Divided Nationalism: Explaining Turkey’s Referendum on Erdoğan’s Power

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“Democracy is like a train: you get off once you have reached your destination” – Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Mayor of Istanbul, 1996


Daniel Round writes for EA:


About 50 million Turkish citizens will vote today on a major reform package that will, if approved, transform Turkey’s constitution and increase the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

It is a referendum campaign which has highlighted and heightened some of the key fissures which have polarized Turkish society, in a debate in which the two sides appear to be virtually tied. Leading “evet” (yes) campaigners have argued that the reforms, which would abolish the post of Prime Minister and give the President executive authority, are necessary to make government more efficient and stable, and to strike a final blow to what they say is an “oligarchy” within the state bureaucracy. The many different groups on the “hayır” (no) side all agree that concentrating executive power into one office without significant checks and balances would be a dangerous development.

The Context of Power

To put Erdoğan’s bid for formal executive powers into its proper context, it is important to note that he is already the most powerful Turkish politician since the Republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). While Turkey has had other powerful civilian Presidents in recent history — namely Turgut Özal (1989-1993) and Süleyman Demirel (1993-2000) — Erdoğan became the first elected with a popular mandate in 2014. Since then he has maintained and expanded his position as the country’s strongman leader.

His dominance is symbolised by Aksaray (White Palace), the sprawling Presidential complex on the Atatürk Forest Farm in Ankara, opened when Erdoğan became head of state. The building represents the de facto movement of power away from the traditional top post of Prime Minister and towards the Presidency. If the constitutional reform package is approved with an evet vote today, it would legally entrench this immense concentration of power and also remove potential future legislative hurdles for Erdoğan by enfeebling the Parliament.

The Polls

Polls indicate a tight race. Two organizations that previously had evet ahead recently showed that hayır has edged in front. However, in the final days before the vote, two polls suggested that the evet campaign is narrowly in the lead at just over 51%. Still, the number of undecided voters remains high at around 9 or 10%.

It is worth keeping in mind that Turkish polling organizations have in recent years faced much criticism for being partisan and unreliable — in 2014, most polling agencies overestimated Erdoğan’s lead in the Presidential elections; in November 2015, almost none predicted that the ruling AKP would increase its share of the vote from June’s ballot by almost 9%. Pro-Erdoğan/AKP agencies have, in the past, been accused of downplaying AKP’s poll leads in order to encourage the party’s traditional but non-fanatical supporters to get out and vote.

So it is possible that, when the results are announced, the outcome will not be as close as most have predicted. Yet, while the President’s supporters are hoping for a clear 55-60% of the vote, in a polarised country a one or two percentage point difference either way is more likely.

Divided Nationalists

Given Erdoğan’s strength in post-coup, post-purge Turkey and AKP’s political hegemony, why is the referendum so close? There are some obvious answers: economic slow-down, the straining of key alliances abroad, and terror attacks at home have all led to discontent. There are also large swathes of Turkish society that have, for different reasons, consistently opposed Erdoğan and AKP since its founding in 2001.

A key development is that Erdoğan may have finally reached the limits of his ability to appeal to new nationalist voters. Although he made “strong Turkey” the main slogan of his campaign and the leadership of the far-right MHP have backed his push for a Presidential system, the proposals have not greatly appealed to many traditional MHP voters and, crucially, the influential Grey Wolves on the militant wing of the party. Some polls have put hayır as high as 70% among MHP voters, as they have expressed concerns about Erdoğan’s plans to offer citizenship to some Syrian refugees and are worried that Turkey’s unitary system may be under threat.

These fears were heightened by an argument within the evet camp on Thursday after one of Erdoğan’s top advisors was accused of suggesting that Turkey could eventually move towards a federal system. This led to a harsh rebuke from MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli, and then a statement from Erdoğan at his final campaign rally in Konya that he is “the biggest defender of Turkey’s unitary structure”. Still, nationalists campaigning for a hayır vote seized on the opportunity to share old videos and quotes by Erdoğan when he was less hostile towards the idea of devolving power to the regions.

If there has been a star politician on the hayır side, it has been Meral Akşener, the former Interior Minister (1996-7) and MHP leadership challenger who was kicked out of the party last year for dissent. Dubbed the Turkish Marine Le Pen by some, Akşener is backed by hard-core ultra-nationalists but also has an appeal that stretches beyond MHP’s portion of the electorate (in recent years, around 12-17%). She has held sizeable rallies throughout the campaign that have boosted her profile and message, and the image of a henna tattoo of the Turkish flag on her palm has been a defining one during the referendum. Regardless of how the vote goes, and to the chagrin of both the pro-Erdoğan Right and anti-nationalist Left, she is likely to remain a significant figure in Turkish politics over the next few years.

