On April 16, 2017, Turkish citizens headed to the polls in a referendum to determine the future of Turkey for the coming years if not decades. With almost 99 percent of the ballots counted, the “Yes” side was able to secure 51.33 percent and the “No” side 48.67 percent of the votes cast.
This was the sixth referendum in Turkey since the 1980 military coup d’etat. For the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), this was the third Constitutional referendum since 2002. In the 2007 and 2010 referendums, Turkish society supported the AKP’s proposed Constitutional amendments. However, Sunday’s referendum was markedly different because it came at a time of unprecedented political instability, opening the gates to even greater uncertainty for Turkey and its democracy.
It is, however, fair to claim that the roots of the 2017 referendum were laid ten years ago, when in 2007 the ruling AKP proposed to elect Turkey’s next president by the people. That provision came into force in August 2014 with Erdoğan’s election as Turkey’s 12th president. Back in 2007, it was already clear that Erdoğan was determined to get his way to the presidency, but not the one that had been in place for decades. Presidential power with the existing legal provisions was too limited to please Erdoğan’s political ambitions. It was his and his ardent supporters’ conviction that existing Constitutional hurdles prohibited him from carrying out his “sacred mission,” to fight Turkey’s enemies at home and abroad and to quell the country’s crises. Hence, according to his followers, enormous executive power was the only thing Erdoğan was missing.
Changing the Constitution, partly or entirely, was not a new idea in AKP’s Turkey. Since 2002, Erdoğan was hoping to build a national consensus and draft a new Constitution, which would pave the way for a new Turkey. In 2013, Turkey was quite close to having a new Constitution, however, the differences turned out to be too big and irreconcilable. Until the 2015 June general elections, observers were still hopeful that Erdoğan would be able to work out a new draft of the Constitution with the opposition. However, the AKP’s failure to secure enough votes in that election to form a government sent strong signals to Erdoğan that he should completely revise his strategy. It entailed a number steps: exploiting “the war against terrorism” to build a domestic consolidation; stopping “the consensus building” efforts with the opposition; instead of devising a new Constitution, moving to change those parts of the Constitution which he really needed.
Lacking the Constitutional majority in parliament (330 seats are required in order to present Constitutional amendments to voters in a referendum), he reached out to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and secured its support for shifting the Turkish parliamentary democracy into presidential democracy. The MHP’s support was critical to get enough votes in parliament to send the proposed amendments to the referendum. Eighteen articles of the referendum were built around one objective - to expand the Constitutional power of the president. The synthesis of Islamism and ultra-nationalism led the AKP to propose fundamental and comprehensive reforms to change the country’s system of government. The MHP’s siding with AKP was of particular importance for the latter’s political enterprise, since the former always opposed previous Constitutional packages of the AKP, regarding them as the imposition of the AKP rule. This time, without having a say in the content of the proposed package, the ultra-nationalists supported the Constitutional changes.
According to various reports, the “NO” camp did not enjoy equal campaigning opportunities. As a matter of fact, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) was the only parliamentary opposition force opposing the Constitutional changes. The leadership of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) was imprisoned and therefore not able to influence the “NO” campaign. The forces were too unequal. In addition, both the Supreme Election Board and a number of municipalities were not always helpful towards the “NO” campaign. Ankara and Istanbul municipalities were reluctant to authorize the “NO” rallies referring to security concerns, whereas the “YES” campaign had freely organized election rallies. The mass media, which was either silenced, closed down or tightly controlled, provided little coverage of the “NO” campaign. Against all the efforts of the ruling AKP, the “NO” campaign was able to win in three major municipalities – Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. It also won Aegean and Mediterranean regions which traditionally have been the CHP’s stronghold.
During the referendum campaign little was discussed about the concerns and grievances of ethnic and religious minorities. The problems of the sizable Kurdish minority remained largely neglected. There is little reason to believe that the AKP will be motivated to start a dialogue with the Kurds. The voting results from the Kurdish populated regions in southeast Turkey reconfirmed existing divisions, mistrust and polarization in the country. In spite of the ongoing civil war between the PKK and Turkish armed forces and silencing of Kurdish political leaders, Erdoğan failed to gain support from the Kurdish populated regions.
The scope of the post-coup crackdown in Turkey and the state of emergency were other significant factors. The atmosphere of fear shaped the public mood causing anxiety and despair. The purge and arrest of 175,000 people, the closure of more than 3500 entities - 1280 schools, 800 dormitories, 15 universities, 560 foundations, 54 hospitals, 1125 associations, 19 trade unions, 195 media outlets sent shockwaves which were difficult to manage. The opposition was and remains too weak to capitalize on these crackdowns.
Critics argue that the removal of the separation of powers will pave the way to authoritarianism. Turkish statehood is going through a new phase of instability. The assumption of the “YES” camp that the executive presidential system will boost Turkey’s democracy and solve all these problems, which were not possible to solve in the previous system of government, seems quite vulnerable.
All of this suggests that Turkey’s problems are rooted, not in its system of government, but rather in the ideological and legal foundations of statehood. Erdoğan is positioned to continue his rule relying on the ballot boxes and ignoring one of the critical conditions of democracy – finding consensus. After almost 15 years in power, the AKP has won all general and local elections, referendums and through electoral hegemony was able to monopolize power by diminishing checks over it. The normative commitment to democratic procedures and securing parliamentary majoritarianism has effectively eroded democracy in Turkey.
Erdoğan’s win by a small margin (around 1.3 million votes) will hardly make him revisit his combative stance and start building bridges with almost 23.7 million citizens who voted against him. He will interpret the latter’s stance as insignificant and pursue the goal that he originally had in his mind. The polarization of Turkish society could not be more evident.