Erdogan launches PR campaign to sell new constitution to sceptical Turks

Erdogan launches PR campaign to sell new constitution to sceptical Turks
Turkey's Erdogan meets Russia's Putin. Photo by Dorian Jones/CC
By Kivanc Dundar in Istanbul January 29, 2016

Most Turks agree the country needs a new constitution; the problem is they don’t agree on what it should look like. So President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has launched a PR campaign to promote the executive presidential system that he envisages for Turkey.

Erdogan wants to hold a referendum on a new constitution that would give him far-reaching powers. Opposition parties agree: the current one bears the stamp of the 1980’s junta regime and Turkey needs to scrap it, replacing it with one that focuses on more freedoms. But they do not want the presidential system.

Erdogan says the people, not lawmakers, should decide on the new constitution. Apparently he is confident that the Turkish people would say “yes” to a new charter in a referendum. But here the problems begin for the president.

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) holds 317 of the 550 seats in parliament. It needs at least 330 votes to put a new constitution to a referendum, meaning the ruling party is dependent on winning opposition support, which at the moment seems unlikely given sharp differences over what that new constitution should look like.

Propaganda mill

In a speech on January 28 to members of the Constitutional Platform, a pro-government civil society group, Erdogan said: “The presidential system is not Tayyip Erdogan’s personal issue”. A head of state elected by the people must have more than a symbolic role, he added, arguing that the powerful presidential system is needed for political stability.

Erdogan, who became the country's first popularly elected president with 52% of the vote in 2014, previously suggested that Turkey is already operating under a de facto presidential system, and constitutional reforms would only formalise the change.

This week he called on civil society organizations and media to launch a grassroots campaign to promote and discuss his plans. “We must inform our people about the new constitution and the presidential system,” he said. “Having discussions on the issue on television and in newspapers, and providing information to our nation as soon as possible is our duty.”

Certainly, the AKP has all the means to influence public opinion; it controls much of the media and the entire state apparatus. Soon the pro-government media and pro-government NGOs will start to feed the propaganda mill. Turkey will see lots of debates on TV channels, public meetings, analyses in newspapers, and campaigns organised by pro-government NGOs on the necessity of the presidential system for the country.

Yet it all boils down to the question of how the AKP can break the impasse in parliament, given opposition parties’ reluctance to give more powers to a president who they suspect is seeking to turn Turkey into an autocracy like Russia.

The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Kurdish party Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) have agreed to take part in the special parliamentary commission charged with drafting a new constitution. The commission is scheduled to begin meetings at the beginning of February and discussions at the parliamentary panel will expose differences between the AKP and opposition parties, and provide clues on how close they are to find a mid-way solution, if any. It looks like there is limited room for horse-trading.

Another snap election

There is talk that some deputies from the MHP, which has 40 seats in parliament, could support the AKP’s bid to change the constitution. This remains only speculation and there has not been any indication that some MHP lawmakers will break party lines to help the AKP pass the constitutional amendments in parliament. Nobody expects the CHP to support Erdogan’s plans under any circumstances. The HDP wants the new constitution to transfer more power to local administrations – a demand the AKP and MHP reject out of hand since they see this as an attempt towards Kurdish autonomy.

The AKP and the Kurdish HDP have been at odds since a two-year ceasefire between the state and the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) collapsed in July, which has plunged the country into one of its worst periods of violence since the 1990s.

If the four parties in parliament fail to agree on a new constitution, there is speculation in the Turkish press that Erdogan could yet again force a snap election in a bid to increase the AKP’s seats in parliament. 2015 already had two such elections.

Erdogan’s AKP could win more seats in a snap election by targeting nationalist voters of the MHP and by pushing the Kurdish HDP below the 10% national threshold and out of parliament. If it manages to get 367 seats in parliament, the AKP would be able to re-write the constitution by itself – no referendum would be required.

Erdogan saw that strong nationalist rhetoric worked well in the last election in November. When the state launched a military campaign against the PKK after the collapse of the peace talks in July, the MHP’s share of the vote declined to 11.9% at the November poll from 16.3% in the June election.

After clashes escalated in the country’s predominantly Kurdish south-eastern provinces, the HDP’s share of the vote in November fell by some 3 percentage points from June to 10.75%, just above the 10% threshold to find representation in parliament. “It looks like Erdogan could do anything to establish the presidential system and his strategy is only focused on this. He could escalate the war in Kurdistan,” Bircan Yorulmaz, a member of the HDP's central executive committee, told bne IntelliNews in an exclusive interview in January. “People, fed up with the violence and detentions, have probably started to say 'okay, let’s give him what he wants, let’s give him the presidency so that we may get rid of this violence’.”

The AKP got 49.5% of the votes in the November election. If the ruling AKP manages to push both the MHP and HDP below the 10% threshold in a snap election, it could easily win 367 seats in parliament. Yet to achieve this, Erdogan and his party need to convince their supporters and other Turks that the country really needs this presidential system. That’s why Erdogan, probably with early elections in mind, has launched a PR campaign.

Erdogan is confident that the people will approve his ambitious plans if they are put to a referendum. But some opinion polls suggest this might not be case and Erdogan could be disappointed. A recent survey by Kadir Has University showed that only 32.2% think the presidential system is better for Turkey. Another poll by Global Politika ve Strateji Arastirma found that only 28.6% of Turks support the idea of switching to an executive presidential system.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu earlier this week ruled out a snap election. “The words ‘early election’ is equal to treason to me,” he said. “The next election will be held when the time is right. Such claims of an early election should not be given credit.” The next parliamentary election needs to be held in 2019.

But everybody knows who the real boss is. Davutoglu cannot possibly stop Erdogan, who still controls the AKP, if the president wants another election. It all depends on Erdogan’s plans and strategies. As a very skilful politician, he knows when to push the button at the right time to get what he wants. 


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