Bells are ringing for Turkey’s moment of decision
Yes or no? This will be the question for nearly 55 million voters in Turkey when they go to the polls in April, unless the Erdogan government changes its mind and calls off the vote.
A “yes” vote would legitimise a de facto singular rule that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan represents as the holder of the executive presidency, establishing a sort of sultanate that many analysts agree would bring an end to the parliamentary system whose roots go back to the foundation of the republic in 1923.
In a nutshell, a “yes” vote would push Turkey into the league of autocracies in operation in Central Asia.
Erdogan was in full-scale “yes-I-can” mode when he launched the moves in January that led to the planned referendum. Playing his Machiavellian cards masterfully, he kept his ultra-nationalist adversary, Devlet Bahceli, who is the leader of the National Movement Party (MHP), closer, cementing an Islamo-conservative bloc in the majority.
In return, Bahceli, is rumoured to have been promised cabinet seats for the MHP. However, given Erdogan’s record of political treachery, concerns have risen that Bahceli’s move was an act of suicide for his party.
Much has been written about the power shift Erdogan has worked so hard for since 2011. In short, it would abolish the separation of powers, hand him maximum powers to form a government and shape the entire state apparatus.
By way of appointments, he would have nearly full control over the judiciary, guaranteeing immunity from charges on abuse of power and corruption. By keeping his party affiliation, he would be a commander-in-chief, having a potential to rule the country by also exerting control of the armed forces. He would be empowered to issue decrees at will and to abolish parliament as he sees fit.
Sezgin Tanrikulu, a Kurdish deputy of the main opposition, secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), described it astutely, using a football club as an analogy.
“Imagine a chairman of that club,” he wrote. “He gets elected at the same time as the chairman of the national football federation. He has the right to appoint the members of the national referees’ committee and also professional football disciplinary commission. He shapes football arbitration committee as well. Not only that: If a player in his team misses a goal, he can fire that player. If the rival team happens to win against his team, he is entitled to punish the rival team. And, if despite all this, his team doesn’t win the championship, he has the power to cancel the entire league!”
Back to the question. Will it be a “yes” after all or “no”? Figures by respected national pollster AKAM presented a snapshot that would disappoint Erdogan. The survey in the first half of January showed the “no” vote at 57.6% with the “yes” vote at 42.4%.
This explains why there has been a delay by Erdogan to ratify the bill by parliament that would make the April referendum a must. At the time of this writing, ten days had passed without presidential approval. İs there a change of heart? It may that the presence of a large “no” vote is worrisome for the ruling Justice and Democratic Party (AKP). If so, a way out would be either to wait until 2019 elections or to declare snap polls. This, it seems, is the AKP’s hard choice.
Presuming that the chaotic and acrimonious politics of Turkey advances to referendum, how will the “yes” and “no” sides build their campaigns? Erdogan has made it clear that, defying once more the constitution, he would arrange at least 40 rallies. His strength with the public is unquestionable and that is what his party, the AKP, counts on, in bringing the “yes” vote to between 55-60%. This corresponds to a total of the AKP and MHP vote.
There could be glitches along the way. The AKAM survey pointed out, for example, that the two-thirds of the ultra-nationalist voters of MHP said they would vote “no”. Anxious about this, Erdogan is pushing for further arrests and overall harassment of pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) deputies, just to appease those voters. If this is the pattern, it is taken for granted that the HDP would be under huge legal pressure.
On the other side of the equation: The horror for the “no” side would be low voter turnout. The AKAM study indicated that 20% of the HDP voters polled said they are not willing to vote due to fear or mistrust. AKP likely hopes that harassment of the HDP would increase the possibility of a Kurdish boycott.
There are more concerns. Some CHP deputies openly warned that voters may be scared by assassinations and terrorist acts, accusing the AKP of using all means to manipulate the vote. Exaggerated or not, this shows that Turkey walks on razor’s edge.