Turkey's Referendum: After a Divisive Campaign, a Glimmer of Consensus
ANKARA -- The September 12 referendum on whether to amend 26 articles of the Turkish constitution passed with a clear majority -- 58 percent of the electorate voted in favor of the package. The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, were the net winners, while the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) was partially successful in organizing a boycott in some of the provinces in southeast Anatolia. The reform package consisted of a diverse set of mostly unrelated items that the government argued would make Turkey a more liberal and democratic country.
The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), agreed with most of the proposed changes, and actually offered to support the package if two items concerning appointments to the Constitutional Court and Higher Council of Judges and Prosecutors were dropped. The CHP and other opposition parties argued that these two changes would undermine the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers in Turkey. Their offer was refused. The subsequent campaign was uneven, with the government mobilizing much greater resources, resulting in incomparably higher visibility on the streets as well as in the print and broadcast media.
The rhetoric employed by both sides was extremely harsh and personal. Prominent journalists and opinion leaders were not exempt from such rhetoric, and the result was unfortunate speeches and essays that few will want to remember. In essence, the referendum was yet another iteration of the culture and identity war in Turkey – the longstanding conflict between two social coalitions rather than rival ideologies or political parties – with conservatives on one side and pro-seculars on the other. Neither block is homogeneous, with both bringing unlikely partners together. The coalition built by Erdogan consists not only of conservative, Islamist, nationalist-Islamist, and liberal-leftist parties, but also voters of other parties who are unhappy about the prevailing sense of Turkish national identity.
The opposing coalition consists of parties or people who are either secular or nationalist and are concerned about changes to modern Turkey’s founding principles. What will this result mean for Turkey down the road? The referendum gave Prime Minister Erdo?an another chance to test his ability to build winning coalitions, for in this case, coalition-building skills mattered just as much as party discipline. The Justice and Development Party was clearly better than its rival parties in this regard as it managed to attract voters from the opposition, particularly the Nationalist Action Party. This was also a dress rehearsal for the next presidential election, as Turkey’s presidents are now to be elected by popular vote.
This means that the candidate who can rally the strongest coalition around himself or herself will have the best chance of becoming president. In addition, the result of the referendum showed that the Justice and Development Party, after eight years in power, is still politically very strong. However, it is premature to assume that this result will necessarily affect the outcome of the forthcoming parliamentary elections, to be held in less than a year. Turkey’s political history has proved that referendums and parliamentary elections are two different processes with their own dynamics and voting patterns. Not everything about this episode was divisive. One of the few issues upon which there appeared to be wide agreement was the need for a completely new constitution in Turkey.
Writing a new constitution has already become one of the priority issues for the next parliament. Over the last decade, Turkish political parties have shown several times that they can work together to make consensual changes to the constitution. Reaching consensus on an entirely new constitution is a much more daunting prospect than incremental changes but, if achieved, it would create a far healthier socio-political environment in Turkey for decades to come. Turkish society deserves this, and expects nothing less from its political leaders.
Özgür Ünlühisarcikli is the director of German Marshall Fund of the United States' office in Ankara.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.