"A rebellious segment of MHP voters oppose the referendum and could help to defeat Erdoğan’s plan to establish a unitary presidential system."
Interview with Vera Eccarius-Kelly, Professor of Political Science at Siena College in Albany, NY, and non-residential fellow at Rethink Institute
by Nikos Tzanetakis, Policy Coordinator @Bridging Europe
1. How do you assess the context and proposals of the constitutional reform in Turkey?
The proposed unitary presidential system in Turkey threatens to remove the remaining barriers that have protected the country from a full-fledged authoritarian structure. President Erdoğan calculated that he could increase his near complete control by removing checks on presidential powers in a system that would allow him to determine state budgets, appoint judges, eliminate the position of the prime minister, bypass and even dismiss parliament, and permanently rely on emergency decrees to address economic and social issues. President Erdoğan’s critics warn of a complete deterioration of civil and political rights in Turkey along with an end to what remains of the country’s democratic institutions. In effect, the proposed changes would represent a centralization of power that allows nearly all decision-making to take place without parliamentary consultation or interference.
Voters in Turkey are going to the polls with the full understanding that a “yes/evet” in favor of this referendum will significantly increase President Erdoğan’s considerable powers. Most voters also understand that support for this referendum will alienate the country’s NATO allies and further deepen the leadership’s commitment to a military solution to future Kurdish challenges along the Turkish-Syrian border. It is extremely difficult to assess how strong the “no/hayır” vote may be in Turkey as media outlets have been fully controlled by forces supportive of the referendum. The state apparatus has silenced dissent and continues a pattern of voter intimidation. Over the past several months, waves of arrests of so-called “internal enemies” have weakened the organizational capacities of opposition forces. However, just one week away from the constitutional referendum, the “no” vote appears to be gaining public support and may be surging ahead.
2. Heading to the referendum in April 16, the Turkish government and President Erdogan have been developing a belligerent rhetoric against the EU, and more precisely against the Netherlands and Germany. What is your opinion on that?
Ankara’s repressive strategies distressed Turkish and Kurdish community members in the European diaspora. Austria, the Netherlands, and Germany, in particular, responded strongly and decisively to Turkish meddling abroad. All three countries limited the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) access to Turkish and Kurdish diaspora voters, predominantly to undercut their own right-wing voting blocs in upcoming national elections. The strategy helped to marginalize right-wing nationalist Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. Germany’s Chancellor Merkel is pursuing a similar strategy to weaken support for populist-nationalist politician Frauke Petry’s Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany).
In Europe, revelations that Turkey had relied on a web of informants to spy on and intimidate Turkish citizens abroad have been particularly explosive. Turkish intelligence claimed that they found citizens abroad who played a role in the 2016 coup against President Erdoğan. Several German officials warned listed individuals so that they would not travel to Turkey in the future. Not surprisingly, Turkish officials expressed outrage related to these disclosures.
Berlin and Ankara clearly disagreed over the high-stakes of Turkish constitutional referendum. Mr. Erdogan’s opponents in Germany believe that he hoped to use the freedoms available in a democratic system to consolidate his anti-democratic interests at home. Erdoğan focused on mobilizing the 1.4 million members of the Turkish diaspora in Germany to vote in his favor in the referendum.
By mobilizing nationalist Turkish voters in Germany, the potential for violent clashes between Turkish and Kurdish activists intensified, which angered German public officials. As conflicts between voters in the pro-Erdoğan and anti-Erdoğan camps increased, Germany limited the ability of Turkish surrogates to hold public events in the country. Officials maintained that the police could not guarantee the safety of all participants. President Erdoğan interpreted the restrictions as a personal affront and accused Chancellor Merkel of relying on “Nazi methodology against Turkish brother citizens” with the intent to weaken his referendum campaign in Germany. In response, the German foreign minister demanded an apology along with the immediate release of a detained Turkish-German journalist, Deniz Yüksel, an award winning reporter for Die Welt. Yüksel had become entangled in the larger dispute, and ended up in a Turkish prison following a critical report about corruption in the highest circles of the Turkish government.
