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Tight Vote Expected in Turkey’s Controversial Referendum

  • Dorian Jones

People walk on leaflets regarding the upcoming referendum in Istanbul, April 15, 2017. Turkey votes on a referendum Sunday on constitutional reforms to expand Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's powers.

Turks are voting in a referendum on turning Turkey into an executive presidency from the current parliamentary system.

If approved, the 18-article constitutional reform package will greatly enhance presidential powers, creating one of the most powerful elected presidencies in the world. Supporters argue it is essential to meet what they call unprecedented threats facing the country. Detractors warn the measures will turn Turkey into an autocracy.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been at the forefront of the “yes” campaign, argues the reforms will ensure political stability and efficiency following July’s failed coup and continuing threats by both the Islamic State and the Kurdish insurgent group the PKK.

The wide-ranging reforms propose giving the president the powers to appoint ministers, set the budget, issue laws by decrees on a wide range of issues, dissolve parliament and declare a state of emergency. The prime minister and Cabinet will also be abolished.

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wave national flags during a rally for the upcoming referendum in Konya, Turkey, April 14, 2017.
Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wave national flags during a rally for the upcoming referendum in Konya, Turkey, April 14, 2017.

Although Erdogan’s voting coalition of his ruling AK Party and nationalist MHP has accounted for well more than 60 percent of the vote in past elections, most opinion polls indicate only a small lead for “yes,” which is within the polls’ margin of error.

The no campaign

“AKP has massive monetary and propaganda advantage,” notes political consultant Atilla Yesilada. “But my gut feelings is AKP does not have the same confidence it has had in past polls that it will win.”

A broad coalition has emerged, drawing normally antagonistic groups under the same banner. Both Kurdish and Turkish nationalists, secular and pious voters are supporting the “no” campaign, united by worries they believe the reforms would usher in an autocratic regime.

On the last day of campaigning Saturday, Erdogan made four speeches in Istanbul. All of the speaking venues were in traditional strongholds of his AKP, leading observers to suggest the president is trying to shore up his own support.

Strong backing, condemnation

While opinion polls indicate AKP supporters strongly back the constitutional changes, a number of prominent political figures, including former president Abdullah Gul, have not campaigned in support of the reforms.

The proposals also have drawn strong international condemnation.

“A dangerous step backwards in the constitutional democratic tradition of Turkey,” wrote the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, adding, “The Venice Commission wishes to stress the dangers of degeneration of the proposed system toward an authoritarian and personal regime.”

Erdogan has dismissed such criticism, claiming it’s part of the international conspiracy against Turkey. In the last few campaign rallies, the Turkish president claimed the conspiracy is led by the pope.

“Turkey is increasingly like the La La land. The entire country lives in fiction,” warns consultant Yesilada, “but unfortunately this is what a lot of people believe. That we are under siege by the Christian crusaders and Erdogan is the only man who is standing between captivity or colonialism.”

Much of the campaign was dominated by diplomatic spats with Germany and the Netherlands over restrictions on Turkish ministers being allowed to campaign among the large diaspora voters. A controversy that is widely believed to have helped the “yes” campaign.

Meral Aksener, a former interior minister, makes a speech during a "Hayir" ("No") campaign meeting for the upcoming referendum in Ankara, Turkey, April 8, 2017.
Meral Aksener, a former interior minister, makes a speech during a "Hayir" ("No") campaign meeting for the upcoming referendum in Ankara, Turkey, April 8, 2017.

Fairness a concern

Concern about the fairness of the campaign is increasingly being voiced. The OSCE, which is monitoring the referendum Sunday in an interim report ahead of the vote, claimed that “no” campaigners faced bans, police interventions and violent attacks at their events.

The OSCE received a swift rebuke from Erdogan, who bellowed, “Know your place,” at a rally in the provincial city of Konya, he declared the report “null and void.”

Ninety percent of TV coverage has been devoted to the “yes’ campaign. That followed Erdogan issuing a legal decree under emergency powers that have been in force since July’s coup attempt, abolishing the legal requirement for fair coverage by media companies.

There is growing scrutiny over the vote itself. According to the OSCE, at least 140 representatives nominated by opposition parties to monitor voting have been rejected by Turkish authorities. While several civic organizations that usually monitor polls are among the more than 1,500 shut down under emergency powers.

While the referendum is considered to close to call, scrutiny over the vote is expected to be intense both nationally and internationally.

“I’d just say we’re obviously following this issue very closely,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner. “We hope the referendum is carried out in such a way that guarantees and strengthens democracy in Turkey.”

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