Kemalists and Kurds

The main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) — which in recent years had tentatively shifted towards a social democratic platform under Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership — has reverted to its default Kemalist setting during the campaign. Although CHP politicians have spoken out about concerns around human rights and democracy, more often the CHP leadership has couched its criticism of Erdoğan and the evet campaign in their own brand of fierce nationalist rhetoric. They say the proposals are against the founding principles of the Turkish Republic – tantamount to treason among Kemalists. During the campaign, Kılıçdaroğlu has said that the fight against the constitutional changes demands the courage of Kuvayi Milliye, the nationalist militia during the early phase of Turkey’s war of independence (1918-20). The typical reply from AKP supporters is that that CHP are on the same side of the debate as coup-mongers and terrorists. Such language from the two sides shows how deep the divide within Turkish nationalism goes, and how unlikely national unity is after the votes have been counted.

The pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has been sidelined during the campaign. Its joint leaders, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, are in jail for “spreading terrorist propaganda”, and many of its lawmakers are under investigation. Although HDP rallies have drawn large crowds and its social media campaigning has been savvy, the leaderless party’s weakness has hindered the communication of an alternative, progressive hayır message beyond its base, about 10% of the electorate and highly concentrated in the Kurdish-majority southeast. HDP-aligned Leftist groups such as the Socialist Youth (SGDF) have been energetic and creative on campuses and demos across the country, but again, their reach and appeal is limited.

Erdoğan’s big speech to a massive crowd two weeks ago in Diyarbakır, the unofficial capital of Northern Kurdistan and a HDP stronghold, showed he is serious about his prospects of stepping into the vacuum left by a suppressed HDP in the southeast. Sections of the Kurdish population despise Erdoğan for turning his back on the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in 2015 — the ensuing conflict has claimed 2,000 lives — and gutting municipal democracy. However, that is not the whole picture. Many conservative, religious Kurds were loyal AKP voters until the dramatic electoral success of HDP in the local and general elections of 2014 and 2015.

Then, Left-populist ideas about rights and self-determination trumped religious identity and cultural conservatism. Now, after months of the HDP’s suppression, and with the reputations of its key figures trampled on by the press and intense State propaganda, many voters will be up for grabs for Erdoğan.

Erdoğan’s tactics

Erdoğan’s inflammatory comments about the German and Dutch governments earlier in the campaign (remember Nazi-gate?) may have helped to get out the evet vote among identity-driven Turkish citizens living abroad. However, in the final days Erdoğan seems to have calculated that belligerent nationalist rhetoric alone will not be enough to swing the vote in his favor at home. His more conciliatory tone was exemplified by his recent visit to a CHP campaign tent in Istanbul, where he spoke calmly with some (mostly) mild-mannered, middle-class middle-aged detractors. Erdoğan was clearly pleased with how it went, and AKP social media sites shared videos of the measured exchanges in a bid to appeal to the moderate tendencies of undecided voters, some of whom may have been put off by Erdoğan’s harsher, divisive rhetoric elsewhere on the campaign trail.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has seemed close to the brink on so many occasions: the Constitutional Court nearly closed down the AKP in 2008, he was rocked by the Gezi Park protest movement and corruption scandal of 2013, set back by the June 2015 general election losses, and nearly overthrown by the attempted coup of last July. But again and again he has taken massive risks that have paid off for him politically in either the short or the long term: pursuing the Ergenekon trials; abandoning the Kurdish peace process; the re-running of the general election in November 2015, calling his supporters onto the streets while the coup attempt was underway; and purging Gülenists and other internal rivals from every level of the state apparatus.

It would be no surprise if another high-risk attempt to consolidate his power paid off. Given the irreconcilable differences among the opposition, an evet vote could mean Erdoğan’s dominance of Turkey until 2029, with even weaker checks and balances and looser separations of power.

However, there is a very real chance that this could go wrong for Erdoğan. Opinion is split, and while the conditions for the campaign have not been fair, it is very difficult to rig an election in Turkey. The outcome hinges on undecided floating voters, conservative Kurds, and right-wing nationalists. If it is a hayır vote, what happens next is anyone’s guess. It certainly wouldn’t be the end of Erdoğan, but it could lead to old tensions resurfacing within AKP, perhaps a split within MHP or a change in leadership, and new opportunities presenting themselves for CHP and HDP.

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