Last Sunday, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan finally got the main item that has been driving his political agenda for the last several years: a majority (51.4%) in a popular referendum to legitimate his de facto executive presidency. Or did he? LeftEast asked Zeynep Serinkaya, Onur Bakiner, and Işık Sarıhan about how this victory was “achieved,” what its consequences will be, and what lies ahead for the forces that opposed it and for Turkey itself.
Işık Sarıhan: On winning and losing
I come across news articles saying that Erdoğan is the winner of the constitutional referendum of April 16. One can talk about winning and losing only if there is a game played by some rules that set the criteria for winning and losing. What happened is that Erdoğan managed to secure a little more than 50% of the votes after a very unfair and repressive campaign process full of intimidation, with many instances of fraud and irregularities observed during the voting, and Supreme Electoral Council itself scandalously declaring at the last minute that ballot papers without the official seal will be considered valid, openly disregarding the electoral law. Erdoğan did not win; he is disqualified from the game. But he keeps playing it because it is he who controls the instruments of power.
Even in normal circumstances, it is not a good idea to change a whole regime by a slight majority vote. A constitution is supposed to be a basic social contract that enables the members of a society to live together peacefully, rather than dividing them right in the middle.
We were under no illusion that a “no” vote would immediately change anything. Even if the referendum were fair, Erdoğan could still come up with an ad hoc justification to ignore the result or repeat the referendum, or could simply keep ruling the country as he has been doing, which is in practice not different from the constitutional dictatorship he is dreaming of, abusing the State of Emergency declared after last summer’s military coup attempt carried out by members of Fethullah Gülen’s bizarre cult, who have infiltrated and dominated the state with the help of Erdoğan’s very own collaboration with this criminal organization.
But we nevertheless went to vote, in order to show Erdoğan, to the world, and to ourselves just how many citizens are opposed to the future he is envisioning for our country, hoping that this would be a new beginning for positive developments in the long run. The geographic distribution of votes broadly resemble the results of previous elections: “No” votes prevailing in the secularist west and the Kurdish east, “yes” votes in conservative-nationalist areas in-between, but this time, Erdoğan and AKP couldn’t get what they wanted in key cities like Istanbul and Ankara, where the percentage of “yes” votes was lower than the percentage of votes AKP got in the last election. Despite all the disproportionate efforts of both AKP and some of the far-right. AKP seems to be disturbed by the fact that support for them is decreasing in the cities that determine the future of the country’s political culture.
In his victory speech, Erdoğan announced that now his next project is to re-instantiate the death penalty, holding another referendum for that if the proposal doesn’t pass the parliament. It seems that he doesn’t have many tactics left on his side other than igniting the violent retributivist desires of some of his support base, who can’t wait to see “terrorists” and “traitors” getting hanged. These labels apply to roughly half of a country’s population polarized by Erdoğan’s machinery of propaganda and disinformation.
There is not much more to say at this point. I close by quoting what the imprisoned journalist Ahmet Şık was shouting a few days ago while the gendarmerie was dragging him out of the courtroom:
“We will succeed and bring out a life where our children’s dreams will become reality. This rule of the mafia, this organized form of evil will come to the end it deserves. It will experience the inevitable. That a-la-Turca führer and his whole party will experience this. They will all end up in the same garbage bin. In whichever garbage bin of politics Gülen’s congregation has ended up, it will also be the place where the rule of AKP will end up.”
Onur Bakiner: Constitutionalism’s past and present
Turkish voters went to the polls on April 16 to determine the fate of the century-old parliamentary democracy. According to official results, the increasing consolidation of political power in president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s hands, which Erdoğan himself referred to as de facto regime change once, was ratified by slightly more than 51% of eligible voters. The opposition as well as a number of foreign observers reported irregularities in the process, which the country’s Supreme Electoral Board refused to review. The bitterly contested referendum left behind the following questions: Was the process fair? What changes will the new regime bring? What does regime change mean in the larger trajectory of Turkish political development? And finally, what should democratic forces expect in the future?
Allegations of fraud are based on the Supreme Electoral Board’s last-minute decision to count votes in unstamped envelopes, which violates the Board’s own rules. While the Board claims the decision was meant to relax tight regulations on format, critics point to the risk that multiple votes could be cast with unmarked envelopes. Worries about fraud reached their peak when election monitors began to report more votes than registered voters in some booths, and a suspiciously high number of booths with 100% “yes” votes were found in areas where opposition parties did not monitor closely. The Board’s refusal to review the process only adds to suspicion.
