Referendum in Turkey: Open Debate is Essential for Societal Peace

Von Idil Gögüs 

Regarding the proposed amendments to the constitution, the Turkish society is split into two opposing camps. Rather than constituting a mere difference of opinion, the “us” vs. “them” rhetoric surrounding the upcoming referendum is representative of the partisan struggles and polarizations that currently divide Turkey. To overcome this dangerous division the Turkish government should encourage a fair and democratic debate instead of silencing opponent voices.

Turkey yet again finds itself at the crossroads. On April 16 the Turkish electorate will vote on a new national constitution. The changes proposed by the referendum would imply fundamental structural amendments in the political system of the Turkish Republic. Among these changes, the following deserve special attention:

  • The office of the prime minister would be abolished and replaced by one or more vice president(s) appointed by the president.
  • The president would become the head of the executive. She/he would be the head of state whilst representing a political party. She/he would appoint and dismiss ministers.
  • The president would control the budget. Parliament members are only allowed to propose changes in public expenditures.
  • The Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors would comprise 13 members as opposed to the present 22 members. Four members would be appointed by the president, and seven by the Grand Assembly. The remaining two members would be the Minister of Justice and the Undersecretary of the Justice Minister, as is the case now.
  • The president would have the right to dissolve the Grand Assembly on her/his own and announce a state of emergency (TürkiyeBarolarBirligi, 2017).

 Taken together, these changes propose a fundamental shift of the Turkish political system from parliamentary to presidential rule. They would expand presidential power and restrict the existing system of checks and balances. A presidential system can be beneficial when the separation of powers is respected, as is the case in the US and in France. A presidential system without strong institutional checks and balances and without a free press is, however, cause for concern. Present-day Turkey sets an unfortunate example for this. The human rights monitoring agencies of the EU and international NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, have pointed out that the Turkish opposition has come under pressure and that freedom of speech has been severely repressed under the continuing state of emergency (e.g., Amnesty International, 2016).

 The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Erdogan encourage the fundamental changes in the constitution outlined above because they are supposed to ensure a “strong Turkey” with a “powerful president.” She/he would be both head of the government and of the state, and would be in a position to make swift decisions. On the basis of this argument, the campaign for the presidential system is being presented as if it were a benefit to the country and its citizens. In response, critical voices in Turkey argue that the change would enable a “one-man rule” (under Erdoğan), and risk the country’s democratic future and cooperative relations with the European Union altogether.

 A divided country

A possible amendment to the constitution is, of course, a matter of debate. It is therefore important to emphasize that the ongoing process increases polarization. Concerning this issue, Turkish society is divided into two groups. Yet, this divide seems to be more than a choice or difference of opinion: It is also playing out as an aggressive struggle between “us” and “them.” In this situation, Erdoğan’s position as the head of the state plays an important role. The divisive discussion between the groups will either continue or end his presidency. What is needed is a comprehensive discussion regarding the long-lasting impacts of the envisioned changes to the political system. However, rhetoric of accusation and use of divisive language increases existing cleavages and creates an atmosphere of insecurity. This climate impedes democratic deliberation and social coherence. The following statements and incidents can be given as an example for the strained political atmosphere that presently polarized Turkish society: In a recent speech, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan equated all “No” voters with coup plotters, who organized the putsch attempt in July 2016 (BBC, February 24, 2017). Other government officials use the same rhetoric. The mayor of Ankara, Melih Gökcek, for example, tweeted that “we cannot say that all proponents of a ‘No’ vote are traitors, but all the traitors say ‘No’” (Haberler, February 21, 2017). When political leaders use this type of language, existing conflicts between different segments of society are likely to escalate, turn into hatred and even open violence. This is exemplified by the February 27 attack on a group of people campaigning for a “No” vote in the referendum by a group favouring a “Yes” vote . Another incident occurred in front of the Grand Assembly where the police attacked “No” campaigners with tear gas (Bianet, January 9, 2017). It is also alarming that the well-known convicted criminal leader and current supporter of the referendum for a presidential system, Sedat Peker, announced that “we are going to be waiting on the streets for those who attempt to come out to stand in the way of the referendum” (Birgün, January 27, 2017).

Likewise, a speech held by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on February 24 made it clear that the appeal to the “nation” and to “the decision of the nation” is used as an instrument in favour of the referendum. In the same speech, Erdoğan stated that he would approve of the death penalty if the nation wanted it and added that “the problem is that such a change requires a constitutional amendment…God willing, we will go to the nation for a referendum on that, too. If the nation says ‘bring back the death penalty,’ the issue is closed” (Hürriyet Daily News, February 24, 2017). This creates the impression that the president would only be carrying out the nation’s will, sidelining those in the population who are not loyal followers of the AKP but hold different views.

 The need for a peaceful debate 

To ensure both pro-government and government critical citizens that all questions concerning the referendum can be discussed openly and on a factual basis, President Erdoğan should display neutrality and encourage a fair debate rather than silencing opponent voices. An inclusive and peaceful atmosphere would presuppose an end of the state of emergency and an inclusion of all political stakeholders – especially the imprisoned Members of Parliament from the pro-Kurdish party HDP. Any further polarization within the Turkish society would be highly dangerous for the stability of the country. This risk was perhaps the reason why Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, during his first rally for the referendum, stated that the referendum should not be perceived as a general election since the AKP was the government of 79 million people (NTV, February 26, 2017). However, the sincerity of such statements remains questionable as long as critical voices are squelched. To build a common ground for the different segments of society, an atmosphere where different opinions are welcome is indispensable.

About the author

Idil Gögüs is  a doctoral researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) and at the ethnology department of the Goethe University Frankfurt. She is writing her dissertation on supporters of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey and Germany.