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Turkey’s Constitutional Referendum: A Roundtable

[Members of Parliament vote on the constitutional amendments at the heart of the upcoming referendum, January 2017. Photo by Yıldız Yazıcıoğlu.] [Members of Parliament vote on the constitutional amendments at the heart of the upcoming referendum, January 2017. Photo by Yıldız Yazıcıoğlu.]

Roundtable Introduction

The day is near. This coming Sunday, 16 April 2017, citizens of Turkey will make their way to the polls to vote on a constitutional referendum that will inexorably alter the Turkish government. The referendum, which consists of eighteen proposed amendments to the Constitution of Turkey, has as its main goal the overhaul of the executive branch; perhaps most drastically, it would do away with the position of prime minister, thereby transforming the presidency from being a ceremonial position as head of state into the sole leadership position of the executive branch. Under the proposed amendments, the president would also have greater discretion to appoint and remove ministers, judges, and other government officials. Opposition politicians and dissident journalists have described the referendum as an effort to create one-man rule for current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP) has been in power since 2002. Erdoğan himself was elected Prime Minister in 2003 and President since 2014; if the referendum passes, he would ostensibly be able to extend his term as President until 2029.

In many ways, the referendum taking place this year has been several years in the making. Since his election to the presidency in 2014 – the first time the president was directly elected; previously, the position had been appointed by members of parliament – Erdoğan has tried by hook or by crook to expand the powers of the largely ceremonial position of the presidency. The June 2015 elections posed one of the first challenges to Erdoğan’s rule since he first came to executive office in 2003: the pro-Kurdish left coalition party the Peoples’ Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, or HDP for short) surpassed the ten-percent electoral threshold for representation in Parliament, thereby shattering the prospect of an absolute majority for the AKP and thus the prospect of a newly-empowered Presidency. 

Since the elections of June 2015, Turkey has been in a state of ever-worsening turmoil. The AKP successfully managed to block the establishment of a coalition government based on the June election results, as a consequence of which Turkey was constitutionally obligated to hold another election in November of 2015. The interceding months between June and November of that year witnessed the suicide bombing in Suruç as well as the suicide bombing in Ankara. The government called an end to a ceasefire agreement that it had made with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). A state of emergency was imposed in Turkey’s Kurdish regions, with “twenty-four hour martial lockdowns” that lasted for months on end in some places. Under this state of emergency, a ten-year-old girl named Cemile Çağırga was shot and killed by Turkish armed forces and her family had to keep her body in a freezer because they couldn’t leave the house – let alone make funerary arrangements – under the state of emergency. Kurdish human rights advocate Tahir Elçi was shot and killed by unknown assailants in Diyarbakır. As one commentator wrote in October 2015, less than a month before the new election, “we have lost too much.”

While the AKP increased its share of the votes over the other parties in Parliament in the November 2015 elections, it was still unable to attain an absolute majority. Nonetheless, government officials and pro-government commentators saw the results as an augur of the future that Erdoğan wanted. Yet the chaos continued: four suicide bombings in Istanbul between January and June 2016, two in Ankara, one in Gaziantep. Between the Suruç bombing in August 2015 and the Atatürk airport bombing in June 2016, over 250 people were killed and over a thousand were injured by suicide bombings alone. This is to say nothing of the ongoing conditions of violence in Kurdistan, where the martial lockdowns continued; or the imprisonment of journalists and pro-peace academics; or the prohibitions on public demonstrations by workers and LGBT activists. As Jadaliyya Turkey page co-editor Anthony Alessandrini wrote in March 2016, “In President Erdoğan’s Turkey, Kurds, Alevis, leftists, queers, ‘improper’ women, young people, indeed anyone who offers any resistance to state policy—all are eligible to receive the title of ‘terrorist,’ and all thus become disposable.”

