CHP outflanks AKP in first stage of referendum campaign

CHP outflanks AKP in first stage of referendum campaign

The first date signaled as the launch of the “yes” campaign of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) for the April 16 referendum was Feb. 7. President Tayyip Erdoğan had asked the AK Parti to get ready for that date, the end of parliament’s winter recess.

But a week after that date had passed, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım announced on Feb. 14 during his address to the AK Parti parliamentary group that the campaign would be launched on Feb. 25.

Why this delay? Could it be related to the opinion polls on the referendum that have apparently satisfied neither Erdoğan nor Yıldırım? Could it be to prevent early fatigue in the “yes” camp amid obvious cracks in the National Movement Party (MHP), which supports Erdoğan’s project to shift Turkey to an executive presidential system?

The political backstage in Ankara tells a different story.

Sources suggest there are two key points behind this delay.

The first is tactical. The AK Parti had calculated that the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) would appeal to the Constitutional Court to annul parliament’s decision to go to a referendum, based on claims of irregularity during the voting process. The AK Parti had guessed that the court would reject it after one week at most, which would ultimately provide more political material for the “yes” campaign.

PM Yıldırım said in a speech on Feb. 14 that the CHP was “afraid of the people’s will,” which is why it wanted to hide behind the Constitutional Court.

But just an hour later, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said in an address to his parliamentary group that they would not apply to the court, trusting instead in the common sense of the people to vote “no” to a shift that would only lead to “autocratic rule.” He said the Constitutional Court would only “make a political ruling anyway.”

Surprising many, including its own supporters, Kılıçdaroğlu seemed to have outmaneuvered Yıldırım in the first stage of the campaign.

The second possible reason for the delay could be more important for President Erdoğan. It relates to the political situation in the U.S.

Ankara has still not been able to hear clear signals from the Donald Trump administration on three key issues:

1- The strategy regarding the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or DAESH, and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, including the issue of safe zones.

2- The American stance regarding the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which the U.S. sees as a major partner against ISIL but which Turkey sees as a terrorist group for being the Syrian sister of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

3- The extradition of or at least legal action against Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher, and the members of his network who are accused of being behind the July 15, 2016, foiled coup attempt.

Erdogan wasn’t able to hear what he wanted to hear in a telephone conversation with Trump on Feb. 8.

But time is running out, Russia is strengthening its hand in Syria and on the Kurdish issue, and Trump has his own big problems, as evidenced with the resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn just a few weeks after assuming power.

Ankara did what it actually had to do much earlier, sending Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Ümit Yalçın to Washington D.C. for high-level technical talks.

Those are only a few of a number of possible reasons behind the delay in the AK Parti’s referendum campaign.
Regarding the campaign, there was an important statement on Feb. 14 from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which focuses on the Kurdish problem. Filiz Kerestecioğlu, a party spokeswoman, said they would not boycott the referendum even though a number of their MPs, including two co-chairs, are in prison, but would instead say “no” to the system shift.

It seems there is a difficult 60 days ahead of all political players in Turkey until the referendum.