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Turkey’s heated politics unlikely to cool, whatever the result of decisive referendum

Published April 10th, 2017 - 02:00 GMT
People wave "YES" banners and Turkish national flags on April 8, 2017 during a campaign rally for the "yes" vote in a constitutional referendum in Istanbul. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)
People wave "YES" banners and Turkish national flags on April 8, 2017 during a campaign rally for the "yes" vote in a constitutional referendum in Istanbul. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes to cement his role as the country's modern, unchallenged leader, as he furiously campaigns for a referendum on Sunday.

The up or down vote will either see him witness a stunning setback or ensure his presidential powers are vastly expanded.

Critics of Erdogan say checks and balances would be eroded. His fiercest opponents worry about dictatorship. The government says that a presidential system would bring an end to terrorism, military coups and facilitate economic growth.

His staunchest defenders see in him a voice for Turkey's conservative underclass, and, more importantly, a beacon of hope.

For "yes" voters, Erdogan and his party expanded the welfare state, invested heavily in infrastructure and gave Islam a greater role in public life.

They are less concerned by one-man rule, given their faith in Erdogan, or perhaps, like his Justice and Development Party (AKP) itself, simply believe that democracy would be strengthened by an empowered leader who has more control over the judiciary, with a more restricted role for parliament.

Erdogan's speeches whip up nationalist sentiment as he appeals to the right-wing, the key swing vote. Erdogan's rallying cry for the referendum is: "One nation, one flag, one homeland, one state."

The wide-ranging arrests in recent months – including 47,000 alleged members of the Gulenist movement accused of plotting a coup and thousands more from the Kurdish population – have added to the sense of dread for the opposition and served to stifle free speech, with more than 150 journalists in jail.

"The AK party used to sell hope, the other parties sold fear. It always talked about how things would be better," says Gareth Jenkins, a scholar at the Silk Roads Study Institute. "Now it sells fear and hatred, and I don't know how you can go back from this."

In addition to burning domestic bridges with liberals and many Kurds and polarizing the country, Erdogan has created a hostile environment with European partners.

He has managed to split the hard-line Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), potentially ending its relevance and strengthening his own position down the line.

The row with European leaders over whether Turkish ministers could hold election rallies in cities abroad to whip up votes among the diaspora was a clear example of how this works.

"It's about cultivating the 'magdur' sentiment to overcome what are very, very real concerns amongst a lot of Turks about voting to expand Erdogan's powers beyond where they are today," says Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert at the Atlantic Council think tank, using the Turkish word for the concept of victimhood.

The referendum was not initiated by popular demand, analysts say, but rather was a top-down effort. "It is an Erdogan system more than a presidential system," says Jenkins. 

There is a certain zeal missing on the streets ahead of the vote. "Not sensing much enthusiasm for this referendum in Turkey. More for sale signs on flats than Yes or No banners," the economist Timothy Ash, who was on a recent trip to Turkey, said on Twitter.

The economy has been hit by the coup attempt last year, terror attacks, renewed conflict with Kurdish nationalists and a slowdown in key sectors, including tourism, with the lira down more than 20 per cent in a year. 

The lack of gusto from the "no" campaign, at least in part, comes from the hurdles it must overcome.

Even the mainstream centre-left People's Republican Party (CHP) is given only a tiny fraction of the air-time Erdogan and his ministers receive on television channels. Many "no" campaigners are banned from appearing.

More than a dozen members of parliament from the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) are in jail, as Erdogan manoeuvres to reduce this party below the 10-per-cent threshold for entering parliament.

At the local level, the party has already been largely decimated by waves of arrests, including mayors.  

The government openly mobilizes state resources for the campaign. Erdogan's campaign stops are often technically "openings" of new government buildings or projects.

The Council of Europe's Venice Commission has said it was doubtful the referendum would meet European standards.

When the referendum is over, there is no sign the campaigning, and ugly politics, will end.

Mustafa Sentop, a member of the AKP who helped draft the constitutional reforms, said that if the proposal is rejected by voters "this situation would not have come to a final end." A new reform effort would commence.

If there is a positive outcome for the government, Erdogan has already mooted a return of the death penalty or a referendum on EU membership.

After heating up the rhetoric in Turkey to a boiling point, Erdogan's train seems set to continue, full steam ahead. 

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