In July 2016, Turkey witnessed a coup attempt by groups within the Turkish military that rattled the legitimacy of the ruling party. While some parts of the opposition speculated that the coup attempt was a false flag attack meant to dredge support for the ruling party, the government itself has blamed exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen for the attack. Once a close ally of Erdoğan and the AKP, Gülen has many religious followers in Turkey who held positions in public office. After the AKP-Gülen rift deepened, the AKP attempted to purge Gülenists from the government’s ranks. The coup attempt was evidence that still more purging was necessary. Since that time, as Patrick Cockburn reports, 134,000 people have been sacked or suspended, including 7,300 academics and 4,300 judges; 231 journalists are in prison, 149 media outlets have been shut down, and over 140,000 people have been detained or arrested under emergency law. Jadaliyya Turkey page co-editor Aslı Ü. Bâli has written of the tensions between democracy and civil governance that this coup attempt casts into stark relief: “Turkey remains in the grips of a cyclical pattern whereby those in power view the state as an asset to be seized, hollowed out, and remade in their image. So long as governing is equated with excluding and eliminating opposition and democracy is defined in strictly majoritarian terms, this cycle will continue.”

The coup has figured large as a motif in the present referendum campaign. In a speech delivered on 17 March 2017, Erdoğan declared that “the 16 April referendum will be revenge for 15 July [the date of the coup attempt].” He has similarly besmirched the “NO” campaign, declaring in February that “whoever says no stands with 15 July.” The “NO” campaign has been labeled a terrorist campaign and 115 people have been arrested for their involvement with it. Canvassers for the “NO” campaign have been harassed and attacked in public spaces. Turkish daily Hürriyet refused to publish an interview with Nobel laureate and novelist Orhan Pamuk after he publicly stated that he plans to vote “NO.” People have lost their jobs for posting pictures on social media that feature slogans from the “NO” campaign. In short, the referendum campaign is being waged under fraught and unequal conditions that give disproportionate advantage to the “YES” campaign.

With so many forces at play, and in such a charged political context, the stakes of this referendum are not necessarily clear. So I asked several contributors to answer this exact question: “What is at stake in this referendum?” As these contributions show, the conventional paradigms on Turkey and Turkish politics often touted in Euro-American media deserve more scrutiny. These critical perspectives highlight not only the urgent and abiding dilemmas at the heart of this referendum, but also cast new light on the AKP’s past and present and call for a paradigm guided by the hope that, in the last instance, a “NO” vote might be the beginning of the end for Erdoğan. 


Voting on the Court Society
by Mehmet Sinan Birdal

As Turkey’s referendum approaches, President Erdoğan’s electoral victory seems to be hanging by a thread. Never before has his electoral machinery, the AKP, seemed so out of tune, out of zest, and out of zeal. There are serious conflicts within and across the party apparatus, the courtiers, the bureaucracy, and the incumbent political coalition – the so-called “National Consensus” (Milli Mutabakat) – conflicts that are difficult to hide. These conflicts might have been exacerbated by the referendum process and Erdoğan’s relentless pursuit of absolute power; however, they will not dissipate after the referendum, regardless of the result. Indeed, these conflicts represent the structural causes of the rise of Erdoğanism. Any explanation that misses these underlying dynamics is doomed to reiterate clichés that might be found in medieval treatises written for princes: the regime’s decay was brought on by the prince’s lack of virtue, lack of education, excessive ambition, or else by the presence of greedy advisors. 

In fact, prevailing analyses in Western media and academia seem to prefer these clichés to a critical reassessment of their once beloved “Turkish model.” Blaming the driver is more convenient than analyzing the shortcomings of an idealized liberal democratic model, which seems to be failing even in its very birthplace in Western Europe and North America. What is at stake is more than a theoretical exercise. We cannot answer the question of why Erdoğan is pushing for a referendum despite the fact that he can (and does) already rule without any checks unless we first understand these underlying dynamics.

