As Turkey gears up for a historic referendum on Sunday, Istanbul is teeming with banners, rallies and – most importantly in a democracy – opinions. As is the norm in any election campaign in Turkey, trucks equipped with loudspeakers run circuits around neighbourhoods and districts, blaring out their various campaign songs and promises, encouraging the people to either vote “Yes” or “No” to a raft of constitutional changes that could see the republic move from a system of parliamentary government to an executive-style presidential system.
However, and aside from the potentially game-changing nature of the referendum, this political campaign is unlike any in recent Turkish political history. Since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, most campaigns were either about winning majorities in parliament to form a strong government, or else they were about minor tweaks. An example of this is the “first” presidential referendum that allowed voters, and for the first time in Turkish history, to directly elect their president, an election incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan easily won in 2014.
De facto executive president
Back then, the office of the president was still a largely symbolic position, though Erdogan managed to use his great personal influence to transform it into a de facto executive presidency, even disposing of the services of a prime minister he no longer got along with, former AKP heavyweight and foreign policy architect Ahmet Davutoglu. This was despite the fact that presidents in Turkey are supposed to be non-partisan and should have no influencing control over parties.
Yet at the event last May in Ankara that was touted as a party election, MEMO reported how it was clear from the outset that the decision had already been made, and it was also clear that Erdogan was the one making the decisions.
Outside the event hall – a large stadium in downtown Ankara – posters could be seen of Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk side-by-side with Erdogan, as well as Davutoglu and alongside him his successor and current Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. This demonstrated not only Erdogan’s continuing involvement with top-level AKP decision-making, but also that the ballot had been cast long before there were any formal candidates to succeed Davutoglu.
Will voting ‘No’ change anything?
This then begs the question – if Erdogan is already exercising executive power due to his personality, what would be the point in voting “No” against the constitutional amendments?
“A ‘No’ vote would mean that the citizens are not happy with that de facto one-man regime,” Utku Cakirozer, the MP for Eskisehir representing the Republican People’s Party (CHP), told MEMO.
By saying no, the citizens would make it clear to all, the president, the governing party and the opposition, that they should act according to the duties and responsibilities framed in the constitution and should not overreach their limitations.
There were doubts that Erdogan losing the referendum would make significant changes in the foreseeable future, but a change in AKP’s dominant electoral fortunes was the idea behind the rejection of the proposed amendments.
CHP’s representative to the EU, Kader Sevinc, explained that a rejection of the amendments “would not immediately alter the de facto state of affairs in Turkey or change the lives of Turkish citizens…[but] it will mark the beginning of a downturn in the fortunes of AKP [who have been] in power since 2002.”
Commenting further on the perceived illiberalism in Turkey and increasing encroachments on human rights, Sevinc, who is also a presidency member of the Party of European Socialists and Democrats, said: “A ‘No’ vote would give the democratic and liberal forces in Turkey a chance, a window of opportunity to reclaim Turkey’s secular democracy. Their hand will be stronger politically.”
However, the CHP’s views on secularism and liberalism are rejected by conservative voices in Turkey’s political spectrum.
Speaking to MEMO, AKP representative Yusuf Ziya Iskender said:
When they [the CHP] talk about liberalism and rights, have they forgotten that it was they who banned women from the right to wear the hijab [the Islamic headscarf] and it was AKP who restored this basic human right and freedom of religious expression?
Iskender, an AKP member of the Istanbul administrative council and a senior member of the party’s youth branch, argued that if it was not for AKP, a string of Kemalist military officers would have continued to intervene in Turkey’s democracy.
“The Kemalists talk about democracy and human rights when they spent decades destroying the very things they claim to be protectors of,” the AKP council member said. “I think they are hypocrites, and they are working to destabilise Turkey and reverse all the economic, industrial and democratic advances made by AKP since 2002.”
Reflecting the mutual cynicism and polarisation prevalent in Turkish politics, an academic, who declined to be named, told MEMO:
In Turkey, the opposition are only democrats when they’re in opposition. If they were in power, they would be doing the same as Erdogan.
‘State of emergency’
A crucial aspect of this campaign that is often ignored is the environment in which it takes place.
Cakirozer said that it was important that both voters and observers alike are reminded “that the referendum is taking place under a state of emergency” and there was therefore a danger that the various voices of the referendum debate were being stifled.
Hundreds of media outlets have been shut down, thousands of journalists [have been made] jobless, and more than 150 journalists have been imprisoned, all of which has an important impact on informed debate about the content of the [proposed] constitutional package.
A state of emergency was declared by the Turkish authorities on 20 July after a botched coup attempt thought to have been orchestrated by the Gulenists, a religious organisation led by cleric Fethullah Gulen who has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States.
Gulen was formerly an ally of AKP, and helped Erdogan curtail the influence of Kemalist officers through various legal cases and police operations to arrest alleged conspirators.
“The state had to act against FETO, and hence why it was important for the state of emergency to be declared,” Iskender told MEMO, using an acronym for the Gulenists meaning the “Fethullah Terrorist Organisation”, widely used in the Turkish media.
The AKP council member said that the stance of the CHP and western states who are critical of Turkey’s crackdown on alleged Gulenist journalists and bureaucrats was hypocritical, explaining “If they [those criticising AKP over the state of emergency] were subjected to a coup attempt, one that I remind you killed more than 240 people and injured almost 2,200 others of our countrymen, would they not act against such a threat to Turkish democracy?”
