediately be under martial law, and businesses would be operating in an extremely uncertain political climate. Conversely, if the coup failed, the government would escalate its crackdown on perceived opposition figures, rapidly increasing the risk that business personnel would be detained on spurious national security grounds. A2 assesses this as a low-probability high-impact event, and advises managers to consider how they could withdraw staff safely and rapidly in such circumstances, and what their corporate risk-tolerance is.