Who’s the next target in Turkey’s referendum blame game?

Who’s the next target in Turkey’s referendum blame game?

TV journalist Hakan Çelik asked an interesting question to Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım on private broadcaster CNN Türk in an interview on the evening of April 1: How will former President Abdullah Gül and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu vote in the referendum on April 16?

One might say such an issue is not Çelik’s business, and ask how Yıldırım would know about the votes of two of his predecessors in the ruling Justice and Development Parti (AK Parti) anyway. But the question has a point. For weeks now, word has been spreading within the AK Parti ranks that Gül, Davutoğlu, and former Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç (one of the old guard), will not be saying “Yes” to the consolidation of all executive power in the president’s hands. Some have even suggested they might work against it.

It was also reported on the day of the interview that Yıldırım had invited Gül to join him at his “Yes” rally in Gül’s hometown Kayseri, but Gül declined the invitation.

In response to Çelik’s question, Yıldırım said the following: “From time to time all of us can do wrong or make mistakes. But none of our friends have knowingly betrayed this fellowship [the AK Parti] and never will do.”

The key words in this reply are “knowingly” and “betrayal,” and the prime minister’s words could be considered a kind of Freudian slip.

In other words, Gül, who has served as foreign minister, prime minister and president over the AK Parti’s 15 years in office, is considered to have “betrayed” the government by not attending the “Yes” rally – though not “knowingly.”

When Yıldırım was criticizing Gül in such a way, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli, who is supporting President Tayyip Erdoğan’s referendum target, raised the bar against Gül. On April 2, a day after Gül did not appear next to Yıldırım in Kayseri, Bahçeli said the following: “Gül should have been there for two reasons. First, he is from Kayseri. Secondly, he should still show his determination in general elections even after the termination of his presidency.”

The MHP leader’s problem is clear: Erdoğan and Yıldırım have not been able to find the level of support they were seeking from Bahçeli’s party. The MHP is split and a significant part of its grassroots has joined to the “No” front. Bahçeli is now trying to pave the way to saying that he is not responsible for this split, because if the result on April 16 is “No,” the AK Parti’s heavy hitters would likely look for someone to blame. Potential targets could be Gül, who appears to be an easy target now, and Bahçeli himself.

In fact, the reason why the AK Parti has started to look again for the support of Kurdish votes for the “Yes” campaign is because it has failed to find the necessary support from the MHP. That might be why Ankara has given only a very mild reaction to the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leader Massoud Barzani’s announcement that he plans to hold a referendum for Kurdish independence this year. 

Isn’t the discomfort in AK Parti ranks clear from the sudden interest of certain pro-government commentators in Kurdish votes, even though for the past few weeks they have been predicting a comfortable 55-56 percent “Yes” victory? 

But that is not the only unfair treatment of Gül or tactical move by Bahçeli to summarize what is happening in the referendum atmosphere, with Turkey less than two weeks before going to the ballot box.

Erdoğan Toprak is an adviser to Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), on the party’s “No” campaign.” The following are his words from an interview with daily Hürriyet’s Rifat Başaran:

- “All government resources are being used for the campaigns of the AKP and the MHP. TRT [the public broadcaster] gives time to ‘yes’ propaganda only. Moreover, they [the government] have lifted the necessity for ‘impartiality’ in the media ahead of the polls with a state of emergency decree. We are being obstructed by state of emergency justifications. No hall was allocated in Konya for Kılıçdaroğlu to deliver a campaign speech.”

- “Such criteria is not in force for the ‘yes’ campaign, but TRT has refused to broadcast our ad, claiming that the star in the background imitates the [Turkish] flag. What’s more, in order to block our broadcasting hours, the programs of the president, prime minister or one of the ministers are changed to overlap with ours.” 
Meanwhile, the governor of the eastern province Muş recently banned one of the campaign songs of the Kurdish issue-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) with the authority given by the state of emergency. That decision was followed by one from the Diyarbakır Governor’s Office. 

The song was “Say No” in Kurdish and was banned on the justification that it allegedly “agitates people toward hatred and enmity.” One wonders whether the praising of calls to bring back the death penalty during “yes” rallies are regarded by government officials as calls for social peace.

Or consider the social media bashing of food giant Ülker over of its April Fools’ Day ad. Doesn’t that resemble the anti-communist paranoia of the 1950s and 1960s? In those times, for example, the trademark of a Turkish cigarette brand “Bahar” became the subject of a court case because someone claimed that when you reversed it and partly covered it, it looked like the portrait of Chinese leader Mao Zedong. In another case, a movie about a love story was censured because officials thought a scene shot on the Kilyos beach of Istanbul could signal an available landing shore for the Soviet navy.

Recently, it was Kılıçdaroğlu who was targeted almost as a terrorist for leading the “no” campaign; thankfully that was corrected by President Erdoğan following reactions from the grassroots. Now it is Gül who is being targeted. God knows who will be next.

Perhaps all these developments are indications of the not-so-festive atmosphere in the presidential compound at Beştepe in Ankara. Could it be possible that a seasoned politician like Erdoğan is ignoring the possibility that some in his team are actually doing him harm because of their own positions and interests?

I think I have a reason to ask this question, as a journalist who received opprobrium from the AK Parti ranks for trying to warn readers about the U.S.-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen and his followers back when they were still on good terms with the government. Of course, we are now reporting on AK Parti statements that they were “deceived” by Gülenists for years.

Can that really be possible?