Turkey’s issue is not just the referendum vote

Turkey’s issue is not just the referendum vote

The country has fixed its eyes on the upcoming April 16 referendum on constitutional amendments aiming to usher in an era of Turkey with an executive president. But is Turkey heading only to a referendum?

Irrespective of whether the nation approves or disapproves the constitutional amendment package in the April 16 vote, it will ultimately end up going to an early election, the first since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power 14 years ago in the Nov. 3, 2002 election.

Over the past 14 years, the AKP has always refused to go to early elections and has even demonized early polls, saying only “insufficient or incapacitated governments” could think of cutting short the job they have undertaken and “escaping responsibility by calling an election earlier than the scheduled date.” Will that be the case now? Will the result of the referendum incapacitate the government and force it consider an early election? Will the result make it necessary for the AKP to “clean the house” before moving forward?

Obviously, a “no” vote from the nation will be a “vote of no confidence” in the government, and perhaps more so in President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Who wanted these amendments? Who demanded acquiring all legislative, judicial and executive power in his hands? Who succumbed to the will of the president and used every possible means to achieve that goal? With all the state capabilities used to promote a “yes” vote and with the president and ruling party demonizing the “no” side to such an extent, it would be a miracle if the “yes” vote does not emerge successful.

However, if the “yes” side wins we will see a very complicated situation. First of all, if these changes really are required for Turkey to break its chains and achieve great progress, why should the country have to wait until the 2019 general election for all the stipulations of the change to take effect? As presented to the nation – apart from the stipulation lifting the formal restriction on the president being a formal member or leader of a political party - all other supposedly important elements of the package will have to wait until the next parliamentary election to enter into force. It is claimed that a promise was made to Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli – with whose support the amendment became possible – that there would be no early election and polls would be held, as scheduled, in August 2019 along with the presidential election. 

Why might waiting until August 2019 be important for Bahçeli? Does he think his already dead MHP will come back to life by that date? Well, I suppose anything is possible in democracies, but the current winds in conservative politics demonstrate that whatever Bahçeli and his comrades do, the birth of a new leader, Meral Akşener, is already well underway in Turkey. A lone woman, expelled from her MHP because of her differences in leadership and ideology with Bahçeli, Akşener is successfully drawing the attention not only of conservatives and ultra-nationalists but also of Kemalists, secularists and even social democrats.

Indeed, it is still just about imaginable that the “no” front could well score a victory in referendum. It would require the remnants of the former Democratic Party (DP), along with the now dead Motherland and True Path Parties and other minor political groupings to come together with social democrats unhappy with the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) under a “non-party” coalition in opposing the constitutional amendments, which Akşener and others claim would endanger Turkey’s national and territorial integrity.

If a “no” vote does emerge, an early election will become unavoidable as the AKP will have difficulty in preserving its cohesion in governance.

It is alleged that there are up to 60 deputies in the ranks of the AKP under suspicion of Gülen links who have not been touched in exchange for their support for the constitutional amendment package. The AKP cannot continue with these figures, and the MHP cannot continue with some of its deputies either. An early election, despite Bahçeli’s opposition, could emerge at the end of the day as simply the most convenient option.

Secondly, even if most stipulations of the package giving Erdoğan “super presidential” powers have to wait until the “next general and presidential elections,” a president who has used every possible means to consolidate his grip on the country since he was elected in August 2014 will of course find a way to overcome any time limits, immediately exercising all powers provided by the change. Thus a “super president” will emerge the morning after the referendum if it does indeed produce a “yes” vote.

So the issue at hand is not simply a “yes” or “no” vote in the referendum. It is much broader than that, about what kind of future we foresee for Turkey.