Will voting make you a terrorist or a coup plotter?

Will voting make you a terrorist or a coup plotter?

Turkey is going to a crucial referendum on a constitutional change for a radical shift in its administrative system from a parliamentary to an executive presidential system on April 16.

This has been a target for President Tayyip Erdoğan for at least 10 years, under 15 years of Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) governments. But as the number of AK Parti seats in parliament were not enough to form a single-party government, falling short of fulfilling the three-fifths majority to take constitutional changes to a referendum, support from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) was needed. MHP head Devlet Bahçeli decided to support the AK Parti’s changes, risking serious cracks in his party.

If a majority of voters approve the changes in the referendum, the Prime Ministry will be abolished, the president will become the head of the cabinet as well as the head of his party (ruling the majority group in the parliament at the same time), and be able to take the country to a general election. The influence of the executive branch of the government over the legislative branch will thus increase markedly. The president’s influence over the judicial branch will also increase, as the president will be able to appoint 12 of the 15 members of the Constitutional Court, plus a majority of the Board of Judges and Prosecutors, which makes all the appointments of judges and prosecutors in the country and is able to give them disciplinary penalties.

President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım reject the criticism of social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who says this new system will lead to one-man rule and further weaken checks and balances. They claim it will provide better democratic mechanisms, will make the president more accountable to parliament and the courts, and above all will make the system work more efficiently as the government would be “freed of its shackles.”

Yıldırım has said a number of times that the CHP, by advocating a “No” vote, falls into the same ranks as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been carrying out acts of terror in Turkey over the past three decades, and the Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ), which is what the government calls the secret network of U.S.-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen accused of conspiring the foiled July 15, 2016 coup attempt. The same accusation also applies to the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in parliament, which has a number of MPs, including co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, in jail accused of being linked to the PKK.

Responding to criticisms, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ said last week that the government did not consider “all ‘no’ voters as terrorists.” However, President Erdoğan said on Feb. 12 before departing for Bahrain that all those planning to vote “No” in the referendum could be considered in the same ranks as the plotters of the coup attempt.

CHP spokesman Levent Gök rejected that on Feb. 13, saying his party stood firmly against the coup while it was happening, defending parliament together with the government against the coup plot. The CHP also asks how it is that the government can denounce millions of its citizens as terrorists. 

When asked to respond to Gök’s words, government spokesman Numan Kurtulmuş said later on the same day that neither the president nor the prime minister had meant to suggest that all naysayers were terrorists or coup plotters. But he also claimed that “it is a fact that both the PKK and FETÖ” are also saying “No,” and Erdoğan and Yıldırım only wanted to draw attention to that similarity. 

I don’t want to ask what would happen if any of those networks or any other illegal group announced that they supported a “Yes” vote.

But as a journalist who tried to defend the Hürriyet offices, together with other colleagues, against pro-coup soldiers on the night of July 15, 2016 - and as someone still trying to explain the evils of that attempt to the outside world - I have difficulty understanding how casting a vote can make any citizen either a terrorist or a coup-plotter, or even simply place them in the same ranks.