In his analysis of Louis XIV’s Versailles, Norbert Elias suggests that single-man rule (monarchia) is in fact a consequence of the immense potential for conflict among the political elite. The proliferation of rivalries among the French nobility that threatened to explode in civil war could only be prevented by the centralization and concentration of power in the hands of a prince, bound by no law (legibus solutus). The court society was constituted neither the free will of the courtiers nor the will of the absolutist king as such; Elias claims that the court is a determinate social formation, like the church, the factory, or the bureaucracy, and should be studied sociologically. The merit of Elias’ analysis of absolutism lies in its emphasis on structural political conflict rather than on the intentions of individual members in a political society. 

In a postscript to his dissertation, Elias criticizes the view that there could be a state without structural conflict – a view common to both the Kemalist and the Islamist ideal of the nation. The late ultra-nationalist Alparslan Türkeş would have agreed with this view: in his words, “there can be no talk of a mosaic; the Turkish nation is a nation of marble.”  Such high-flown allegory only attests to the need for propaganda within an unstable regime. The contemporary truth-claims of Turkish nationalism should be approached with the same healthy skepticism levied upon depictions of Louis XIV as Caesar or Jupiter on the walls of Versailles.

The emergence of Erdoğan’s court as the powerhouse of the government coincides with the formation of a coalition among the Erdoğanists and the so-called Ergenekon faction, a loose coalition of Nationalists and Eurasianists. The program of this governing coalition is constituted by a rapprochement in foreign policy with Russia and Iran, as well as a policy of oppression against the Kurds, the Turkish left, and the Gülenists. Given its own not-so-distant memory of criminalization, the Ergenekon faction is unlikely to rely merely on Erdoğan’s good graces, especially after the example set by the purge of the Gülenists.

Erdoğan’s primary goal in organizing the 16 April referendum is to legitimize his leadership publicly and internationally. A “NO” vote would be a serious blow to Erdoğan’s leadership, and it would embolden his coalition partners in their will to power, exacerbating the structural conflict inherent in the state. A “YES” vote would legalize and naturalize the current state of emergency. Regardless of the result, however, Erdoğanism will always be a governing logic based on the art of fait accompli. Looking beyond the façade of a supposedly harmonious society, as Elias emphasizes, highlights the degree to which political conflict takes place not within the public debates of parliamentary politics but within the intrigues of the Byzantine court.

[Mehmet Sinan Birdal is Visiting Assistant Professor at the School of International Relations and the Middle East Studies Program at the University of Southern California. He is the author of The Holy Roman Empire and the Ottomans: From Global Imperial Power to Absolutist States (I.B. Tauris, 2014).]


Urban Transformation and the Referendum

by Duygu Parmaksızoğlu

The referendum that will take place on 16 April 2017, will decide the fate of Erdogan’s regime. Turkish citizens will either vote “YES” to legitimize the current authoritarian regime or either vote “NO” to maintain what is left of the government’s democratic institutions and their mechanisms for checks and balances. The proposed constitution concentrates the power in the executive branch, which centers on the president. The current cabinet would be dissolved and new ministers (we do not know how many) would be directly appointed by the president. The legislative branch (Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi, or, Grand National Assembly of Turkey) would resign most of its functions and powers to the executive branch. Under the new constitution, furthermore, the president would have the right to regulate the judiciary branch: he would have the power to appoint the members of the Supreme Court as well as prosecutors and members of the council of state.

If a majority of Turkey votes “YES,” the new constitution will have disastrous consequences for environmental movements and right to the city movements. These movements, which developed a significant capacity for mobilization in the wake of the Gezi Park uprisings of June 2013, organize their resistance on two main grounds: (1) taking legal actions against urban transformation projects that threaten the environment, displace and dispossess populations, destroy cultural and historical landmarks, or privatize public spaces; and (2) staging mass protests and rallies to raise awareness and communicate their opposition on a popular level. 

Up until now, the bulk of these opposition movements’ legal actions have had positive results: the Council of State (Danıştay) recognized many of their claims and issued judgements that question the urban transformation projects’ purported public interest claims. In many of these cases, the Council’s decision to issue a stay of execution was not implemented, and the government carried on with its urban transformation projects. However, the Council’s decisions finding these projects unconstitutional and against public interest gave legitimacy to the opposition movements and their causes, while simultaneously delegitimizing the aggressive urban transformation projects. 

