Rocky road for a vote
There are 50-something days left until the critical referendum that will change the executive branch in Turkey. If approved, the constitutional amendments will annul the position of the prime minister and unite the executive powers under the president. It is a completely new way of governing for Turkey, as it will also bring in a cabinet of ministers that are not elected by the public as MPs. The amendment is not just complicated for ordinary people to understand, as it has deeply troubling loopholes for the public servants that will have to work with it.
Let’s step back and see the events that led to the current confusion. During the debates and fistfights in the Turkish parliament, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) saw the public vote as the sheer guarantor of the amendment. The aim was to unify the power under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and who would ever dare to oppose it anyway? But no, something else happened. It was not the success of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) or other opposition groups that clarified the potential dangers of this change.
It was the presidential system in the United States. Once the beacon of democracy and best example of the presidential system, the U.S.’ recent troubles with Donald Trump’s decision-making have created a huge question mark in the minds of Turkey’s conservative and pious AK Party voters.
Now, a month into the debate, Turkey’s undecided voters are up to 20 percent of the electorate. According to Adil Gür, the founder of the A&G polling and research company, 35 percent of this undecided pool is composed of less educated housewives, who are the faithful base of President Erdoğan. That leaves about 12-13 percent of the overall electorate to be convinced. My personal experience tells me that convincing someone to say “yes” is harder and more costly than saying “no.”
First and foremost, AK Party voters are well aware of the fact that even if they vote “no,” the president will not lose his seat and the AK Party will not lose executive power. The handouts and social aids they receive will not disappear overnight. So it is really up to their conscience to decide if the system will be better with a solidly unified power in one person.
Campaigning for a “yes” has become harder as well. The AK Party’s spokespeople are having a hard time explaining why it will be better than today. People who are suffering economic hardships, drowning in debt and searching for jobs for their young sons and daughters are asking “what good will it bring?” The rumor on the streets is that “imaginary money will flow in from Qatar after the referendum.” Yes, in some small towns, the AK Party is selling the argument just like that.
But in a system that clearly gives the power to one person to elect the high judges, appoint the ministers, to issue decrees according to his own wishes and declare emergency rule or amnesty without any legislative checks or balances, one hardly feels safe and secure.
Harvard’s Dr. Gökhan Hotamışlıgil encapsulated the worries of Turkey’s young scientists last week: “This generation of young and educated scientists feel vulnerable. They will leave Turkey and won’t come back. We cannot afford to lose the best brains we have worked so hard to educate.”
It is not just a system we are voting on. It is the future of our land.