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Turkey’s Constitutional Referendum: ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here.’

Photo: HRW

Abraham Thicke

In mid-April the Turkish electorate will pass judgement on a set of 18 proposed amendments to Turkey’s constitution. A simple majority of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ votes will determine whether they are accepted or rejected.

The referendum will take place against a troubled backdrop. Turkey has been under a state of emergency since a failed coup d’état last summer. Approaching two hundred thousand people have been incarcerated. Many more have lost their jobs. Most of those purged were government employees, leaving state institutions unable to function effectively. Terrorist atrocities have become the norm. Society is dangerously polarized. Amidst the suffering and uncertainty the economy is creaking ominously.

Almost everyone agrees that the constitution could do with updating. The current one, the relic of an earlier coup, is clearly an impediment to the development of democracy. Under the existing constitution, executive power resides with parliament, whilst the presidency is largely ceremonial. Should the proposed changes be approved, their roles will be reversed.

Supporters of the amendments, prominent amongst them President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP government, argue that the new system will streamline decision making processes and increase accountability. This, they say, will make Turkey more democratic, whilst also enabling the country to overcome the numerous challenges it faces.

Others beg to differ, suggesting the proposed changes are intended merely to satisfy Erdoğan’s lust for power. By vastly strengthening one institution, the presidency, at the expense of all others the proposed changes will result in the removal of meaningful limits, checks and balances on the president’s power.

Speed vs quality decision making

Further, whilst critics of the changes agree that the decision making processes will be streamlined, they suggest that Turkey’s current problems stem not from the speed but from the quality of decision making. Decisions relating to the Syrian civil war are a prime example. Ankara initially viewed the conflict as an opportunity by consolidate its influence in the near abroad and acted accordingly. These days, a more likely prospect is a Kurdish statelet straddling Turkey’s southern borders, apparently supported by both Russia and America. This is Turkey’s worst security nightmare. Its genesis, a direct consequence of disastrous decision making in Ankara, exposes the bankruptcy of a decision making process in which the most prominent players are Erdoğan and his inner circle. Reducing the scope for consultation in decision making — ‘streamlining’ in the euphemistic language of those who support the changes — involves stripping away what little sway parliament exerts over the decisions made by this group. This is one thing that can be guaranteed to further reduce the quality of decisions.

Given the current state of the media in Turkey the electorate are seldom exposed to arguments of the kind made above. The overwhelming majority of media outlets, especially television channels, are content merely to parrot and amplify talking points put forwards by government representatives promoting the proposed amendments.

The government and its media lackeys have also sought to shift the focus of the referendum away from substantive debate using the same divisive strategies successfully employed in multiple previous elections. In this instance, the tactic involves demonizing potential ‘no’ voters, and those campaigning in support of a ‘no’ vote, by equating them with terrorists.

Stoking Tensions with Foreign Powers

Another strategy the government has adopted in the run-up to the referendum involves stoking tensions with foreign powers. Antagonising either the US or Russia is not feasible given that the Turkish government still harbours faint hopes of accommodation with the Trump administration and is more or less is powerless against the Kremlin. Consequently, the EU and its member states have borne the brunt of the attacks. A succession of manufactured ‘crises’ are clearly intended to sway nationalist voters in favour of approving the changes. Whether this strategy will be successful remains to be seen. With a foreign policy primarily aimed at servicing domestic needs it is entirely predictable that in its international dealings the Turkish government veers between crises and farce. Indeed, it increasingly resembles not so much a man speaking softly and carrying a big stick as an unarmed man shouting angrily.

Back in Turkey, alternative narratives are ruthlessly suppressed. Public expressions of support for a ‘no’ vote run the risk of physical violence, dismissal from employment and imprisonment. One example involves the case of Ali Gül, a 21 year old student who uploaded a video supporting a ‘no’ vote.  Shortly after his video went viral he was imprisoned. Official claims that his arrest was unrelated to the video are as flimsy as similar claims that none of the hundreds of journalists currently in prison are there because of their reporting.

Elected officials from opposition parties also face harassment. The pro-Kurdish HDP has been especially hard hit. Its co-leaders, Figen Yüksekdağ and Selahattin Demirtaş, have been in prison since last autumn, along with tens of MPs and hundreds of mayors. By comparison, the main opposition CHP has escaped relative lightly, its representatives merely being branded as terrorist supporters and denied a media platform to express their views. The nationalist MHP’s situation is more complicated. Whilst the party officially supports a ‘yes’ vote, it is deeply split. Numerous MPs have been expelled for their opposition to the official stance. Prominent amongst them is Meral Akșener, who leads a group of dissident MHP MPs actively campaigning for a ‘no’ vote. Their attempts to organize rallies and meetings are frequently sabotaged through violent confrontation or ruses such as cutting off the electricity to venues.

All of this leads to the inescapable conclusion that the conditions under which the referendum is being held are not free and fair.

If the above assessment is not sobering enough, it is important to add that regardless of the referendum’s outcome Turkey’s prospects are grim.

Erdogan already exercises the very powers he seeks

The reason is that Erdoğan currently exercises the very powers he seeks. Indeed, he acts as if the proposed constitutional amendments are already in force, has done so since he was elected president and will likely continue to do in future. His disregard for the existing constitution’s stipulation that presidents be politically impartial is but one example. Should the amendments be passed, the most salient consequences will be twofold. First, Erdoğan will find it more difficult to flout the constitution since the new one will impose virtually no limits on his activities. Second, it is possible that at some time in a hypothetical future it will offer him a shield against criminal prosecution. Thus, what is actually being offered to the voters is merely the opportunity to enshrine Erdoğan’s existing de facto presidency in the constitution.

The electorate of any country that aspires to democratic values deserve better than this. They deserve better information and better choices. But they won’t get either as long as Erdoğan remains in power. And regardless of the referendum’s outcome he seems certain to remain in power.

So neither outcome will improve Turkey’s predicament or its credibility. None of Turkey’s pressing problems will disappear. They will likely be exacerbated. But that is not surprising. After all, who got us here?

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