Referendum set to be tight race for Turkey’s Erdogan

Sunday 26/02/2017
The leaders of Turkey’s nationalist groups stand together during a gathering to launch a campaign for “NO” ahead of national referendum in Ankara, on February 18th. (AP)

Istanbul - Turkey’s referendum on whether to accept a new constitution with a strong executive presidency is expected to be a very tight race, opinion polls predict, with the vote poised to become a plebiscite on popular but polarising President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The new constitution, which would replace one drawn up under military rule in 1982, would abol­ish the office of prime minister and grant the president sweeping pow­ers to issue decrees, appoint and replace ministers and reduce the power of parliament to scrutinise the executive.

Erdogan’s ruling Justice and De­velopment Party (AKP) has equated anyone who votes “no” to the new constitution with terrorists loyal to the separatist Kurdistan Work­ers’ Party (PKK); Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is blamed for a failed July 15th coup; and the Is­lamic State (ISIS), which Turkey is fighting in northern Syria.

“To be honest those who say ‘no’ are on the side of July 15th,” Erdog­an said in a speech. “Who are the ones saying ‘no’? Those who want to break up the country. Those who are opposed to our flag.”

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim went further, telling a meeting of his parliamentary party: “The terrorist groups are campaigning in chorus for the ‘no’ vote... My citizens are not going to stand alongside terrorist groups.”

The leader of the main opposi­tion Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, ac­cused Erdogan of using all the means of the state to achieve a “yes” vote.

“Provincial governors, the po­lice, gendarmerie will all work for the AKP,” he said in an interview with German newspaper Süd­deutsche Zeitung. “The AKP is using all the facilities of the state. Erdogan controls 90% of the me­dia. Every hour of the day there is Erdogan propaganda. He has taken control of the judiciary. Anyone who complains lives with the fear of being jailed. Right now we are living in a climate of fear.”

European leaders have warned against any undermining of de­mocracy in Turkey.

“In a time of far-reaching political change everything must be done to preserve the division of powers, the freedom of opinion and diversity in society,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at an early February news conference while standing alongside Erdogan. “Opposition belongs to a democracy and we all experience that every day.”

A “no” vote would strengthen democracy Kilicdaroglu said and demonstrate to Erdogan the limits of his power. “There is no place for dictatorship in the 21st century,” he said.

Reliable independent opinion polls are hard to come by in Turkey. Those polls touted by the AKP put the “yes” vote ahead with about 55% of the vote; the opposition claims its pollsters predict the “no” vote winning by a similar margin.

There is evidence, however, that Erdogan’s push for more powers may be alienating some of his usual supporters. Pro-AKP pollster ANAR said that up to 35% of AKP voters said they were reluctant to back the constitutional changes.

Surveys show that Erdogan’s heavy campaign focus in the June 2015 general election on winning enough seats in parliament to change the constitution without a referendum was a factor in the AKP’s failure to win a majority in parliament for the first time since it came to power in 2002. The par­ty shifted its focus to security and regained a majority in a November 2015 general election re-run.

Even Erdogan admitted that he has some work to convince wary voters.

“At this moment, I don’t think our people have come to the point where they can understand the presidential system clearly,” he told reporters.

No doubt with this in mind, Er­dogan had rallies in five Turkish cit­ies over three days in mid-February and there were plans for him to at­tend 30 more to drum up support before the April 16th referendum.

Opposition parties are hampered by the state of emergency declared after the July failed coup and re­newed twice since then that gives authorities wide powers to clamp down on protests. Even isolated demonstrations by students against the dismissal of university teachers in the post-coup crackdown have been confronted by police firing tear gas.

Using emergency powers, Erdog­an suspended rules that demand television stations give a fair bal­ance of political views. Dozens of newspapers have been closed and more than 150 journalists are jailed, more than in any other country.

Meanwhile, 13 members of parlia­ment for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) were jailed and are facing charges of having links to the PKK. The crackdown could hurt government support even among conservative Kurds in the region who traditionally back the AKP.

The respected, though leftist, SAMER polling organisation said that in the 12 majority-Kurdish south-eastern provinces 57% of voters would vote “no” and 25% “yes”.