The new constitution, however, would cast any such objections to urban transformation projects as nothing more than a complete formality, with no impact whatsoever. All the decisions affecting people’s rights to shelter, property, and the environment will be made by the centralized executive branch and will be carried out regardless of scientific objections or public disapproval. In other words, people will be excluded from all decision-making processes regarding their homes, their property, their living spaces, and their environment. Additionally, staging mass protests and rallies will also be deemed illegal and unconstitutional, and protesters who defend people’s right to shelter or environmental protection will no longer be tolerated as citizens exercising their democratic rights, but will be labeled as “terrorists” and “enemies of the state.”

What is at stake in this referendum is our right to defend our living spaces and our environment from the complete invasion of for-profit projects and private interests. What is at stake is our right to shelter as citizens and our right to determine what kind of living spaces we want for ourselves.

[Duygu Parmaksızoğlu is a doctoral candidate in the anthropology department at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York. She is an urban anthropologist and has conducted field work in Istanbul over the past several years. Her work focuses on dispossession and displacement in the context of urban transformation schemes and the role of neoliberal populism in animating urbanization processes.]


Queering Turkey’s Referendum
by Hakan Sandal

On 21 March 2017, a group of Kurdish LGBTI+ activists walked into the massive crowds celebrating Newroz in Diyarbekir, carrying “Na/Hayır” (“No” in Kurdish/Turkish) flags together with LGBT pride flags. It was no coincidence that the symbolic meanings of Newroz myth – in which Kawa the blacksmith defeated the tyrant Dehak – came together with the pride flags against Turkey’s present regime of fear. Consequently, these bodies gathered to give a clear message: despite the threat of state violence, we are here, we celebrate, we object.

The referendum on 16 April has a lot of bricks to offer to Turkey’s already hard, thick, tall walls of injustice and denial. I borrow the metaphor of the wall from Sara Ahmed, who theorizes the wall as a sedimenting of inequality, a building-up and institutionalization of violent social relations.[1] While every single move made by the opposition is trapped in the ever-tightening vice of these walls, the outcome of the referendum is likely to be the same as the process leading up to the referendum. First of all, the referendum is taking place under a state of emergency (OHAL in Turkish). Secondly, thirteen MPs of the oppositional HDP—the third largest party in Turkey’s parliament—are currently in prison, including its co-chairs. In addition, hundreds of journalists are also in prison. More recently, another imprisoned Kurdish politician, Sebahat Tuncel – the first MP in Turkey’s history to request a parliamentary inquiry into the status of LGBTI+ rights – has joined hunger strikes in prisons. Clearly, these ongoing arbitrary and oppressive practices represent a terrifying preview of the authoritarian ideals underpinning the proposed, if not imposed, presidential system.

It almost goes without saying that LGBTI+ lives have always been vulnerable in Turkey, and in the shadow of the referendum, their hard-earned existential rights are at severe risk. Homophobia will find its place within the system that is trying to demolish democratic checks and balances in order to institutionalize the state of emergency. It is not difficult to foresee that Erdoğan’s vision includes no [safe] space for LGBTI+ people, a vision that coincides with the ruling AKP’s discourse on LGBTI+ people. Quite recently, the Minister of Interior used homophobia in conjunction with the crackdown on journalists when he called a journalist a “fruit.”

Making LGBTI+ lives invisible in the public sphere and before the law is a strategy of hetero-patriarchal regulations. In this regard, Kaos GL’s 2016 Media Monitoring Report underlines the dramatic decline of LGBTI+ people’s visibility in Turkey’s print media in the second half of 2016, thereby highlighting the success of these regulations. The structural violence stemming from the lack of constitutional recognition for LGBTI+ identity exacerbates this problem. And yet, in spite of this, LGBTI+ resistance remains palpable and potent, as this short paragraph from the press statement of last year’s banned Istanbul LGBTI+ Pride March reflects:

(…) We proudly own all the insults they throw at us to hurt us. We are expanding our limited spaces with solidarity. We are leading a revolution on every street we walk, on every workday, in every house, in every love and every act of lovemaking. We are killed and reborn in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Antep, Diyarbakir, Mexico, Bangladesh, and Orlando. We will always exist, shout out our existence, and always be proud of our existence.

