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Voting on the referendum: Turkey’s last curve

Yavuz Baydar

By next Sunday night, millions of Turkish voters will have decided not only who will be granted the full executive powers to rule their country but also — and more importantly — what sort of identity and management style their republic will have and where they want it to belong in a turbu­lent, multipolar world.

This is the point of tremendous rupture that the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) 15-year-long story, under the undisputed leadership of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has come to.

After a turbulent period of leader­ship, marked by initial economic success and a long series of social welfare reforms, but also by an acrimonious and steady struggle for power, Erdogan seems determined to realise his lifetime ambition of establishing a system in which he is seen as the supreme leader, a sole decision maker on all issues — be they on the macro or micro level — without the burden of accountabil­ity and transparency.

After 15 years, Erdogan has convinced a majority of voters that if Turkey needs a tough, strong, unrelenting form of leadership to maintain stability, he is the most suitable choice. He kept his stamina intact and, with a lot of luck on his side, he used his wise-guy skills to steer the fragmented opposition into a fierce battle with each other over identity politics.

He responded to international challenges with a policy based on inventing crises that compelled adversaries to negotiate with him.

At home, while he expanded his control of the state apparatus to the maximum level, Erdogan managed to limit his concept of democracy to solely the ballot box, excluding eve­rything else — mainly by (ab)using religion as a tool to cement power among the grass roots.

This happened at the cost of dividing Turkey into two halves: Approximately 55% who favour a political rule based on nationalism with strong Sunni ingredients and 45 % who have secular leanings, which are further divided by urban, non-pious Alevi and Kurdish identi­ties — all who are against what they see as the Islamisation of Turkey.

This division has turned Turkey into a battlefield of identity politics. Turkey’s AKP-branded Islamism, polluted by corruption charges, is seen as the main cause of this polarisation because its survival depended on it.

Much of what has happened in Turkey over the past decade, marked by power-driven tactics and abuses of power, has been about just that: Where, in terms of moral­ity, the surging, pious middle class that the AKP has produced would choose to be. Would it favour a management format that resembles that of Azerbaijan or a Turkic Cen­tral Asian republic or would it fol­low the example of Tunisia — how­ever fragile it might be — on a risky path towards building peaceful coexistence in a complex society?

Regardless of all the explosive, externally destructive rhetoric that Erdogan’s fierce temperament has produced, this is, in essence, what it is all about. And this is what will make April 16th’s choice a ground-breaking moment, with consequences far beyond Turkey’s borders.

What if Erdogan wins, even by a marginal “yes”? In its latest note of alarm, Human Rights Watch sum­marised as follows:

”Two changes would take effect immediately. The president would have increased authority over the body that administers the judiciary and controls the appointment of judges and prosecutors and the pro­hibition against the president hav­ing a formal party affiliation would be lifted. The courts in Turkey are already under political influence and these changes would further reduce judicial independence.

”Further changes would take effect following presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for November 2019, when the role of prime minister would be abol­ished. The president would be given sole power to appoint or dismiss vice-presidents, ministers and high state officials. The president could legislate by decree and secure the presidency’s budget without parlia­mentary approval being a precondi­tion. The president would have the power to dissolve parliament and trigger parliamentary and presiden­tial elections. The president would be able to run for two five-year terms and, in the event that parlia­ment were dissolved before the end of the second term, a third.”

The race for the referendum is, disregarding the propaganda from all sides, neck and neck. All indica­tions point to the “yes” side gaining strength as days go by, confirming the arguments of those who say that Erdogan has always been in for winning.

”If ‘yes’ is to win, it will not depend on the ‘no’ vote getting smaller or ‘no’ voters not going to the ballot box, it will depend on whether the ruling party and the president are able to succeed in persuading their supporters. Cur­rently, what we see in the campaign is basically the propaganda of the ruling AKP. The result will be ‘yes’ if this campaign to convince suc­ceeds,” Bekir Agirdir, chief execu­tive officer of KONDA, one of the most reliable pollsters in Turkey, told Hurriyet Daily News.

He implied that the media, which are more than 90% pro-Erdogan, will come to define the end result.

Needless to say, be it a “yes” or “no”, the result will push Turkey into an even deeper crisis. It has already become a party state, sur­rounded by an oligarchy feeding off of a system out of checks and balances. The Kurdish issue is un­resolved and many social demands remain unanswered.

Unlike Tunisia, for example, Turkey lags far behind with a con­stitution that is failing to meet the needs of the day and it is rudder­less after a series of severely erratic decisions in its foreign policy, mak­ing it part of the problem rather than a solution.

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