The Turkish government also bitterly complained that German officials had permitted a 30,000 strong Kurdish protest march to take place in the city of Frankfurt. Labeling Germany’s handling of the events related to the constitutional referendum as “hypocritical,” Ankara objected to Kurdish protesters who supported a “no” vote in the referendum being allowed to express their positions in a large scale event (while some of Turkey’s surrogates’ events had been cancelled). In particular, Erdoğan was enraged that some Kurdish participants in the Frankfurt protest had displayed banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) flags and symbols without facing arrest for expressing support for a terrorist group. It is likely that German-Turkish relations have suffered permanent damage.
3. How do you assess the political strategy of AKP and President Erdogan domestically, regarding the Kurds, the "Gulenist movement" and the tensions in the Aegean Sea?
President Erdoğan’s domestic strategy has focused on further polarizing the population and manipulating nationalist emotions. The AKP government is desperate to win the referendum to maintain its dominant influence. But, the “yes” vote may be in trouble.
While Islamists and deeply nationalistic Turkish voters support Erdoğan’s near dictatorial control of power, the camp of “no” voters include increasingly disparate groups of people. Among them are committed Gülenists and their sympathizers; secularists who prefer a closer relationship with Europe; as well as minority communities such as Alevis, Kurds and Christians. Many among them have suffered from the widespread and deeply troubling purges over the past year. In the post-coup crackdown more than 130,000 people have lost their positions (and their livelihood) as civil servants, members of the military, in business, and as opposition politicians.
His overall strategy is to intimidate, obfuscate, confuse, and manipulate the population into giving him a mandate to stay in power for two more presidential terms. That would guarantee President Erdoğan a place in history as the longest serving and most dominating leader in modern Turkey.
4. What is the stance of opposition parties with respect to the referendum?
Supporters of the HDP are deeply upset about the marginalization of their party nation-wide and, of course, the arrests of its elected officials. In particular, the imprisonment of charismatic politician Selahattin Demirtaş angered opposition groups. As the most recognizable leader of the HDP, Demirtaş had achieved an unprecedented electoral success for the pro-Kurdish party in Turkey by attaining 13% of the popular vote in June 2015. The HDP won 80 seats in the 550-member parliament, while Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority for the first time since 2002. However, nationalists in Turkey undermined the formation of a successful coalition government and new general elections were called for November 2015.
Unwilling to compromise and increasingly focused on a military solution to the Kurdish challenge in the country, the Turkish government re-employed long-standing narratives about Kurds as disloyal and violence-prone terrorists. In a full crack-down on the Kurdish political movement, the imprisoned Demirtaş has been charged with “leadership of a terrorist organization and spreading terrorist propaganda and incitement,” which is punishable with up to 143 years in prison. His party co-leader, Fiğen Yüksekdağ, also jailed, faces up to 83 years behind bars for similar charges, but the actual trials have been postponed until after the constitutional referendum.
The MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) also plays an increasingly important role. Even though the MHP is the smallest opposition party in parliament, one particular defector within the party has created noticeable trouble for President Erdoğan. Meral Akşener, a former interior minister, is well known for her right-wing nationalist positions (especially in terms of her unwillingness to negotiate with Kurdish populations). Akşener has attracted attention because she dared to oppose her own party for supporting the referendum and then criticized President Erdoğan for pursuing a power grab. Some of her public speaking events have been cancelled by officials who face pressure, and on occasion the electricity at her venues was cut off to silence her. Despite these limitations to reach wider audiences, she has spread her message effectively via social media. A rebellious segment of MHP voters oppose the referendum and could help to defeat Erdoğan’s plan to establish a unitary presidential system.
5. Is there chance for AKP and President Erdogan to call for snap elections in order to address the outcome of the referendum?
If President Erdoğan loses the referendum, he will face growing opposition. The economy is in shambles, and security and foreign policy problems continue to emerge. Another election will not adequately address these fundamental political challenges that face Turkey after years of political manipulation and corruption at the highest levels.