In sum, each queer breath inhaled and exhaled is an adamant “NO” that refuses what the upcoming constitutional referendum has to offer. By its very "nature," queer existence must object to any alignment with authoritarianism. To be sure, I am aware that a “NO” in the referendum will not swiftly turn Turkey into a democracy, nor will it heal the deep wounds of the people. But our objections – indeed, our very existence – serve as reminders that there are cracks in the wall, and as we know, that “that's how the light gets in.”[2]

NOTES

(1) “Brick Walls”, Living a Feminist Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 135-60.
(2) I reevaluated the queer possibilities of Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” after reading a powerful piece by Gülkan ‘Noir’ in Kaos Q+ issue 4, 2016, 83-86. 

[Hakan Sandal is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge - Centre for Gender Studies. His doctoral research focuses on the intersection of ethnic, gender, and sexual identities, with particular focus on Kurdish LGBTs.]


The Constitutional Referendum and The European Diaspora of Turkey

by Bilgin Ayata

In the past four decades, it has become a staple of Turkish politics to increase extreme nationalist rhetoric in order to mobilize voters at the expense of the Kurds, a perennial favorite as internal enemy. Like the AKP government, previous ruling parties have tended to intensify the already omnipresent discourse on (Kurdish) terrorism and the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (known colloquially by its abbreviation, PKK) right before elections in order to secure nationalist votes. The AKP remained committed to this unwritten electoral script until the last national election, which was held in November 2016.

But over the course of its campaign for the constitutional referendum, the AKP presented a new enemy. This time, the threat was not hiding within but was found among the ‘fascists’ and ‘Nazis’ of ‘Islamophobic Europe’. When the German and Dutch authorities prevented Turkish ministers from holding campaign events in Germany and the Netherlands in March of this year, Turkish-European relations escalated drastically over the span of a few days. President Erdoğan, along with several ministers, delivered public speeches vociferously denouncing German and Dutch politicians; they even spoke of a holy war between Turkey and Europe. In these same speeches, they called upon members of the Turkish diaspora in Europe to fulfill their patriotic duties not only to participate in the referendum, but also to give birth to five children in response to injustice in Europe. At the height of international attention upon the undemocratic conditions inside of Turkey, the AKP government skilfully relocated the theatre of the campaign from Turkey to Europe, where roughly 4.6 million (former and current) citizens from Turkey reside. The Turkish diaspora in Europe found itself suddenly on the frontlines of the referendum campaign. Since then, German, French, Dutch and Austrian media have been constantly reporting about their Turkish immigrant populations and their potential stances on the referendum. The Swiss tabloid Blick, for instance, called upon the Turkish community in Switzerland to vote “NO” in the referendum – otherwise they would no longer be welcome in Switzerland. This divisive rhetoric is only helping the AKP government to mobilize its electorate abroad and at home, particularly amid public opinion polls in Turkey that suggest a looming loss for the AKP’s referendum. It also deepens the cleavages among the heterogeneous populations gathered under the umbrella of “Turkish migrants.” For too long, the European public paid no attention to the plurality and the differences among migrants from Turkey, grouping them conveniently as mere “foreigners” or “Muslims.” The introduction of the external vote by the AKP government is now making those political differences visible and accessible in Europe, which will become even more apparent in the coming years. 