If not, then they are democrats only when it suits them, and in fact don’t care what happens to our democracy, which is precious to AKP because it is also precious to the Turkish nation who consistently votes for us, granting us a wide-ranging democratic mandate.
“In any event, you can see the ‘No’ campaign’s posters and buses all over the city – the state of emergency is against terrorist threats, not political expression,” Iskender concluded.
Meanwhile, former Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leadership candidate, Meral Aksener told MEMO that a system of government as envisaged by Erdogan and the AKP would further threaten rights as the judiciary would be weakened.
“Executive, legislative and judicial powers will be pooled, unbalanced and unchecked, into the hands of a single person,” Aksener said, who was expelled from MHP after her failed bid to unseat incumbent party leader Devlet Bahceli.
Drawing upon conservative and religious sentiment to criticise the objectives of the conservative-leaning AKP, Aksener continued: “Our Islamic beliefs dictate that we must see that was is right and just – the law – must be the focal point of our system of governance.”
“A parliamentary system that adopts a strong judiciary system as its focal point will suit the Turkish Nation which is well-known for its just judicial systems and its culture of consultation,” Aksener concluded.
A divided opposition
The CHP is the oldest party in modern Turkey, created by its founding father Ataturk whose cult of personality has far outlived the man himself. The party carries a long political tradition as the flagbearers of the vision of Ataturk, and has also been the main opposition party to the 15 years of AKP rule, largely characterised as Islamist though it describes itself as conservative secularist.However, that opposition has largely been seen and divided and weak, allowing AKP to deftly manoeuvre against their political opponents and take advantage of their lack of unity.
“The best way to explain Turkish parties would be to draw a square and place the ‘Big Four’ [AKP, CHP, nationalist MHP, pro-Kurdish separatist HDP] in each corner,” explained Alihan Limoncuoglu, an assistant professor of public relations at Okan University in Istanbul.
“As the two biggest parties, AKP and CHP can get voters from MHP and HDP and vice versa, but not from each other,” Limoncuoglu said. Saying that the AKP and CHP are diametrically opposed to one another ideologically, with the same being true of the MHP and HDP, Limoncuoglu explained that this created significant polarisation but also opportunity.
This situation creates problems for the CHP but not for AKP, because AKP can get more voters from both MHP and HDP by rallying through ‘uniting under the flag of Islam’, whereas the [Kemalist] CHP lacks such an ideological tool.
As a result of the heavily fractured opposition and their inability to work together, a win for the “Yes” campaign seems almost inevitable, though pollsters have indicated that the fears being roused over the break from Turkey’s past may have brought this race almost neck-and-neck.
An enduring legacy?
As President Erdogan already wields significant power, questions are turning to his legacy following the referendum. If the expected “Yes” outcome is reached, Erdogan and every president thereafter will be limited to two five-year terms in office. This means that if he wins the proposed presidential elections of 2019, he could be in power until 2029, but would then have to leave office.
Through this referendum, it is widely acknowledged that the Turkish leader is attempting to engrave his own mark on Turkey’s political history, perhaps rivalling the influence and symbolism of founding father Ataturk himself.
While there is no doubt that Erdogan has changed the face of Turkey over the last 15 years, those opposed to him state that his ambitions of reaching for a lofty end to a remarkable political career will never be immortalised in the same manner as Ataturk himself.
Arguing that Erdogan “has set his eyes on his own version of ‘loftier heights’”, Sevinc, the CHP representative to the EU, said:
“Ataturk’s legacy cannot be matched. That legacy is unique and too rich to be emulated, and has earned recognition and respect the world over,” Sevinc told MEMO. “Given the fact that Turkey has regressed politically, economically, socially and in its foreign relations under [Erdogan], history is unlikely to be kind to him in judging his legacy.”
“Nonsense,” says the AKP’s Iskender. “Erdogan has improved the lives of Turkish citizens, whether Turk, Kurd, Arab or any other ethnicity. Show me a single CHP-led government or any other administration that has made Turkey into an economic powerhouse respected globally.”
“Unlike Ataturk who bombed and attacked them [the Kurds], Erdogan attempted to make peace with our Kurdish brothers and sisters, and they can speak, read, write and broadcast in their own language for the first time,” Iskender explained.
“This all happened as a result of AKP expanding the rights of people, not the CHP who squandered the rights of non-Turk Turkish citizens,” the AKP representative said, adding that “to this day most Kurdish voters vote for AKP rather than separatists,” in reference to the pro-Kurdish separatism HDP party.
CHP and others fear that their Kemalist legacy of discriminating against people just because they choose conservative lifestyles is well and truly over, which is why they attack AKP and the president. History will show that President Erdogan was a great statesman who protected and enhanced the lives of his citizens.
Whatever happens with Erdogan’s legacy, Sunday’s referendum will show clearly whether or not Turkish citizens are willing to break from their past, doing away with a parliamentary system that has often led to indecisive and polarised coalition governments, creating the atmosphere and environment for the military to overthrow governments on four occasions since 1960.
If they choose to do so, much power will be vested into the hands of a single man, and the Turkish people will have to decide if they want their captain and first mate to be one and the same man – Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.