The playing field is not level

The playing field is not level

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, and Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the right wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), have kicked off their “yes” campaigns for the referendum on constitutional changes to be held on April 16. 

If accepted, the new constitution will transform Turkey from a pluralist parliamentary democracy to a presidential system free of any checks and balances. There are a number of ways to describe the system being proposed, but none of these have anything to do with democracy as this is understood in the free world. 

Erdoğan says this will be a “Turkish-style democracy,” in other words “democracy a la Turca.” What he does not want is a U.S. type system. Looking at how President Donald Trump is grappling with the separation of powers at present, it’s not hard to understand why.

The campaign for a “yes” vote in the referendum is using every trick in the book to scare the electorate into accepting the constitutional changes being proposed. 

Erdoğan, Yıldırım and Bahçeli are maintaining that those who vote “no” will not only cause chaos in Turkey, but will also fall in line with terrorist organizations such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), or the Gülen group (FETÖ) – which is accused of masterminding the failed coup attempt in July 2016. They claim these groups are leading the rejection front.

They are clearly trying to avoid a sensible public debate about the merits or demerits of the system of government they are prosing, and attempting to divert attention elsewhere with unsubstantiated claims and accusations. 

Those who blindly support Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are also uninterested in a sensible debate on the topic. For them, the referendum will be vote for or against Erdoğan, pure and simple. 

No one in the “yes” camp seems interested in questioning how a president, who under the current constitution has to be above party politics, can campaign so fiercely for changes that will make him the sole and unquestioned leader of the country. 

Temel Karamollaoğlu, the leader of the Islamist Felicity Party (SP) – which opposes the AKP – made a piercing point during a recent television interview. Asked how they would be voting, Karamollaoğlu said that if they go to the ballot box without thinking, they would say “yes.” If however, they think the matter through, their vote will most likely be “no.” 

It is not clear if his subtle jibe got through to Erdoğan and the AKP’s supporters. 

There are other undemocratic tactics the “yes” camp is using. Stipulations about equal time on television for all legitimate parties to air their views about the referendum, for example, have been rescinded. 

Put another, way the “yes” camp is stacking everything according to its own benefit, and ensuring that the playing field is arranged to the opposition’s disadvantage. It seems hell-bent on pushing these constitutional changes through, one way or another.

Meanwhile, pressure on the free press and independent journalists is continuing to increase as the authorities use the powers available to them under the state of emergency that has been in force since the failed coup attempt in July. 

Media proprietors are also seen to be falling in line with the government in this regard.

Pressure is also mounting on Islamist journalists with a conscience, who under normal circumstances, would support Erdoğan and the AKP, but are questioning the system of government being proposed. They are being vilified as “traitors” by pro-government pen-pushers.

Yıldırım says the nation will get the system it deserves. We will not have to wait that long to see what it is that Turks deserve.

The only certainty from today’s vantage point is that confusion and volatility will continue to reign in Turkey, especially if the referendum does not produce the decisive “yes” Erdoğan and the AKP are trying to hammer out of this referendum.