Monday, 30 August 2010

What is Turkey's Referendum About?

Published in Articles

By Svante E. Cornell (vol. 3, no. 14 of the Turkey Analyst)

On September 12, Turkey will vote on a package of constitutional amendments. Yet the campaign has turned more into a referendum on the AKP government and on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan than on the merits of the amendments proposed. The campaign has been marked by the acrimonious tone between the main political leaders. It has thus served to underscore the polarization of Turkish society.. Essentially, the campaign is a major dress rehearsal for the general elections that must be held by July 2011, and not least a test of the stamina of the first major political challenger to Erdoğan’s AKP, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

BACKGROUND: On September 12, thirty years to the day after the 1980 military coup, Turkey goes to the polls to approve a package of amendments to the constitution bequeathed by the military rule ushered in by that very coup. Yet the amendments themselves are only a small part of the politics of the referendum, which are one step in the deep ongoing power struggle in Turkey.

There is general consensus that the 1982 constitution is in need of a serious overhaul. A major question has been whether that should be done by drafting an entirely new constitution, or whether further amendments to the present one, amended numerous times already, would suffice. After securing a landslide re-election in 2007, the AKP announced its intention to replace the constitution wholesale, and even tasked a working group of legal experts led by a respected Law Professor, Ergun Özbudun, to draft a new, “civilian” constitution. Yet the AKP never carried that ambition through. It faced visceral opposition from the secularist opposition in the parliament and bureaucracy, and instead chose to team up with the nationalist MHP for a limited amendment to the existing constitution that would satisfy a key demand of the party’s base: ending the ban on Islamic headscarves in university. The Constitutional Court eventually nullified that amendment.

In March 2010, the AKP once again took up the issue, presenting a series of 26 amendments to the existing constitution. Importantly, the AKP did not seek to build consensus around the amendments, instead pushing them forward unilaterally. Of course, the AKP could hardly expect the opposition parties in parliament to be cooperative: both the center-left CHP and the nationalist MHP were focused on obstructing the AKP’s plans. But the AKP did not reach out to civil society organizations either, even those – like the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (TÜSIAD) – that had long argued for amending the constitution. Essentially, because of the deep polarization of Turkish politics, neither the ruling party nor the opposition approached the issue in a constructive way.

As the AKP failed to get support across the aisles and even saw the defection of a dozen of its own members, the amendments failed to gain the necessary two thirds majority in parliament, forcing the government to put the question to a referendum. Having a positive experience of doing this in 2007 to amend the rules for electing Turkey’s president, Erdoğan probably believed that his personal popularity would generate sufficient popular approval.

The package itself is a mixed bag of two dozen separate amendments. Most of these further the deepening of democracy in Turkey and enjoy the support of a large majority of the population, including the opposition CHP. These include expanding the rights of collective bargaining for state employees, removing some restrictions on labor unions, introducing positive discrimination of women, and making the closure of political parties harder.

Controversy nevertheless surrounds amendments to the composition and appointment process for the country’s highest judiciary bodies. The amendments provide for the expansion of the size of the Constitutional Court, and provides for a stronger role for the president as well as for several bodies controlled by the government. Similarly, the process of appointment of the members of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) is altered to provide both for a larger body, and for a greater role of the government in appointing the members.

These amendments to the judiciary clearly illustrate the AKP’s concept of democracy, which can roughly be understood simply as majority rule. Erdoğan has repeatedly blasted judicial organs, especially the Constitutional Court, for taking decisions that go against the wishes of the majority, embodied by the party holding the majority of seats in the parliament. The CHP, in contrast, has framed the issue as one of judicial independence and the separation of powers, arguing that liberal democracy amounts to more  than simple majority rule, and requires a strong and independent judiciary to check the power of the elected government.

The CHP has gone to great lengths in explaining its opposition to the amendments with elaborate references to democratic theories, and to the recommendations of the EU, among other in an article by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu published on August 9 in Hürriyet. The article draws attention to the discrepancy between the reforms suggested by the EU and those adopted by the AKP. Indeed, while the EU did propose the expansion of the HSYK, it specifically recommended that the Justice Minister and his Undersecretary be removed from the body, in order to safeguard the separation of powers. The AKP, however, chose to incorporate only those European recommendations that suited its purposes, namely the expansion of the HSYK, while making no amendments to the presence of the Justice Minister on the Board. In fact, the Justice Minister is to chair the Board, and to appoint the head of its newly created secretariat.

