The day is near. This coming Sunday, 16 April 2017, citizens of Turkey will make their way to the polls to vote on a constitutional referendum that will inexorably alter the Turkish government. The referendum, which consists of eighteen proposed amendments to the Constitution of Turkey, has as its main goal the overhaul of the executive branch; perhaps most drastically, it would do away with the position of prime minister, thereby transforming the presidency from being a ceremonial position as head of state into the sole leadership position of the executive branch. Under the proposed amendments, the president would also have greater discretion to appoint and remove ministers, judges, and other government officials. Opposition politicians and dissident journalists have described the referendum as an effort to create one-man rule for current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP) has been in power since 2002. Erdoğan himself was elected Prime Minister in 2003 and President since 2014; if the referendum passes, he would ostensibly be able to extend his term as President until 2029.
In many ways, the referendum taking place this year has been several years in the making. Since his election to the presidency in 2014 – the first time the president was directly elected; previously, the position had been appointed by members of parliament – Erdoğan has tried by hook or by crook to expand the powers of the largely ceremonial position of the presidency. The June 2015 elections posed one of the first challenges to Erdoğan’s rule since he first came to executive office in 2003: the pro-Kurdish left coalition party the Peoples’ Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, or HDP for short) surpassed the ten-percent electoral threshold for representation in Parliament, thereby shattering the prospect of an absolute majority for the AKP and thus the prospect of a newly-empowered Presidency.
Since the elections of June 2015, Turkey has been in a state of ever-worsening turmoil. The AKP successfully managed to block the establishment of a coalition government based on the June election results, as a consequence of which Turkey was constitutionally obligated to hold another election in November of 2015. The interceding months between June and November of that year witnessed the suicide bombing in Suruç as well as the suicide bombing in Ankara. The government called an end to a ceasefire agreement that it had made with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). A state of emergency was imposed in Turkey’s Kurdish regions, with “twenty-four hour martial lockdowns” that lasted for months on end in some places. Under this state of emergency, a ten-year-old girl named Cemile Çağırga was shot and killed by Turkish armed forces and her family had to keep her body in a freezerbecause they couldn’t leave the house – let alone make funerary arrangements – under the state of emergency. Kurdish human rights advocate Tahir Elçi was shot and killed by unknown assailants in Diyarbakır. As one commentator wrote in October 2015, less than a month before the new election, “we have lost too much.”
While the AKP increased its share of the votes over the other parties in Parliament in the November 2015 elections, it was still unable to attain an absolute majority. Nonetheless, government officials and pro-government commentators saw the results as an augur of the future that Erdoğan wanted. Yet the chaos continued: four suicide bombings in Istanbul between January and June 2016, two in Ankara, one in Gaziantep. Between the Suruç bombing in August 2015 and the Atatürk airport bombing in June 2016, over 250 people were killed and over a thousand were injured by suicide bombings alone. This is to say nothing of the ongoing conditions of violence in Kurdistan, where the martial lockdowns continued; or the imprisonment of journalists and pro-peace academics; or the prohibitions on public demonstrations by workers and LGBT activists. As Jadaliyya Turkey page co-editor Anthony Alessandrini wrote in March 2016, “In President Erdoğan’s Turkey, Kurds, Alevis, leftists, queers, ‘improper’ women, young people, indeed anyone who offers any resistance to state policy—all are eligible to receive the title of ‘terrorist,’ and all thus become disposable.”
In July 2016, Turkey witnessed a coup attempt by groups within the Turkish military that rattled the legitimacy of the ruling party. While some parts of the opposition speculated that the coup attempt was a false flag attack meant to dredge support for the ruling party, the government itself has blamed exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen for the attack. Once a close ally of Erdoğan and the AKP, Gülen has many religious followers in Turkey who held positions in public office. After the AKP-Gülen rift deepened, the AKP attempted to purge Gülenists from the government’s ranks. The coup attempt was evidence that still more purging was necessary. Since that time, as Patrick Cockburn reports, 134,000 people have been sacked or suspended, including 7,300 academics and 4,300 judges; 231 journalists are in prison, 149 media outlets have been shut down, and over 140,000 people have been detained or arrested under emergency law. Jadaliyya Turkey page co-editor Aslı Ü. Bâli has written of the tensions between democracy and civil governance that this coup attempt casts into stark relief: “Turkey remains in the grips of a cyclical pattern whereby those in power view the state as an asset to be seized, hollowed out, and remade in their image. So long as governing is equated with excluding and eliminating opposition and democracy is defined in strictly majoritarian terms, this cycle will continue.”
The coup has figured large as a motif in the present referendum campaign. In a speech delivered on 17 March 2017, Erdoğan declared that “the 16 April referendum will be revenge for 15 July [the date of the coup attempt].” He has similarly besmirched the “NO” campaign, declaring in February that “whoever says no stands with 15 July.” The “NO” campaign has been labeled a terrorist campaign and 115 people have been arrested for their involvement with it. Canvassers for the “NO” campaign have been harassed and attacked in public spaces. Turkish daily Hürriyet refused to publish an interview with Nobel laureate and novelist Orhan Pamuk after he publicly stated that he plans to vote “NO.” People have lost their jobs for posting pictures on social media that feature slogans from the “NO” campaign. In short, the referendum campaign is being waged under fraught and unequal conditions that give disproportionate advantage to the “YES” campaign.
With so many forces at play, and in such a charged political context, the stakes of this referendum are not necessarily clear. So I asked several contributors to answer this exact question: “What is at stake in this referendum?” As these contributions show, the conventional paradigms on Turkey and Turkish politics often touted in Euro-American media deserve more scrutiny. These critical perspectives highlight not only the urgent and abiding dilemmas at the heart of this referendum, but also cast new light on the AKP’s past and present and call for a paradigm guided by the hope that, in the last instance, a “NO” vote might be the beginning of the end for Erdoğan.