Full and frank political debate has not exactly been encouraged in Turkey since the purges of many tens of thousands of citizens began in the wake of last year’s attempted coup. But anyone doubting the significance of the country’s referendum on April 16 on whether to establish an executive presidency with sweeping powers received a rude awakening in January, when MPs engaged in a series of fist fights during parliamentary debates on whether the constitutional change would turn President Recep Tayyip Erdogan into a “strongman” ruler.
The assembly witnessed its first-ever brawl between female lawmakers, while one female MP handcuffed herself to the Ankara parliament’s rostrum, another had her prosthetic arm knocked off in a scuffle, hair was pulled and several deputies, of both sexes, ended up in hospital.
A “yes” vote on April 16 would mean a rather less passionate chamber. Parliament would be rendered a merely ceremonial, advisory body, while the seat of real power would be the 62-year-old president’s 1,100-room palace.
Burak Bekdil – a fellow at the Middle East Forum think tank, who says he was fired by a leading Turkish newspaper for faithfully describing what is taking place in Turkey – wrote in a January 29 article entitled “Turkey: Erdogan’s Grab for Absolute Power” that, “at the moment, Erdogan is effectively the absolute ruler. If he wins the vote, he becomes the absolute ruler”.
But what are the chances of Erdogan losing the popular vote and his chance at the throne? Not good at all, according to Bekdil. In his article, published by the conservative New York-based Gatestone Institute, Bekdil wrote: “The opposition looks fragmented and helpless in telling the masses that reforms would concentrate excessive powers in the hands of a leader who has increasingly displayed authoritarian tendencies”.
A year ago, observes Bekdil, it was unimaginable that the nationalist opposition, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), would drop its pledge of never letting Erdogan become an executive president. But in January that’s exactly what it did, providing Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) with the votes that gave it the parliamentary majority to secure a referendum on the constitution. “Political observers are still trying to figure out what may have pushed the MHP from one extreme to the other; there is not yet a clear explanation,” wrote Bekdil.
Opinion polls are notoriously unreliable in Turkey, but Bekdil offered the following analysis. A clear majority of AKP loyalists will vote "yes" in addition to around half of the nationalists. That would make a combined 46% of the vote. Some Islamist parties and non-AKP voters favouring a presidential system can also be expected to vote “yes”, lifting the pro-Erdogan vote to 50-55%. “There is a sizeable group of ‘undecideds’ whose preferences may be influenced by Erdogan's huge propaganda machinery or by the argument that a strong president would strengthen Turkey as it confronts a broad array of internal and external security threats,” Bekdil added.
‘Artificial earthquake plot’
Of course, any deviousness that Erdogan’s critics can accuse him of is more than matched by accusations of foul play being thrown at the “anti” campaign from the president’s camp. One seemingly bizarre intervention occurred on February 7 when the mayor of Ankara suggested Fethullah Gulen, the US-based cleric blamed by the government for last year’s failed putsch, might, with the help of foreign powers, be plotting an earthquake to damage the Turkish economy. Melih Gokcek told Reuters that investigations needed to be carried out on a “seismic vessel” seen in the vicinity of the Aegean coastal town of Canakkale on the Dardanelles when a small earthquake struck.
“No matter what they say, I’m still worried about the possibility of an artificial earthquake,” the mayor tweeted, claiming that the “Gulenist Terrorist Organisation” had planned an earthquake before.
For his part, Erdogan has presented recent economic ills – including the depreciating lira, high inflation and the downgrade to junk of Turkey’s last remaining investment grade rating by Fitch Ratings – as part of a foreign conspiracy. February 7 also saw the president keep up his populist campaign against the high interest rates that orthodox economic theory says are needed to combat climbing consumer prices. In a public speech in Ankara, calling for a loosening of the credit taps, he declared: “I have a problem with the interest rate policy implemented in my country. In fact, this policy is an instrument of exploitation.”
Four days earlier, Erdogan turned up in the southern city of Mersin for the opening of a new hospital. The event was seen as the start of his referendum campaign. “In this hospital, you will remember the feeling of being a human being and be able to say, ‘my state is taking care of me’,” Erdogan told a crowd, according to Bloomberg, adding: “Are we ready to say ‘yes’ at the ballot box in April?”
Those voters unpersuaded as yet by the need for an era-shifting constitutional change might perhaps be convinced by the economic momentum and “feelgood factor” that could be generated by a plan to end the government’s struggles in financing a series of “mega” infrastructure projects. To raise the required loans, the council of ministers on February 5 issued a decree to transfer the government’s holdings in several large firms to the country’s sovereign wealth fund (SWF). The supercharged fund is to use its stakes in major enterprises such as the bank Ziraat, natural gas distribution firm BOTAS, the Istanbul stock exchange and Turk Telekom as collateral in securing financing for projects such as road and rail links and suspension bridges. Foreign banking and SWF expertise may be brought in.
Whatever grandiose state investments start to hog the headlines, the president will not be counting on much support from those hurt by the state’s seizing of numerous allegedly “Gulenist” businesses during the purges or from the Kurds. Turkey’s Cumhuriyet newspaper on February 3 cited a joint statement from the country’s five main Kurdish groups, including the HDP and DBP, in which they said they were urging a “no” vote. Erdogan is, however, undertaking a “hard yards” tour of 40 provinces that make up around half of Turkey to drum up support from all possible quarters for his vision of a strong, concentrated executive branch of government. It is urgently needed, he asserts, to fight efficiently against the manifold economic and security threats presently bedevilling the nation, including separatist Kurdish and Islamic State terrorism.
Not a done deal
One analyst who does not believe the referendum outcome is yet a done deal is Halil Karaveli, a senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, where he heads the Turkey Initiative. In a February 3 article, “Can ‘Constitutional Engineering’ Once Again Succeed in Pacifying Turkey?”, published by the Turkey Analyst (of which he is the editor), Karaveli described how the presidential system is supposed to appeal to swathes of voters because it would subdue the Kurdish challenge.
It might appear that the combined electoral weight of the nationalist-conservative bloc should make the referendum result a foregone conclusion, he says, with the AKP and MHP representing over 60% of the electorate in the last general election results. But substantial defections can be anticipated because “the AKP risks alienating its Kurdish base with its alliance with the Turkish ultra-nationalist MHP”, while on the other hand “secularist-nationalist, Kemalist MHP voters will be reluctant to support amendments that concentrate all power into the hands of President Erdogan”.
Karaveli concludes: “The presidential system that is now being proposed may have all the appearances of strength, but it would crucially lack the ideological underpinning needed to similarly pacify and produce the consent of those whose claims it is ultimately intended to neutralise. Indeed, the conservative nationalism of the AKP-MHP alliance could fall short of mobilising a majority in favour of the constitutional amendments. It may be that Turkey can become neither a democracy nor put in place stable authoritarian rule because of its ethnic fissures.”