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Letter to the Editor: Voting democracy out in the Turkish referendum

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Turkish voters headed to the ballot boxes on April 16 to vote in an historic referendum regarding a series of amendments to Turkey’s constitution. In a very close race, the amendments were approved by a razor-thin margin (51 percent “yes” vote, against 49 percent “no”). The change will turn the 150 year-old Turkish parliamentary democracy into a strong presidential system granting the head of state exceptional legislative, executive powers as well as the ability to appoint most of the higher court judges. The referendum, which was carefully formulated to increase the power and length of the tenure of current head of state, Tayyip Erdoğan, is a unique chapter in the rise of populist authoritarianisms across the globe.

While many international outlets report the result as Mr. Erdoğan’s most consequential victory and suggest the referendum hit the last nail on the coffin of Turkish democracy as we know it, there is a cautious optimism amongst the opposition in Turkey. First of all, for many, a “yes” vote does not indicate the arrival of a new era; it simply makes the de facto one-man-rule an official one. For the last few years, Mr. Erdoğan has systematically tightened his grasp on power, effectively undermining rule of law and suppressing existing democratic mechanisms. Now this regime has a structure, a basis, a name. It is out in the open. It does not feel the need to be something else. The moment that the new regime unapologetically puts itself forward, however, is the moment we learn how fragile it really is. The slimness of the “yes” majority does not match the ambitions of the new regime which promise not only to turn Turkey into global power, but also cast it the protector of the Muslim nations.

Once we break down the referendum results by province, it becomes clear that the Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) base is not as solidified as one might think. In many provinces, the party has failed to convince its own supporter, let alone win new hearts and minds. Especially in large metropoles, Turkey is seeing an urban exodus from the party that has been ruling the country for the last 15 years. The tight outcome of the referendum race forces us to think about the first presidential election of the new regime, which is expected to be held in 2019. While AKP is still the leading party of the political scene in Turkey, a two-round election system is expected to create a referendum-like race. And the referendum result has proven that Mr. Erdoğan may lose in 2019 the very system he designed for himself — a very ironic upset.

Can the opposition turn this honorable defeat into a future victory? This is hard to answer. Despite the success of the “no” side’s campaign, we should remember than the opposition is much more fragmented than the ruling bloc. Among “no” supporters are socialists, social democrats, staunch secularists, Turkish nationalists and the Kurdish political movement, as well as devout Muslims not impressed by the idea of a one-man-rule. Each had its own reasons for a “no” vote and campaigned independently. Given the absence of a political leadership that could bring all these fragments together, the opposition has still a steep road ahead. We can also be sure that Erdoğan will do his best to make that road bumpy by further pursuing a politics of polarization by playing into the identity based divides in the country. His victory speech — which promises two new referenda in the near future, one on bringing back the capital punishment and the other on Turkish EU membership — confirms this expectation.

How should one label the new Turkish regime? The Economist’s most recent cover calls it a dictatorship. Though it is hard to argue that Turkey can still qualify as a democracy, especially after this referendum, I find “dictatorship” problematic. Not because I think it is unjust to describe the current regime that way, but because the term fails to fully capture the nuances and in its historical trajectory of the authoritarian turn in Turkey. As seen in our analyses of Brexit and the Trump presidency, the idea of dictatorship focuses on a single man and his political ambitions, blunders and aggression. It depicts the rise of xenophobia and polarization as sudden, exceptional turns instigated by one individual. I am unable to suggest an alternative name here, but I know that understanding right-wing populism in Turkey and elsewhere requires nuanced, hard work in addition to critique and self-reflexivity.

Sinan Erensü
Keyman postdoctorate fellow

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