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16 April

Turkey’s most critical vote ever

Referendum on the systemic switch to executive presidency is bound to transform the country one way or another

The Turkish electorate have once again spent a Sunday at the voting polls. This fifth exercise since March 2014, a referendum to decide the fate of a package of constitutional amendments is one of the most critical turning points in Turkey’s history. Arguably this is the most critical vote ever in the Republic’s history. Nothing short of the nature of the Turkish political system, or in fact, the regime is at stake. In case of a ‘’Yes’’ vote there will be a systemic switch to a full-fledged executive presidency and Turkey’s century old parliamentarian system will become history.

The current constitution was written by the military junta that staged a coup in 1980 and was accepted by an overwhelming majority in 1982. It has already been amended three times by popular vote and 15 times through legislative action. But this time, the proposed changes are sweeping. They basically create a system referred to by its creators as “Turkish style presidency” that accumulates all the political power in the hands of the executive represented by the President. Although the parliament would continue to exist, it will no longer be the central institution of the political system. With such a demotion, the role, functions and powers of political parties will also have been reduced considerably. The President would have the power to dissolve the parliament anytime he wishes and the parliament will have no power to exert checks and balances over the President. It will lose its right to interpellation. The post of the prime minister will be abolished, the cabinet will be selected by the President, and his appointees will not need the consent of the Parliament. The President will be allowed to issue decrees as the sole head of the executive branch. He will also have broad powers over judicial appointments and he himself will have no criminal liability.

In other words, if the “Yes” camp turns out to be the winner this Sunday, the Turkish public will have sided with a regrettable combination. The 1982 Constitution will still retain its draconian, freedom restricting spirit and articles. The modifications, in turn, will let the President have the first and last say in everything with no checks and balances. There will be no possibility of holding him accountable for his acts and decisions.

The amendments are tailor-made for one man; the current Head of the Republic, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Various leaders in Turkey’s right-wing politics have expressed their wish to endorse a Presidential system in the past. Erdoğan has joined them in 2003-when he first became prime minister. The ideological spirit behind the amendments embodies the populistic line of thinking; the President, as he will be chosen by popular vote, will be representing the volonté general - the will of the majority. Hence, he cannot do wrong and cannot be held accountable because he is the very incarnation of the people.

Surprise hidden in the ballot box?

Since 2010, Turkey had gone through three general elections, one presidential election, one municipal election and including this Sunday’s, two referenda. These ballots, except for one, helped the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to consolidate its power and actually monopolize the political field as the ruling party. The 7 June 2015 general elections were the only exception to this trend; then, the AKP’s votes were reduced to 40,87% and the party was unable to form a single party government for the first time since its ascendancy to power in 2002. Nevertheless, the political mastery of Erdoğan helped the party reject that electoral verdict. His wish that the elections be repeated was fulfilled when the country went back to the polls on 1 November 2015 after a wave of terrorist incidents had shaken the country to its core. The violence of the interval between the two elections propelled the AKP’s vote to 49%. The party was back at the helm by itself.

Prior to the November 1 elections, the electorate hid their preferences and the polls showed no indication that the results would be any different than the previous election. Yet there was of course a dramatic shift towards AKP mainly because of an upsurge in the number of terrorist attacks during the intervening months.

Prior to the referendum, it is especially difficult to forecast the results of the vote. Turkey has been under a state of emergency rule for almost 10 months, declared within days after the 15 July 2016 coup attempt. The pollsters point out that the reply rates to questionnaires have fallen below 25-30 percent from the customary 50.

Current polls suggest an almost 50-50% divide between the “Yes” and “No” votes. Metropoll, one of the most reputable polling companies’ results were 52% for “Yes” and 48% for “No” at the beginning of April. When they repeated the poll this week, the results were 52,5% “Yes” and 47,5% “No”. The “No” camp had a better edge during January and February, but at the beginning of March, the “Yes” camp gained the upper hand as the nationalistic tone of its campaign amplified.

In March the political crisis with the Netherlands over the expulsion of AKP’s Family and Social Affairs Minister Fatma Betül Şahin boosted the “Yes” support. Şahin’s “victimhood as a conservative woman being expelled by the Dutch police” was utilized as a popular theme through the mainstream and social media. President Erdoğan himself started to emphasize the idea that the referendum is a “clash between the Crescent and the Cross”.  The Sunday vote was even conceptualized as a symbolic gesture “to halt the new Crusades”.

Already rigged ballot?

Nearly the entire state apparatus including the governors and segments of the national and local bureaucracy were at the service of the ‘’Yes’’ camp during the campaign. The pro-government media have been thoroughly mobilized to support the “Yes” campaign and the mainstream media with very few exceptions basically chose to be timid or colorless. The advocates of the “No” campaign on the other hand faced more than 200 documented attacks; including violent ones. Supporting the “No” vote was depicted as supporting “terrorism” by the top names of the cabinet, as well as President Erdoğan himself.

All in all, openly declaring support for the “No” vote required courage. One thing is clear though: Faced with myriad obstacles, waves of intimidation and frequent harassments the ‘’No’’ camp proved resilient. We will only know how resilient “No” has actually been when the ballots are counted. We will also discover how many – if any – of those who publicly declared their support for “Yes” were actually shy “No” voters.

The Limited Referendum Observation Mission of OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR LROM) has released an interim report released by OSCE/ODIHR LROM over Turkey’s referendum on 7 April, verifying that “the campaign is characterized by polarization and some restrictions”. The report declared that “the fact that a number of political leaders and activists remain behind bars has seriously curtailed some groups’ ability to campaign. As of now, in several cases, ‘No’ supporters have faced police interventions while campaigning; a number were also arrested on charges of insulting the president or organizing unlawful public events”.

In the campaign, the "Yes” vote clearly had the upper hand. The response bias may have worked in its favor as well, since voters were simply afraid to be marked as “terrorists” especially in small districts where the votes cannot remain anonymous. Yet, the fact that the contest is a dead heat at this stage speaks to a potent force of resistance and discontent in the country, which just might come ahead. An additional factor in favor of “No” is that there is no imminent danger that the AKP will lose its political hegemony in case of a loss. Voting “No” is simply voting against this particularly radical systemic change, but not against the party or against the President, who remains very popular.

This referendum will not change the political power balance in Turkey. President Erdoğan has his mandate until 2019, and the general elections are not due until that same year, although nobody expects either the President or the Parliament to serve their full terms. ‘’Yes’’ or ‘’No’’, early elections are in the offing. Yet a ‘’No’’ vote will indicate vulnerability and weakness on his part and highlight the cracks that exist within the AKP where many previously powerful figures are looking for an opportunity to come back. Such an outcome may also open some space for other center right cum nationalist politicians to try their hand.

When all else fails for the analysts of Turkish politics and reaching a conclusion proves elusive, one always falls back on the common sense and wisdom of the electorate. Tonight, we will all find out where that wisdom lies.


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