The folly of referendum: ‘it will be over soon’

Crowd chant slogans while making the ultranationalist "Gray Wolves" hand signature tied to the MHP, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood attributed four-fingered "Rabia" hand gesture, popular amongst AKP supporters and also President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

By Yvo Fitzherbert and Mirko Turunc*

On 16 April, Turkey will vote on a referendum due to define Turkey’s future parliamentary system. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish President and co-founder of the ruling AK Party, seeks to change to a parliamentary system which will grant him with sweeping powers. While the changes also include abolishing the prime minster role and increasing the number of parliamentarians, the vote is widely seen as a vote on Erdogan’s leadership as it allows the President to stand for two more terms, keeping him in office until 2029.

The referendum follows the passing of the bill in parliament, where the AKP – in alliance with the ultra-nationalist party MHP – obtained a simple majority. Given the iron-fist rule with which President Erdogan runs the country, the Yes campaign has a clear advantage. The crackdown and fear widespread amongst the opposition means No campaigners have difficulty receiving any publicity, while the media is dominated by pro-government spokesmen advertising the Yes campaign as if it is a forgone conclusion.

However, despite the obvious advantage they have over the No campaign, the government has thus far failed to provide a compelling narrative in favour of the proposed changes. Much of their narrative relies on an increasingly paranoid, nationalistic fever sweeping the country which believes that internal and external forces are set on undermining and ultimately dividing Turkey. With this in mind, government officials have claimed that a more powerful presidency would make Turkey stronger against such internal and external enemies, and have subsequently focused on accusing no voters as terrorists. “Who says no? The PKK says no. Qandil says no. Those who want to divide this country say no. Those who are against our flag say no,” Erdogan said recently. Even Burhan Kuzu, an important figure within AKP circles and a professor of constitutional law, suggested that people should not focus on the context of the new constitution, but rather on those that oppose it. The fact that Kuzu, an expert on constitutional law, is urging the public to avoid focusing on the proposed changes but rather on those that dare question such changes, underlines how the government’s narrative rests on delegitimizing the opposition.

Furthermore, the comparison between no voters and terrorism comes at a time when Turkey is facing many enemies inside and outside its borders. While the conflict with the PKK continues in the south-east, Turkey has also been bogged down battling ISIS in the Syrian city of al-Bab, not to mention the continued purge of Gulen-linked people. In this, the government hopes that their narrative that the new system will build a strong Turkey capable of surmounting the terror threats will be enough to convince the Turkish public.

The government’s nostalgia

Last week, Turkey’s Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, officially launched the Yes campaign in Istanbul. Rather than speaking to an overcrowded event as AKP events tend to be, senior figures within the party didn’t show up and supporters starting leaving the conference hall. Yildirim, who was passionately making the case for a yes vote, addressed the leaving spectators by saying, “Patience our people, it will be over soon”.

By assuring his support base that “it will be over soon”, Yildırim’s speech reveals certain worries that the government and the Yes campaign faces. With many economists predicting a financial collapse in Turkey later this year, along with the continued instability due to the continued war against the PKK and the extended state of emergency, Yildirim’s words are turning almost into a slogan. Rather than focusing on AKP’s future plans to lead Turkey to stability, the Yes campaign has instead chosen to pursue a nostalgia towards “the good old days” of the early years of AKP when Turkey’s economy was booming. In many ways, Yildirim and government circles hopes that this new constitution will lead to a return to these days when Turkey was hailed as an example for Middle Eastern democracies, economically powerful and retained a prestigious standing in international circles.

As an election strategy, AKP have always capitalized on the relative success of their early years by pointing out their track record at running the country effectively and efficiently. In contrast to the stability that AKP brought over their first decade in power, Turkish politics throughout the 1990s was characterized by weak coalition governments, corruption scandals, and an inability to provide effective rule. Thus, AKP’s success has been built on drawing attention to their efficiency in government, something the opposition cannot compete with. However, unlike in previous campaigns, for this campaign AKP have systematically failed to advertise a future vision for Turkey.

Such a tactic is undoubtedly linked to the changing fortunes facing Turkey economically, politically and in the international arena. As a result, AKP have pursued a two-pronged narrative of reminding the public of their past success at effective rule whilst simultaneously referring to international conspiracies to undermine the “great” Turkish nation. Thus, comparisons to no voters as terrorists and a stronger presidency as an effective system to resist such “terror” attempts to destroy Turkey defines much of the government’s narrative for the upcoming referendum.

The lack of a coherent vision for the future has begun to sow seeds of doubts in the eyes of many aligned to the government. Despite his undoubted charisma, President Erdogan’s increasingly volatile rule has led to many doubting the proposed changes. In February’s issue of Express Magazine, Ahmet Tasgetiren – a well-known name in pro-government media – was quoted questioning who among AKP would have support such changes without Erdogan, and implied that he is the only reason they are saying Yes.

