A tough campaign ahead of Turkey’s Erdoğan

A tough campaign ahead of Turkey’s Erdoğan

There was an important meeting between President Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım in Istanbul on Feb. 5.

There are a number of high-priority issues in the dossiers of the two from the ongoing military operation in Syria to the prospective one in Iraq, and from the tension with Greece over the Aegean to the growing headache with the Donald Trump administration in the United States.

But the highest priority for Turkish leaders these days is possibly the April referendum over the constitutional shift to the executive presidential system.

The two met for three hours last week, apart from a National Security Board (MGK) meeting and an opening ceremony in the southern province of Mersin, and it was reported that the main issue of that three-hour meeting was the referendum.

The “yes” campaign of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) is expected to start tomorrow on Feb. 7, and all indications show that it is going to be a difficult one for them. And that is not because of the strength of the already fragmented “no” campaigners. It is because of the uncertainties within the “yes” camp.

If it weren’t for the support of Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Erdoğan could not have brought the issue to parliament at all and asked for Yıldırım to conduct the process. After all, the new constitution – if approved by popular vote – will weaken parliament against the president and will abolish the Prime Ministry all together. And because the president can also become the party chair, there will be no chair left for Yıldırım. Thanks to Bahçeli, Erdoğan managed to exceed the three-fifths hurdle in parliament to succeed in taking it to a referendum.

But that support has caused a deepening rift within the MHP. Some influential NGOs that have been working as grassroots organizations for the MHP, like the youth organization Ülkü Ocakları, and the public employees union Kamu-Sen have publicly announced that will say “no.”

There are reports in the Turkish press from the political backstage that Erdoğan is not very comfortable with this situation. According to backstage information, Erdoğan wishes to see a cabinet reshuffle after the referendum and wants to appoint a few MHP-origin names as ministers – as if it is an AK Parti-MHP coalition – if the constitution is approved. And not only cabinet ministers, some influential public positions, from provincial governors to the top of the judicial and the security apparatus, might be given to figures known to be loyal to Bahçeli if the constitution is approved.

It may be good for AK Parti leaders if such news spreads in order to attract undecided MHP votes and created hope among them that they will become an unofficial government partner, which could entail positions, jobs and similar government opportunities for them.

On the other hand, such close cooperation with the MHP is reportedly creating fault lines within the AK Parti. It’s not just Kurdish voters of the party, the traditional religious-conservative old guard is also not very happy at being tied to the MHP, the strongest voice of Turkish nationalism. The on-and-off arrest of the MPs of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is focused on the Kurdish problem, due to their alleged links – mostly through the speeches they delivered – with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is a matter of concern for the Kurdish-origin MPs of the AK Parti regarding their own grassroots.

A campaign started by Yıldırım that the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is working hand in hand with the PKK and even the secret network of Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher living in the U.S. who is accused of masterminding the July 2016 coup, has not gained much traction, despite being repeated by almost all ministers.

The government is trying to please voters as much as possible with incentives such as decreasing taxes for buying houses and household goods until the end of April, which, coincidentally or not, is the month of the referendum. 

A campaign to make public calls on social media to two more people to “say yes for a stronger Turkey” has turned into a fiasco in a few days. Yıldırım called it “meddlesomeness” on Feb. 4 without hiding his displeasure. A deputy chair of the AK Parti, Mustafa Ataş, chided supporters at a party meeting the same day in the western town of Sakarya because half of the hall left the meeting before his address to them.

Erdoğan is not the type of politician to give in quickly; he always has a few rabbits in his hat and a few trumps that he can play at the very last minute.

From a massive operation against the PKK in northern Iraq, in coordination with the Iraqi government, to an urgent AK Parti congress right after the referendum, a wide spectrum of options are reportedly on the table.
It is also possible that Erdoğan might send one or two articles of the constitution back to parliament, including some of the most controversial ones (like the right to call for early elections, appoint high judges, issue decrees bypassing parliament or decrease the age for candidacy to 18) so as to soften the reactions on the “yes” camp.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the CHP, recently said on CNN Türk that they would not target Erdoğan personally during the campaign and not even carry party flags in their “no” rallies, but would instead try and tell people that they were against the system shift because one-man rule with weak checks and balances “wouldn’t be good for Turkey.”

It seems the referendum campaign might be one of the most important turning points for Erdoğan, if not the most important one.