PM adopts ‘embracing’ mood ahead of referendum campaign
Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım denies there has been any policy change from his Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) ahead of the launch of its official campaign on Feb. 25 for the constitutional referendum on April 16. Answering questions at an Ankara press conference on Feb. 22, Yıldırım said his party has always aimed at “embracing all people” in the country.
But there has definitely been a change in rhetoric in the direction of moderation. Until just a few days ago, Yıldırım, President Tayyip Erdogan, and other government figures were denouncing naysayers in the referendum as siding with terrorists.
“I do not call all naysayers as terrorists. But it is a fact that the [main opposition Republican People’s Party] CHP is saying ‘no,’ just like the terrorist [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK and FETÖ,” Yıldırım had said, using the government’s name for the secret network of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher accused of masterminding the foiled coup attempt of July 15, 2016. The prime minister also claimed that voting “no” would be in favor of dividing the country.
But the harsh rhetoric was reciprocal. Until a week ago, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was saying a win for “Yes” would lead to “bloodshed” in the country.
Perhaps one incident above all others was the straw that broke the camel’s back: When a local AK Parti official in the western town of Manisa asked his audience to prepare for “civil war” if the referendum result is “No,” Yıldırım immediately got the official’s resignation from the party.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s reply to this was a statement that there would be neither civil war nor bloodshed, whatever the result.
On Feb. 22, Yıldırım welcomed that moderation, saying that Turkey would not be divided whether the result is “Yes” or “No.” “If the result is ‘No’ we’ll continue our job. This is not an election,” he said.
He also expressed a wish that Kılıçdaroğlu’s stance remained moderate after the referendum, and he resisted the urge to hit out at him.
This could all come as a relief for the voters after an early escalation of tension between the “Yes” and “No” sides, which raised concerns about the course of the later stages of the campaign.
Despite Yıldırım’s words, it is not clear that the rhetoric of President Erdoğan will not be antagonizing. Erdoğan believes in power politics and has often efficiently used his advantage against rivals through antagonism.
Still, perhaps this time the major political actors have come to realize that antagonism over Turkey’s government system could lead to irrevocable damage in society, at a time when the country faces a number of serious security, foreign policy and economic issues.
The April 16 referendum is about a system shift. If the “Yes” side is victorious, all executive powers would be given to the president, who will become the leader of a party in parliament and also be able to appoint top judges.
There is no place for a prime minister in the new system, but Yıldırım says that is not important for him. He maintains that the consolidation of power in one pair of hands would be good for the country, regardless of “one-man rule” criticisms from referendum naysayers.