With two weeks to go until the most important referendum in Turkey for decades, the situation is looking increasingly tense and people are more and more divided. The stakes are high for both sides. If the “no” vote wins, this would shake Erdoğan’s long-standing populist rule. However, if Turkish voters prefer a “yes” vote this would mean not only leaving behind the parliamentary tradition, but also turning the country’s back on basic European ideals, including liberal democracy.
The proposed Turkish type of presidential system would grant President Erdoğan the power to redesign the country’s state structure and rule pretty much as he pleases. This system has been promoted as a neo-ottomanist, pro-Islamist reform that would create a national, home-grown system.
Since the beginning of the 19th century, Turkey has adopted a model of modernisation. But now, such a modernisation process, which involves the secularisation of state and society, is increasingly being presented by the ruling party, the AKP, as being different from the country’s Islamic culture, despite the fact that Islam was itself an import from the Arab world. The constitutional reform is defended and legitimised as marking the reversal of an unlucky history and the resurrection of the Ottoman Empire, even though the real Ottomans are now long gone. Anyone who is against the reform is portrayed as being either a traitor or a terrorist. This simple and rather superficial propaganda has been repeated so often by President Erdoğan and other AKP politicians that it has dangerously increased the level of polarisation in the country, and which has already been at a very high level for the past 10 years. One journalist who is close to Erdoğan has branded Turks who believe in western ideals as partly alien to their native culture and claimed that even so, if the “yes” vote wins they will be granted the right to live as a sign of generosity since they are good Muslims. This type of thinking hints at the general ideology that is feeding Erdogan’s one-man rule. He is being portrayed as the saviour of Islam who will end the secular republic founded by Atatürk’s revolution.
Erdoğan has based his campaign on strong nationalist and Islamist ideals, and has used polarisation as a tool to consolidate conservative right-wing votes. To this end, not only has he promoted internal divisions against both secularists and religious and ethnic minorities, but he has also labeled everyone who rejects his vision of Turkey as being on the same side as the terrorists. His aggressive rhetoric is not limited to internal affairs. He regularly targets the Western world. After Germany, Austria and Holland restricted the AKP’s political rallies in their countries, he had the much needed opportunity to exploit nationalist feelings by attacking the governments of those countries as Nazis, despite the fact that the Turkish law itself bans Turkish political parties from campaigning abroad. His tactical choice of using aggressive, popular and polarising language has paid off in previous elections, given he has not lost since 2002. However, it is not certain how the Turkish public will react to this type of rhetoric now. Economic and political ties with Europe are too strong to be suddenly cut off without any consequences.
Erdoğan and other AKP politicians hardly mention the details of the reform. They only claim that a presidential system will make Turkey great and more democratic. There will be no coalitions; therefore the system will bring political stability and economic growth.
Erdoğan is not alone in his campaign. The leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, Devlet Bahçeli, is also on his side, campaigning for a presidential system even though some of his party’s current and former MPs have openly declared that they will say “no” to the change. Also, recent polls have suggested that a majority of the party’s voters are likely to to vote “no”. Bahçeli argues that a presidential system will help to keep Turkey together and that all terrorists will be destroyed if the new system is passed.
Using polarisation as a weapon to unite conservative voters is not the only tried and trusted method of Erdoğan and his supporters. Silencing the opposition has been another aspect of their competitive authoritarian rule for some time. According to a report from the Union for Democracy, an NGO, regarding air time from 1-20 March, the “yes” coalition got 486 hours, the main opposition party, CHP, got 45.5 hours, and the pro-Kurdish HDP got zero hours. In addition, the state of emergency since the failed coup attempt in July is still in force, and opposition rallies and meetings have regularly been cancelled because on security grounds. Systematic obstruction, including physical attacks and death threats, have been commonplace. Yet, despite the uneven competition, polls suggest that this referendum may not be as easy to win as previous elections.
The main opposition party has chosen a softer approach and avoided polarisation. They have not used their party symbols and have tried to unite different groups by emphasising that it is a national matter that is above party politics. They argue that this change will create one-man rule, will weaken the Grand National Assembly, diminish judicial independence, and destroy democracy, which has already had a troubled time in Turkey.
The leaders of the other opposition party, HDP, and many of its MPs are currently imprisoned, and others have been silenced by the mainstream media. This party has also quietly campaigned for a “no” vote, even though there are people claiming that HDP voters of Kurdish origin have lost interest in being part of Turkey’s future and may not prefer to vote at all. The overall picture is not that of a free or fair campaign for the opposition and confirms that Turkey is competitive authoritarian regime as defined by Levitsky and Way in their 2010 book “Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War”. If this proposed hyper-presidential system is approved by the majority of people, avoiding competitive authoritarianism will become much more difficult.