A shaky alliance: Cracks within the AKP-MHP coalition

AKP is also playing its cards with their newly found coalition partner, the ultra-nationalistic MHP. Such a move can be seen as an attempt by the government to rein in the nationalist vote in the upcoming referendum by portraying themselves as a party that represents the right-wing in Turkey. In one of their party meetings, Yildirim even went as far as using the gesture of ultra-nationalist grey wolves, a sign that has been historically used by MHP and their supporters, while stating that “Our nationalist brothers said ‘our country, our people first’ and we started to march together. How can we forget?” This underlines the coalition at hand, where both leaders of their respective parties have given each other their trust in securing a Yes vote amongst their supporters. Yet there are certain questions to be addressed in this newly found and quite fragile alliance.

Devlet Bahceli, the veteran nationalist politician, is facing substantial opposition within his own party towards his alliance with the AKP. Meral Aksenur, a rising star in the party until she was forced out last year, has been campaigning fiercely against the changes. Furthermore, all the leaders of the influential Ulku Ocakları, the militant ultra-nationalistic youth wing of the party, have all stated their opposition to the changes. This week, four MHP MPs were expelled from the party for campaigning against the proposed changes, including popular politician Sinan Ogan. The sheer number of opposition nationalist politicians and figures to the referendum can be partially linked to the rumours that the peace talks with the PKK may resume if Erdogan wins the referendum come May. The rebellion that Bahceli faces within his own party is considered so high that, in a recent poll conducted by Cumhuriyet, less than 10% of party voters want Bahceli to remain as party leader, while more than 40% would like to see Meral Aksener as leader.

Furthermore, the Great Unity Party (BBP) – an influential party amongst dissatisfied nationalist voters – urged their supporters to back the no vote. However, on Friday, the party mysteriously announced they’d vote Yes after all, which former BBP MP Sendiller suggested might have been a result of external pressure from the Presidential Palace. Such developments underline how nationalist politicians and their respective voters have yet to be convinced by AKP’s proposed Presidential System, and how such an alliance is struggling to gain traction in the eyes of many Turkish nationalists.

While Bahceli’s support for the constitutional changes may not be convincing too many of his party base, cracks have also started to appear in his alliance with the AKP. Last week, Masoud Barzani – the President of Iraqi Kurdistan – paid a visit to Ankara. Being treated with more respect than usual, the hoisting of the Kurdish flag at Ataturk airport that accompanied his arrival raised alarm bells in the nationalist circles. Bahceli reacted to the flag issue angrily, claiming that “the same flag being raised as equal to the Turkish flag is scandalous, careless and a disgrace.” However, Yildirim responded to the criticism by stating that the Kurdish region of Iraq is an entity recognized worldwide.

Such developments show the strain with which much of the MHP-AKP alliance is facing. Despite his anger regarding Barzani’s visit, Bahceli is eager to show strong support for the ruling government. He recently voiced support for Turkey’s Justice Minister, Bekir Bozdag, after the minister’s planned meetings in Germany were cancelled due to the diplomatic crisis with Germany as a result of the arrest of Die Welt journalist Deniz Yucel. However, while such comments may have been an attempt to show a united front with the government, it is clear that large swathes of the nationalist voting bloc in Turkey are yet to be convinced by such an alliance. Accusing Barzani of being a “traitor to the nationalist cause”, many are openly rebelling against the MHP leadership. The nationalist voting bloc remains key to securing a referendum victory next month for the ruling government, and explains why such efforts have been made to secure BBP’s support and to dismiss various rebel MHP politicians.

Furthermore, with the government’s narrative that links no voters to terrorism and continuously refers to their past achievements without offering a concrete vision for Turkey’s future failing to convince many, the prevailing rebellion amongst nationalist voters may well be the government’s very undoing come 16 April.

So why, given how much the government is struggling to convince the Turkish public of the need for a stronger presidency, why did Erdogan – who has already achieved all the power that he needs – take such a risk in announcing such a referendum? Such a risky move can be explained by the fact that Erdogan persistently craves public legitimacy. Given the amount corruption and abuses committed by the President, his own public legitimacy is the only thing that keeps him in power. The risky decision of the referendum, despite the odds staked against them, illustrates how AKP have been forced to take such a decision. As a party built on political nous and statistic strategy, this referendum stands out as particularly foolish. As the AKP’s successfully early years gives way to the instability that characterizes the present AKP, we may be entering a new era of government littered with mistakes. In this regard, if no campaign can exploit such mistakes strategically, not only can it win but may also be able to propose and organize an alternative vision for Turkey.

In the words of Ertugrul Kurkcu, in order to stay in power Erdogan needs to continue running until his last breath. Stability, it seems, is no longer Erdogan’s mind.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kom News.

*Yvo Fitzherbert is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul