Divisions and Danger Loom Ahead of Turkey's Upcoming Referendum

Turkey's Erdogan. Taken from Official Flickr page. Licensed for reuse.

On April 16, Turks will head to polls to yea or nay constitutional amendments which have been approved by the 550 seat parliament where the majority of seats (317) belong to the ruling party of Justice and Development (AKP) under the control of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Here are some things worth knowing ahead of the vote.

What's the political weather like in Turkey?

Pretty grim. The referendum will take place under the State of Emergency (SoE) introduced in the aftermath of the failed July 15 coup in which 241 people died.

Since the SoE was brought in 128,398 people have been sacked from their jobs, 91,658 people have been detained, 45,012 people have been arrested, 2,099 schools, dormitories and universities have been shut down, 7,316 academics have been sacked, 3,843 prosecutors and judges dismissed, 149 media outlets shut down and 162 journalists arrested according to the independent Turkey Purge watchdog.

Mostly the victims of this “purge” have been linked by authorities to the network of Fethullah Gulen, which Turkey's government views as a terrorist group responsible for engineering the coup attempt. In many cases they have nothing to do with Gulen, but aren't neat fits in Erdogan's ‘New Turkey’.

What would a ‘Yes’ vote do?

Basically, empower President Erdogan, who is already vastly more influential than his constitutional mandate would suggest. To be fair, Erdogan argued for a presidential political system when he was still prime minister — currently the most constitutionally empowered office in the country — but many suggested he had his eye on the job even then.

Specifically the changes would enable the president to issue decrees, declare emergency rule, and appoint ministers and top state officials. It could also see Erdogan remain in power in the country until 2029.

What is ‘Yes’ saying?

The rhetoric coming out of Ankara since the coup attempt has created more cleavages in a divided nation.

Now, in the wake of the referendum being announced, those voting “no” are being described as enemies and terrorists, while those voting “yes” are praised as defenders of Turkish democracy. The official rationale for voting ‘Yes’, trumpeted by the bulk of Erdogan's AKP party and also the nationalist MHP party, is that the presidential system will enable decisions to be made faster and reduce the risk of political crises.

This pro-government newspaper says “those voting no endorse July 15″, referring to the coup attempt.

Speaking at an event in a pro-government think tank earlier this month, Erdogan warned that those who vote against the changes will strengthen Turkey's enemies, including the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group, which has fought the state for more than three decades from camps in the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq.

Other developments indicate the hysteria surrounding the vote. One imam in Istanbul reportedly called those voting “No” traitors during a sermon. A family in the eastern city of Diyarbakir meanwhile named their new born baby daughter “Evet”, or “Yes”, ahead of the referendum.

What do the experts say?

In a recent memorandum on freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey, Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, said:

The space for democratic debate in Turkey has shrunk alarmingly following increased judicial harassment of large strata of society, including journalists, members of parliament, academics and ordinary citizens, and government action which has reduced pluralism and led to self-censorhip. This deterioration came about in a very difficult context, but neither the attempted coup, nor other terrorist threats faced by Turkey can justify measures that infringe media freedom and disavow the rule of law to such an extent. The authorities should urgently change course by overhauling criminal legislation and practice, re-develop judicial independence and reaffirm their commitment to protect free speech.

In another recently published report, the Checks and Balances Network made up of over two hundred Turkish civil society organisations doubted whether the constitutional fix could be a good thing:

The overall outcome of this assessment is that a holistic perspective is required for the checks and balances system to become duly operative. While the proposal for constitutional reform being debated involves comprehensive changes especially in terms of executive power, it includes limited changes regarding representation, oversight and deliberative powers of the legislature which in fact need extensive reforms. A similar situation is true for judicial power.

Bertil Emrah Oder, a constitutional law professor from Istanbul's Koc University, told Al Jazeera that the changes would disrupt balance between the branches of power:

According to the proposal, presidential and parliamentary elections are going to be simultaneous and the president is allowed to act as the leader of a political party.

What is “No” saying?

Turkey's media has become a largely “Yes”-friendly zone following significant reversals in already weakening press freedoms since the coup attempt took place. But the two opposition parties, CHP and HDP both oppose the changes.

Moreover, on social media, hundreds of “No” Facebook pages have popped up, with humour deployed in the face of strident state propaganda.

Here is another #No from Tom Cruise

“Nos” compiled from old Turkish films.

I think, therefore “No”.

Ahmet Sabanci, a Global Voices contributor suggested Turkish netizens begin a “no” gif campaign:

I am starting one #No gif series for each day.

We talked with @SenSandrs about the referendum today. He clearly said “No”.

Efe Kerem Sozeri, another GV contributor, posted a video of himself strumming along to a “No”-themed song.

And this is from me. Let it be good!

But voting “No” is not all fun and games.  At least two journalists have been fired from their jobs for openly backing the campaign.

This is where Turkey is at right now, as it prepares for yet another high-stakes, path-defining vote.

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