One should not focus only on election-day incidents to assess the fairness of the process, however. Turkey has been under emergency rule since July 2016. Fourteen members of parliament from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), including the co-chairs, are under arrest for trumped-up terrorism charges. Numerous HDP mayors in the Kurdish region are also arrested, and replaced by unelected administrators. A record number of newspapers, magazines, and TV stations have been closed through emergency decrees. Some of those outlets belonged to the Gülen community, which was accused of orchestrating the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, but leftist and Kurdish media organizations have been targeted disproportionately, too. Turkey has become the world leader in arrests of journalists. Likewise, over 110,000 people have been dismissed and suspended from their jobs in the past nine months. The pretext of fighting Gülenist coup-mongers is a fig leaf for the government’s war on all forms of organized dissent, as dismissals of academics for signing a petition to ask the government to reinitiate the peace process reveal. Lately, right-wing political actors have been witnessing intimidation tactics, too: members of the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) were not allowed to hold a party congress to elect a new leader. Pro-government pundits and politicians accuse everyone, including other pro-government figures, of supporting Gülen in a conscious effort to create an atmosphere of fear and nip any expression of political autonomy inside the governing party in the bud. The degree of repression described here does not only affect fundamental rights; it also makes opposition political activity nearly impossible.
In this atmosphere of repression and fear, one wonders what the regime change will actually change. Turkey has already been experimenting with de facto presidentialism with almost no checks and balances for the past two to three years. The ruling AK Party had two party congresses, in 2014 and 2016, to appoint the person Erdoğan wanted to see as prime minister at that time – in other words, the ruling party was tasked with eliminating government politicians Erdoğan did not want to work with. Judicial independence and accountability, always a sore spot in Turkish democracy, are entirely disregarded. Ratifying a constitutional amendment that disempowers the legislature even further and effectively eliminates judicial checks on the president grants this de facto change de jure legitimacy. The ruling AK Party’s members of parliament fought hard to bring about this change, but they might be the biggest losers: a future president, Erdoğan or someone else, would be under no pressure to negotiate the basics of policy with the legislature, as cabinet appointment are not going to be vetted by parliament, and the president is going to enjoy vast decree powers. Given the absence of intra-party democracy, a future president is very likely to meddle with the ruling party’s internal dynamics, and effectively destroy any meaningful separation of powers. The country is going to be run by a president and his/her entourage.
This state of affairs signifies a rupture in Turkey’s political development. Turkey has never had a fully functioning constitutional democracy with civilian control, independent courts, unrestricted political participation, and respect for fundamental rights. Yet, democratic constitutionalism, i.e. the idea that rights protection and limits on government power could be achieved through the constitution, has remained an important aspiration since the late Ottoman period. Even when constitutional doctrine remained a relatively elite subject matter, parts of the reformist agenda did have popular appeal. Illiberal and undemocratic constitutional interventions, such as the 1982 constitution that was ratified through a referendum under a military government, triggered efforts for revision and reform through constitutional amendments. Especially the post-1999 period, when Turkey’s domestic democratization process went hand in hand with the European Union accession talks, constitutionalism became a popular discourse, not only among self-designated liberal reformers, but also in government circles, including among members of today’s ruling party. Right or wrong, the belief that a more democratic and liberal constitution could help the country resolve its long-standing political issues has remained a legacy connecting the late Ottomans’ search for a multi-ethnic constitutional identity with contemporary reformers facing the Kurdish issue, authoritarian reversals, and human rights violations. Seen in this light, the complete absence of a democracy-and-human-rights agenda in the 2017 constitutional amendment is major rupture, and in many ways a reversal, in Turkey’s political development.
What does the future hold? Erdoğan and his followers declared victory on the night of the referendum, disregarding allegations of fraud. If they have it their way, the 2019 presidential election is going to be contested between Erdoğan and opposition candidates. The opposition has no chance unless the elections are free and fair again. Opposition parties find themselves in a dilemma: playing under the institutional constraints of authoritarian elections is meaningless, but asking people to take to the streets puts those people in harm’s way. Perhaps one window of opportunity is the intrinsic instability of Erdoğan’s regime: his ambition to consolidate power by excluding former allies is likely to lead to even greater divisions in the ruling coalition, and the elimination of mechanisms to ensure accountability and competence in the public sector is a source of policy failure. Grievances are mounting: the peace process with the Kurdish insurgency failed, bringing back the terrible human toll of violent conflict; foreign policy appears to be oscillating constantly; and the economy has slowed down, partly as a result of the structural deficiencies of the economic model and partly as a result of arbitrary and unpredictable policy.
