Turkey ‘normalizing’ referendum process for April 17

Turkey ‘normalizing’ referendum process for April 17

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will officially launch its campaign for the April 16 referendum in Ankara on Feb 25, kicking off its seven-week-long work aimed at garnering no less than 55 percent of votes to have constitutional amendments approved by the Turkish people. As usual, it is planned to be a massive event with big crowds attending the launch. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, as well as senior AKP officials, will hold dozens of rallies around the country and in major European countries, trying to persuade the public that these changes will be good for Turkey.

Meanwhile, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), as the major political party against the shift to an executive presidential system, has opted to quietly launch its campaign process in line with its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s approach to the vote. He has repeatedly underlined that April 16 is not an election between different political parties but rather an election on the future of the Turkish people. The CHP will therefore pursue a campaign without even using the flags, symbols or slogans of the main opposition party. 

The CHP is currently concentrating on why it is calling on the people to vote “No” to the amendments. The fact is that the “No” camp is much more diverse compared to the “Yes” camp, as the former comprises various political parties – including some on the conservative, nationalist right wing and many civil society groups with no direct political links. That is why Kılıçdaroğlu will only rarely hold public rallies and will instead opt to meet different social and political groups throughout the campaign process. 

Despite these differences, it can be observed that over the last week prominent parties and figures from both camps have started to use a rather softened language. Kılıçdaroğlu has started to avoid targeting President Erdoğan himself, opting to instead make his arguments based on the content of the constitutional amendments. Instead of creating polemics with the AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the CHP is trying to explain why endorsing this package would be bad for Turkey. 

The AKP camp, however, has had a more radical change in language. It seems that it has stopped trying to categorize almost all naysayers as either terrorists or terror supporters, and is using a more embracing language, as Prime Minister Yıldırım announced this week. In an address on Feb. 24, he called on all Kurdish citizens to feel proud of their identity, emphasizing that all citizens were equal and respected in the government’s eyes regardless of how they will vote in April. 

According to discussions in Ankara, one of the reasons for this shift in rhetoric is that initial public opinion surveys indicated that “yes” and “no” votes are neck and neck, and associating naysayers with terror groups was having a negative impact on undecided voters. 

For the AKP, which aims to have the amendments approved by a meaningful margin, this picture is not satisfying and has to be improved through an efficient campaign process. Whatever the result, and particularly if there is a low margin of victory, the referendum will leave the country much more divided and polarized. 

So the “normalization” of the campaign process is very important for two main reasons: First, the escalation of political tension in Turkey is to nobody’s advantage except for terror organizations who will attempt to use it to spark chaos in the country. Second, whatever the result we will wake up in the same country on April 17 and have to continue living together.