The opposition thus concludes, with some justification, that the amendments to the judicial bodies will undermine the separation of powers in Turkey and therefore constitute a step backward for democracy.

IMPLICATIONS: As important as these substantive disagreements are, they have not been at the center of the campaigning. Instead, the campaign has taken on the character of a rehearsal for the general elections that must be held before July 2011. And what Prime Minister Erdogan in all likelihood did not foresee when he introduced the amendments package was the emergence, for the first time since he took power, of a serious challenger to his domination of Turkish politics.

Indeed, the rise of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as the new leader of the CHP changed the political scene. Unlike his predecessor Deniz Baykal, Kılıçdaroğlu can hardly be accused of being detached from Turkey’s realities, or of representing the statist elite. The son of a mid-level bureaucrat from the Tunceli (Dersim) province, Kılıçdaroğlu is of Kurdish heritage as well as a member of the minority Alevi religious community (See Turkey Analyst, 24 May issue for background). His election met with a groundswell of public enthusiasm, as he succeeded in tapping into a growing dissatisfaction with Erdoğan and the AKP that had yet to find an outlet. Moreover, Kılıçdaroğlu rose to the challenge of confronting Erdoğan’s street bully style of political campaigning, and as a result the campaign has been as much about the personalities of the two leaders as about the substance of the referendum.

In fact, given the circumstances, Kılıçdaroğlu has been doing surprisingly well. He was in fact thrust into campaigning mode before being able to consolidate his control over the CHP and creating a team of his own to lead the party. While this has generated some discomfort, occasional displays of intra-party discord and tactical lapses, Kılıçdaroğlu has rivaled Erdoğan in popularity ratings, while the CHP at least initially  enjoyed a steep rise in opinion polls. Some of the initial enthusiasm has however cooled, and the support for the CHP has slipped, although Kılıçdaroğlu himself has remained more popular than his party. Should he succeed in reducing the margin of victory of the “Yes” side in the referendum, let alone denying the AKP a victory, he will be in a good position to take on the AKP in the upcoming elections.

As for Erdoğan, he has returned increasingly to the angry, authoritarian tendencies of his youth. In a late August speech, Erdoğan appeared to play the race card against Kılıçdaroğlu, hinting at his rival’s ancestry – a reference to his Kurdish and Alevi origins. The same week, Erdoğan lambasted TÜSIAD, Turkey’s most influential non-government organization, in unprecedented terms. TÜSIAD has refused to take a position on the referendum, leading the Prime Minister to state that “those who stay neutral will be eliminated”. He also exerted strong pressure on the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB) to take a stand. Following on growing pressures against dissidents and the media, Erdogan’s moves led many to conclude that the Prime Minister now demands support from civil society organizations to refrain from setting his sights on them.

Given the general support for change in Turkey and the government’s growing control over the media, anything but a “Yes” vote would be a major upset. In this sense, Kılıçdaroğlu may have been tactically correct in making the referendum one about the Prime Minister rather than about the substance of the amendments: as serious as the objections may be, they are technical and complex in nature, and not issues that mobilize voters. Nevertheless, the Kurdish issue – ever present in Turkish politics – may be a dark horse also in this referendum. While most Kurds are thought to support the changes, the pro-Kurdish political party has refused to back the amendments, instead urging a boycott. The main rationale was the government’s refusal to include a reduction of the 10 percent threshold to parliament in the amendments – a measure targeted mainly at preventing Kurdish parties from being represented. By mid-August, however, the PKK announced a unilateral cease-fire and hinted that it might withdraw its call to a boycott, citing that it was in talks with the government. This announcement, ostensibly one that would benefit the “yes” side, had potentially explosive power, as the very possibility of talks with the PKK remains anathema in Turkey. Whatever Kurdish votes might be won for the “Yes” side, an equal or higher number of Turks may vote “no” should the government appear – rightly or wrongly – to have been in collusion with the PKK.

CONCLUSIONS: The referendum may have turned primarily into a rehearsal for the upcoming elections, and thus, Turkey will be in continued election mode until mid-2011. Yet should Erdogan prevail and receive even a narrow passing of the amendments package, he will have the opportunity to further consolidate his control over Turkey’s political system by stacking the highest judiciary bodies with his own appointees. That is sure to   exacerbate the combustible polarization of Turkey.

Svante E. Cornell is Editor-in-Chief of the Turkey Analyst, and Research Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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