By Farid Mirbagheri
The forthcoming referendum in Turkey on April 16 could be a turning point in the country’s political history. For the first time since the birth of the republic some 94 years ago, the proposed package of measures to be voted on are designed to change the governing system from parliamentarian to presidential, but also to significantly concentrate power in the hands of one individual, namely the president, a post now held by none other than Recep Tayyip Erdoghan.
When on January 21, 339 deputies in the of 550-member National Assembly voted for the bill it meant that the referendum had to be held within two months of the president signing it. Ever since, massive campaigning by the Justice and Development Party AKP (the ruling party) leadership both in and out of the country has aimed to mobilise Turks worldwide to endorse Erdogan’s plans on changing the constitution.
Adopting a tried and tested means to secure the support of the public, Erdogan is highlighting perceived existential threats to Turkey. The question of Isis and in particular the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) can stir people’s sense of patriotism and rally their support for the ‘stability’ of the current government. Appealing to the more Islamic section of the Turkish electorate (his main constituents) Erdogan’s rhetoric against the West can aid him further in his quest to mobilise the masses.
The polls indicate the battle is far from over, however. They show roughly a 50-50 chance for each side. The pluralist ethos in Turkey may yet impede a transformation into a majority authoritarian system, something that the proposed changes appear to espouse.
Should the voters decide to turn down Erdogan’s set of suggested changes, it would probably trigger the beginning of a fall for a man and an ideology that have been in power in the country for 14 years. But should the yes vote win, Erdogan could stay at the helm until 2029. That eventuality could once again focus the minds of the military on planning another attempt to oust the government with an uncertain outcome, possibly even civil war.
Two factors will probably determine the outcome of the referendum: one will be whether or not the conservatives in Turkish society can accept the concentration of power in the hands of one individual (non-conservatives do not). And secondly whether or not voters believe Turkey is facing an existential threat that could put the territorial integrity of the country at risk. President Erdogan is particularly playing the latter tune when he blames outside forces for terrorism in Turkey and for aiding the secessionist groups. His message may fall on deaf ears in certain parts of the country but is embraced by others especially in rural areas.
Whatever the outcome of the Turkish referendum its impact will go beyond Turkish borders. It may herald the beginning of a new version of a sultanate, yet it may sound the death knell for political Islam in Turkey. Either way the repercussions will be felt throughout the region and beyond.
Farid Mirbagheri is a professor of international relations and holds the Dialogue Chair in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Nicosia.