‘No’ campaigners face serious hurdles ahead Turkey’s key polls

‘No’ campaigners face serious hurdles ahead Turkey’s key polls

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s gesture of visiting a “no” campaign tent in Istanbul on March 28 was a noteworthy move and a step in the right direction for normalizing the referendum process, after weeks of tension and polarization. Erdoğan’s visit to tent marked a shift from a weeks-long discourse that associated “no” voters with various terrorist organizations, as stated by main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) officials. 

We should hope that this course will continue until April 16, and that Turkey can vote in this decisive referendum in a peaceful environment without further polarization. 

However, the general political environment is far from suggesting an equal and fair campaigning process, particularly for the “No” side. Unfortunately, the picture includes physical assaults on former Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) officials like Sinan Oğan, Ümit Özdağ and Meral Akşener, who are actively trying to convince nationalist voters that they should vote against the constitutional amendments. 

In the absence of a visible and influential campaign from MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli, the voices of these former MHP figures are heard across Anatolia, disrupting the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) plans to consolidate all conservative and nationalist voters to yield a decisive “yes” from the ballot boxes on April 16. 

Oğan, whose rally in the Central Anatolian town of Kayseri last weekend was attacked, strongly accused local MHP offices of organizing the raid on him and on his followers. Amid concerns that even worse could happen, he has announced that he has started to carry his own licensed pistol for self-defense. Akşener and Özdağ have also been targeted since they started campaigning, with not many visible additional security measures provided for them.

In another corner of Central Anatolia, a prosecutor has launched an investigation into 50 local neighborhood heads (muhtars) in the Gülşehir district of Nevşehir province for attending a meeting organized by Republican People’s Party (CHP) head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. The prosecutor said they were being investigated for “assembling without permission” and police obtained the testimonies of the village heads. This move will surely serve to intimidate headmen in different parts of the country who are planning to attend CHP events as part of “no” campaigning.   

It is also noteworthy that we have not heard any government official criticizing the prosecutor’s move or underlining the right to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. 

Similar restrictions are being observed in southeast Anatolia due to security reasons. There too it can hardly be said that the environment is ideal for holding such an important referendum. 

The media’s stance and performance is also crucial in this process, and is sadly lacking at present. Both the CHP and the Kurdish issue-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have repeatedly asked the state-sponsored Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) to report their activities to the same extent as they do for the AKP and MHP events. Around 90 percent of all media outlets are pro-government and carry highly one-sided stories, which makes the situation worse. 

OSCE reports on Turkey’s previous parliamentary elections have often cited how the pre-election campaign process was unfair and unequal for the opposition voices, but the current referendum process has certainly further worsened the situation. Whatever the result on April 16, this won’t be remembered in Turkey’s political history as an equal and fair referendum.