In 2013, the Turkish parliament extended the right to participate in national elections, national referendums, and presidential elections to over 2.8 million Turkish citizens living abroad. While this may not sound high in absolute numbers, the expatriate vote makes up the fourth largest electorate after the electorate in Turkey`s largest cities Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. Given the history of migration and displacement from Turkey, the number of external votes is high and focuses the spotlight of election campaigns on countries like Germany, France, Netherlands, Belgium, where most of the eligible expatriate voters reside. While the participation in the expatriate vote was rather low at first, the last national elections in November 2015 recorded the participation of forty percent eligible expatriate voters worldwide, a figure that is considerably high when compared to other countries with similar voting rights. The introduction of the expatriate vote has enabled a political mapping of the global diaspora from Turkey, who have so far voted in three elections. The results of these elections show that although the AKP is the primary beneficiary of the expatriate vote, achieving proportionally better results abroad than in Turkey, they are not the sole beneficiary. In the June 2015 elections, for example, the HDP was also able to win more seats due to votes cast in diaspora, receiving over fifty percent of the vote in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Finland.

In the upcoming referendum, the expatriate vote will be critical for the outcome of the referendum, which will legally manifest Erdoğan`s autocracy if passed. Since the AKP cannot suppress the opposition residing in Europe in the same way as it has through its disenfranchising measures at the domestic level, it has diverted the discussion away from the political conditions in Turkey by presenting itself as the victim of undemocratic procedures in Europe. The calculations behind the AKP’s strategy of escalation and polarization are not difficult to decipher, which makes it even more disappointing that Germany and Netherlands so readily fell for the AKP’s endgame. Instead of subjecting the political preferences of migrants from Turkey to scrutiny, these countries could have mounted a more convincing response by improving political rights for migrants without citizenship who have been excluded from decision-making processes in European countries where they have been living for decades. But, of course, this is not how things work in contemporary configurations of democracy that still rest on the idea of citizenship. In such configurations, refugees and immigrants remain at the fringe of the political, whether in Turkey, Europe, or elsewhere. As was the case with the recent refugee deal between Turkey and the EU, in which Erdoğan used Syrian refugees to increase his political leverage, migrants from Turkey to Europe have now become political instruments in the battle over the referendum. As Erdoğan already knows well from the refugee deal, Europe is a reliable partner in the instrumentalization of migrants for political gains.  

[Bilgin Ayata is Assistant Professor in Political Sociology at the University of Basel. She received her PhD in Political Science from Johns Hopkins University. She has published on transnational diasporic activism, the politics of displacement, foreign policy, genocide denial and memory regimes.]

On Being Hopeful
By Kerem Altıparmak

There are four parties in Parliament. The largest and smallest parties, in terms of number of MPs, have already said yes to the referendum. Thirteen MPs from the second largest opposition party, the HDP, including the co-chairs and spokespersons, as well as thousands of its members, have been arrested. The co-mayors of the municipalities governed by the HDP’s sister party, the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), have all been removed from office and arrested. While it may be a tactical move, the primary opposition party is waging a campaign with no pomp or circumstance whatsoever. All the billboards are filled with yeses. The dissident media has been entirely silenced under the pretext of the state of emergency (OHAL), and aside from the shut-down television stations, radio stations, and newspapers, thousands of journalists have been left without work and 150 journalists are in prison. As in the cases of Atilla Taş and Murat Aksoy, they take people who are supposed to get out of prison back in before they've even been able to leave. As if that’s not enough, they suspend judges who order the release of prisoners. Journalists who say they’re going to vote no are fired on the spot. Meetings held in the name of the President and Prime Minister’s inauguration are broadcast on fifteen to twenty channels at the same time. 

And yet, in spite of this, the ruling party has been unable to guarantee itself fifty percent. It is so lacking in this guarantee, in fact, that it’s forbidden to publish polls on the matter. And so in spite of that, you’re really not going to go to the polls just because you’re hopeless? If you’re not going to be hopeful when even the world’s most unjust election campaign has been unable to sway half of society, then when will you be hopeful? 

[Kerem Altıparmak is a lecturer in law at the University of Ankara, Faculty of Political Sciences. This piece was initially published in Turkish on Mülkiye Haber under the title “Umutlu Olmak.” It was translated into English by Nicholas Glastonbury.] 

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