By Mike Kenson
For a Turkish opposition whose discourse turns frequently – and not without justification – to criticism of the AKP’s perverse conceptions of democracy, the governing party’s electoral record must be a lasting source of discomfort. Erdogan and his party’s near-flawless performance at the ballot box since their 2002 general election victory provides legitimacy for the claim that they represent the “national will”; more than this, the party’s confidence in their voter base allows it to reframe election results to suit their agenda of the moment. Hence, the AKP’s victory in the 2014 local elections was presented as a public rejection of the corruption charges that beleaguered the party at the time, and Erdogan’s election as President in 2015 was characterised as public approval of a “de facto” presidential system for which the referendum this April will (they hope) merely provide formal recognition.
Polls Showing Neck and Neck
Unfortunately for the opposition this strategy works, and no party has come close to meeting the AKP’s challenge to “beat them at the ballot box”. But there’s a catch: the party which frames every election as a referendum on the “national will” may find it difficult to shrug off a vote against them in this, an actual referendum; if the national will turns against the AKP in this instance it may hold deeper implications than a mere delay in pushing forward their planned constitutional reform. And this is a vote which is running uncomfortably close, with “no” ahead by one percent according to results shared by pollsters Konsensus on 25 March, and other companies showing the two sides neck in neck.
Governing AKP’s Hysterical Campaign Rhetoric
Consequently, the AKP’s discourse has taken an almost hysterical tone, with Erdogan in February likening “No” voters to the plotters of the failed 2016 coup. Even the country’s foreign policy, it seems, has been instrumentalised; the diplomatic crisis this month with Holland appears to have been of mutual benefit to a Dutch government seeking to avoid losses to Geert Wilders’ anti-immigrant PVV party, and to a Turkish government that understands the need to mobilise every voter at home and abroad before 16 April. That such extreme tactics are present to an even greater degree in the AKP’s domestic campaign, and that they include practices which defy the ideal of the free and fair election, is an unfortunate but unsurprising reflection of the current period in Turkey.
Judicial Punishment Against ‘NO’ Campaigners
Perhaps the most obvious obstacle faced by the “No” campaign has been the ever-present threat of judicial punishment against campaigners. A CHP report on pressures faced by the campaign, published in early March, counts “at least 115” campaigners arrested, as well as frequent police interventions, including the use of rubber bullets and water cannons. The state of emergency, which began after the July 2016 coup attempt and is still in effect, has allowed the Ankara governorate to ban all demonstrations for reasons of “security”, and campaigners have had their events cancelled or been hit by fines, the same report states. These pressures, however, are just the beginning of the “No” campaign’s challenges.
Vastly Uneven Levels of Media Coverage
Vastly uneven levels of media coverage are now a given in Turkey, where the AKP exerts dominance over many of the country’s news outlets through “an artful mix of bribery, muscle and ideology”, as Berivan Orucoglu put it in a 2015 article for Foreign Policy. News channels are co-opted through financial incentives offered to their owners, while critical journalists are intimidated, removed from their positions, or directly jailed. The result, as reported on this site, is that in this year’s campaign from 01-20 March the AKP commanded over 300 hours of national television coverage, with the 169 hours clocked by President Erdogan alone almost three times that of the MHP and CHP combined.
HDP MPs Have Been Jailed
Meanwhile, the HDP has been virtually excluded from the campaign. The party’s contribution to the “No” campaign received no coverage on national television during this period, and with much of the HDP leadership jailed their capacity to reach voters has been curtailed even further. The party’s power to monitor the election results is also reportedly under threat. According to Cumhuriyet’s 25 March news article, at the request of the AKP hundreds of officers chosen to represent the HDP at voting stations have been stripped of their status, with “connection to an illegal organization” and “being of questionable character” given as the reasons for their dismissal.
Characters Assassinations for “No” Campaigners
This type of aspersion on the characters of “No” campaigners has become typical of the AKP’s rival campaign, which has adopted discourse presenting the “Yes” vote as a moral imperative. The AKP energy minister Berat Albayrak’s quip that “not all who say ‘no’ are traitors, but all traitors say ‘no’” echoed Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek’s rhetoric equating the “No” campaign with the PKK. Neither outdoes President Erdogan, however, who left no room for confusion when he stated explicitly that “a ‘No’ vote is a vote for a terrorist organisation” on live television on 13 March.
But even if not all “no” voters are terrorists, it seems they may be faulty on religious grounds. Hayrettin Karaman, a cleric known for his ties to President Erdogan, wrote in his column for Yeni Safak that “the right to life of ‘no’ voters should be recognised” along with that of Christians and Jews, implying a sectarian element to the vote in the Muslim-majority country. Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish Foreign Minister, was also quick to invoke religious sentiments around an incident in Antalya, where a “Yes” campaigner was allegedly assaulted at an AKP youth wing’s campaign stand. According to Cavusoglu, a gang of “No” campaigners descended on the stand and began pulling the headscarves off the female youth wing members’ heads. The news agency DHA, however, reports that the incident was the result of a heated argument which developed into a scuffle between the AKP stand campaigners and a pair of passers-by, and nothing like the organised attack purported by the minister. The incident has been likened to an episode during the 2013 Gezi Park protests, in which a group of protesters was alleged to have attacked and humiliated a woman in a headscarf in Kabatas, Istanbul. The AKP made heavy use of the incident to vilify protesters throughout that period, despite video evidence conclusively disproving their claims.
The outcome of the tensions raised by such strategies has been witnessed in a number of violent incidents against “No” campaigners, including, among others, attacks on the public workers’ union Kamu-Sen’s headquarters in Ankara in January, an armed assault on CHP campaigners in Istanbul on the 26th of the same month, and the arson attack on artist Mujdat Gezen’s art centre in Istanbul in February. This campaign of intimidation against the opposition can be summed up in crime boss Sedat Peker’s threat shared on social media in January that his camp “would be waiting” for anyone who set foot on the streets to campaign against the referendum. An incident in Yozgat on 26 March, meanwhile, saw MHP “No” campaigner Sinan Ogan’s meeting attacked by an armed group. Ogan has accused Bekir Bozdag, the Minister of Justice, of planning the attack.
It is of course no surprise that the AKP are leaving nothing to chance in this crucial referendum campaign. The greatest concern for the “No” campaign, which according to polls is still challenging strongly in spite of all these obstacles, will be to ensure that the result is not swayed by interference on election day. A history of suspect practices precedes the April referendum, including the infamous power cuts during the 2014 local elections, which the presiding energy minister Taner Yildiz blamed on “a cat entering a transformer”. With the AKP already moving to block opposition participation in the vote-counting process, fears of similar incidents appear justified. With “Yes” and “No” evenly balanced at the polls, the one certainty is that neither side will go down without a fight, even if the circumstances of this contest can by no means be termed as free or fair.