The democratic sectors in the opposition should find ways to convey the message that they can overcome their internal divisions and build a more democratic, more stable, and more just society. More than guns and laws, the regime’s greatest strength has been the inability of opposition groups to even come close to building an alternative ruling coalition. The divisions inside opposition sectors (for example, those between the secularist Republicans and the Kurdish political movement) have deep historical roots, and will not disappear overnight. Yet, negotiating those differences to build a unified and coherent opposition front is the only way to overcome the country’s slide into authoritarianism.
Zeynep Serinkaya: The merits of being 48.5%
For months now in Istanbul we have been living under the gaze of 10-story-tall Erdoğan posters. This colossal image of an omnipotent and omnipresent leader has been haunting us all in our cities of compressed public spaces. The last four years have been quite literally “a shock therapy” that rendered most of the young people mere observers of atrocities, disciplining them into thinking they are alone, isolated, and unwanted against the “majority” that have identified themselves with Erdoğan to unimaginable levels. The sheer media control over the representation of social life in Turkey and the eagerness to differentiate ourselves from the AKP/MHP voting bloc have forced us to aid and abet the hegemony of the government-controlled representations of said “majority”. Such representations allowed the AKP government to override the rule of law with “de facto” practices, making the motto “what the people want” a lubricant for political dead ends. It became harder and harder to anchor one’s self to any crux of truth, as political positions and “facts” changed ever so swiftly and most of the state institutions were dismantled overnight. Yet, there can only be so many versions of the truth, and what seems to foster the crack in the AKP hegemony is that its discourse is only barely holding on to our shared plane of reality.
During each election round, Erdoğan’s discourse resorts to polarization to foster his beloved majority, yet paradoxically, each time the image of the majority is consolidated, it becomes smaller and smaller, with a growing number of “minorities” taking turns being labeled as “traitors”. After the elections of June 7 2015, his use of nationalist rhetoric seemed to have worked well, legitimizing a year of atrocious curfews and normalizing the commercials for urban transformation projects for cities that had been razed to the ground. To use a Turkish phrase, he “showed us death and we were grateful to have malaria”. So there people stood, watching the unimaginable bluntness of the government and the way it carried out violence with ease–each in their own corners, each in a shameful silence. However, after the July 15 coup attempt and with the results of the referendum, this image of a faceless, anonymous majority mass against which young people feel powerless and alone, not knowing what to fight for, is falling apart.
The referendum campaigns for “Yes” mobilized public resources and government media outlets, covering vast portions of the physical public space and making use of the police force against the “No” campaigns, which only relied on the labour of those who risked physical assault, judicial harassment and detention. There were many reported incidents of fraud and rules violations and, as the OSCE report so politely put it,” referendum took place on an unlevel playing field”. At the last minute, the Supreme Election Council annulled the one condition that makes a ballot an official document and not a piece of paper: the stamp that validates it. Yet the results did not show a majority of “Yes” votes; it showed a feeble three percent difference, in spite of all the effort amassed for the AKP campaigns.
Quite simply, one in every two people does not consent to Erdoğan’s “vision”. Yet calling one in every two people a “traitor” will not help either, although some naysayers are convinced Erdoğan could wage a civil war in a last attempt to save his reign. Whatever the future holds, for now, the referendum results have sparked a chain of protests in many major cities. The protesters come together with one common demand: the cancellation of the referendum–and they seem to be much more focused on standing their ground simply by marching every night with a clear message. With the experiences gained from Gezi in mind, the marches are much more disciplined and sober. The merits of being the 48.5% might surpass the advantages of being a majority of 51.5%: a refreshed hope to act upon, a possibility to mend the broken social bonds, a dissolution of the poor excuses of opposition that the CHP and MHP have become, and a final push to change the rules of the game (when in fact the game itself has been long dismantled). After a long while, young people who have spent most of their lives under AKP’s solitary rule have remembered that it has its limits.
The results have the capacity to reveal the actual fragility of the political power of Erdoğan’s image to both sides of the voters. I, for one, believe that the optimism of the will is finally taking over, yet it is more crucial than ever to have the pessimism of our will guided not by the conspiracy theories or manipulated “truths”, but by disciplined observation and study of the current situation. And so the hashtag goes, “No, it is not over yet”.
Zeynep Serinkaya is a sociologist currently working at Initiative for Freedom of Expression Turkey, monitoring journalists’ trials and reporting on the violations of freedom of speech and of press. She also works as a voluntary translator for the LGBTI news outlet, LGBTI News Turkey.