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Who will determine the result of the referendum in Turkey?

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks in a press conference in Ankara, Turkey on 23rd March [Kayhan Özer/Anadolu Agency]
President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks in a press conference in Ankara, Turkey on 23rd March [Kayhan Özer/Anadolu Agency]

Only a few days separate Turkey from the most important popular referendum in its modern history, as over 55 million voters (exactly 55,336,960) head to the ballot boxes on Sunday to cast their votes a constitutional amendment aimed at transforming the country from a parliamentary to presidential system of government.

In addition to these votes, the Turks abroad in over 56 countries have ended the voting process, which started on 26 March. The European capitals in particular witnessed a 20 per cent rise in participation compared to the last parliamentary elections. Perhaps the recent Turkish-European crisis has cast its shadow over the voter turnout.

As of the eve of 9 April, and according to the Turkish Supreme Electoral Commission, 1,241,837 Turkish citizens voted in diplomatic representations and 31 border crossings. While the voting process has ended abroad, voting on the various border crossings continued until the evening of the voting day, 16 April. The total number of these voters is expected to reach 1.5 million.

Read: Turkish referendum polls put 'yes' vote slightly ahead

There are several factors that influence the formation of the Turkish voters' opinion in this referendum, perhaps the most important of which is their political and partisan affiliations, despite the fact that this is not a parliamentary or presidential election. This is followed by their position on Erdogan, as a survey conducted by A & G two months ago indicated that 70 per cent of those who would vote in favour of the constitutional amendment would do so because of confidence in Erdogan, while 30 per cent of those who voted against the referendum would do so because the vote is supported by Erdogan.

Certainly, there are other factors influencing the decision of the Turkish voters, such as their geographical area of residence, level of education, and the extent of their knowledge of the material the amendment addresses. However, what is more important than this seems to be the economic situation in the country ahead of the referendum and the security situation shortly before and during the vote. These are areas that the typical parties are trying to play with and use to influence voter opinion.

The opinion polls, despite their scarcity, indicate that those in favour of the constitutional amendment outnumber those who are opposed to it by percentages that vary from one company to another. However, given how these companies operate; some of whom announce their results in an effort to influence voter opinion; we are not inclined to rely on these results.

In addition to this, various parties conduct their own opinion polls keeping results under wraps to be used as a guide in electoral campaigns; as every party focuses on the areas where they have the least votes in the days leading up to the elections, these polls tend to be objective and more accurate.

In this context, my sources indicate that the last poll conducted by the Justice and Development Party suggested that about 53 per cent are in favour of the amendment.

People stage a protest against Dutch authorities to show solidarity with the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Turkish Family Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya after they were blocked from entering the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam. The protest took place near the Dutch Consulate General building, in Istanbul, Turkey on March 12, 2017.

Campaigning has continued in a very traditional way, especially the governing Justice and Development Party's campaign. They rely on mass rallies, passionate speeches, songs, etc., however, because the popular referendum on the constitutional amendment differs in its dynamics from the presidential or parliamentary elections, voters may not be able to determine the result of the ballot, but rather two intertwined categories of people are more likely to have the final say.

The first category is the youth, of which over two million will participate for the first time in any election. The youth are a dilemma for various parties as they require a special style of campaigning and persuasion, but they are especially a challenge for the Justice and Development Party. This is because the youth did not know Turkey before the JDP's rule (especially the military coups) and therefore they are less appreciative of the party's achievements. This is why this persuading them is harder than the middle-aged and older citizens. The youth have contributed to the declined votes for the JDP in the June 2015 elections, during which its parliamentary majority was lost making the party unable to form a government alone until after the November 2015 elections.

The Republican People's Party sought to win the hearts and minds of the youth by sending them special messages and emails to persuade them to reject the constitutional amendment. They played on the authorities given to the president and scared them with claims that the president would infringe on democracy and freedoms. Meanwhile the JDP is relying on reducing the age for parliamentary candidacy from 25 to 18 in the constitutional amendment to convince the youth, as well as relying on the fact that they witnessed the failed coup attempt last summer in order to revive their sense of being targeted.

Also read: Kurdish separatism 're-energised' in Iraq as independence referendum looms

The second category and perhaps the first and most important that will determine the vote next Sunday is the undecided group, a percentage that is usually estimated during every electoral event in Turkey at around 15 per cent. The percentage of undecided voters at the beginning of the electoral campaigns was between 15 and 20 per cent, but now the electoral campaigns that were filled with discussions and debates over the materials addressed by the constitutional amendment has influenced their percentage, decreasing it to 10-12 per cent according to the opinion polls in the past few days.

Since ten per cent of the votes are important and influential (five million votes), especially in view of the similar percentages of approval and opposition of the amendment according to the opinion polls mentioned earlier, the various parties are doing their best to persuade this group, which consists mainly of youth and those wanting to boycott the vote because of their reservations towards the content proposed for amendment. To do so, the parties are combining populism, emotions, amending the content proposed, intimidation regarding the consequences of voting for and against the change, personal and media attacks, as well as other typical electoral tactics.

Since undecided voters usually choose in the final days and even final hours leading up to their vote, the remaining polling days are very important for the political parties and voters alike. This promises heated campaigning and striking the chords of political and partisan polarisations and skirmishes.  This also makes it difficult to predict the result before the evening of 16 April, which will go down in the Turkey's history as an influential day clearly leaving its mark on the course of events, regardless of the result of the vote.

Translated from Arabi21, 10 April 2017.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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