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Turkey After the Referendum: A Roundtable

[Istanbul, 15 April 2017. Photo by Ayça Çubukçu.] [Istanbul, 15 April 2017. Photo by Ayça Çubukçu.]

Turkey Page Editors’ Introduction

On 16 April 2017, amidst widespread reports of electoral fraud, a slim majority of those casting votes in Turkey voted to approve a referendum, which has as its main goal the overhaul of the executive branch. Most significantly, it does 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. 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 has served as President since 2014; with the passage of the referendum, he is now ostensibly able to extend his term as President until 2029.

As part of our commitment to analyzing ongoing political events in Turkey, we offer the following roundtable as a series of initial responses to the referendum results, as well as the state of politics in post-referendum Turkey. It follows upon an earlier roundtable that anticipated the results of the referendum, published in both English and Turkish. We will be publishing further and more detailed analyses in the weeks to come, and will continue to address whatever may come next.

Turkey and the Time that Remains

by Ayça Çubukçu

Despite proclamations to the contrary, the hope for democracy is not dead in Turkey. It resides in every city, town, and village where citizens of Turkey have dared to vote “no” in the constitutional referendum, which took place under a draconian state of emergency. It grows with every claim that serious allegations of fraud in the referendum process render its official result—a narrow margin of yes (fifty-one percent) against no (forty-nine percent)—utterly illegitimate.

The hope for democracy in Turkey finds new life in tens of thousands of people across the country who have taken to the streets every night since the referendum—despite great risks—to protest the official result and to declare that “no, it is not over yet.” This is why about six o’clock in the morning on 19 April a new crime was invented by the police in Istanbul, who arrested many activists for engaging in “propaganda about the illegitimacy of the ‘yes’ result.” More arrests have followed since then. This move by the government to further criminalize no-sayers confirms what we should already know: despite its official victory, the Turkish government is losing the war of legitimacy over this referendum.

It is in times like these that acts of civil disobedience could be undertaken, and it is this possibility that Erdoğan and his comrades in the Turkish government are attempting to prevent. What has been happening on the streets since the referendum could be the birth of a new wave of anti-government protests such as what we witnessed in 2013, which the Turkish government will try to abort by any means necessary. After all, the future of Turkey, the nature of its regime, and the prospects of Erdoğan’s continuous rule hang in the balance.

This is why it is all the more urgent for democratic forces around the world to join their counterparts in Turkey to underscore the illegitimacy of the constitutional referendum and the unacceptability of the enormous power it would accord to the president. If the notorious human rights record of the Turkish government is any measure, there is no protection accorded to dissident voices in the country, not even to members of parliament. Only a few days ago, Burcu Çelik, a lawmaker from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) for the Kurdish province of Muş, was arrested after the referendum. She is now the fourteenth HDP parliamentarian imprisoned by the state with charges related to “terrorism.”

With the leaders and cadres of the Kurdish opposition imprisoned, with its journalists routinely detained and threatened, with its academics forced into exile, with whole villages and towns levelled to the ground, with half of its citizenry reduced to a dangerous population to be governed, the future of democratic politics in Turkey is not looking too promising. Except—there are still millions in and out of the country who are prepared to resist Erdoğan and his “popular dictatorship.”

In the time that remains, it is our urgent task to stand in solidarity with democratic forces in Turkey. Concerned people around the world should put pressure on their own governments to reconsider their legal, political, economic, cultural, and military partnerships with Turkey. And this should be done, not with an attitude of superiority, as has been the case with the European Union, but in the spirit of a critical, egalitarian solidarity. Declarations of death will neither “help” nor encourage citizens of Turkey who are trying to engage each other in a dialogue about the future of their country in the absence of a pluralistic public sphere. But transnational solidarity will.

[Ayça Çubukçu is Assistant Professor in Human Rights in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Previously, she taught for the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University and the Committee on Degrees in Social Studies at Harvard University. She is a Co-Editor of the Turkey Page.]

In Turkey, One Nation, One Flag, One Homeland, One State… One Man?

by Azat Z. Gündoğan

“We fought against great powers: The crusade mentality in the West, their servants at home,” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan proclaimed in his victory speech after the national constitutional referendum. “We said ‘YES’ for one nation, one flag, one homeland, one state.”

Did Turkey’s voters just add “one man” to this list?

Elections are considered a benchmark of democracy. It is ironic that the same measure for determining whether a regime is “democratic” has the potential to generate one-person leadership.

Yet Erdoğan’s victory was hardly spotless. The YES campaign took 51.4 percent of the votes. That means 48.6 percent of the fifty-eight million who voted had doubts about his desire to stay in power until at least 2029, a practical outcome of the eighteen constitutional reforms that were compressed into a simple YES-NO choice. This was despite the decidedly “unlevel playing field” cited by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). 

Nor was everyone allowed to compete on that field. The referendum took place in a state of emergency enforced by a series of statutory decrees after a failed coup in July 2016. With more than 170 media outlets shut down and more than 150 journalists in jail, voters were exposed to one-sided, pro-government information, according to PEN International.

Even so, voters in Turkey’s largest cities—Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir—resoundingly voted NO.

So did Kurdish voters in the southeast of Turkey. This is not surprising, as the co-leaders and thirteen deputies of the non-violent, pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) are in prison, along with many mayors and thousands of members. The UN Human Rights Office recently reported that between July 2015 and December 2016, residents of more than thirty towns and neighborhoods were subjected to killings, torture, massive destruction, and numerous other human rights violations.

There also appears to have been massive fraud. In Turkey, ballots must be stamped by poll workers to prove their validity. Late on election day, the election board announced that it was waiving this requirement. Videos emerged on social media showing people marking YES on unstamped ballots. As I write this, news has emerged of a crackdown on those who took to the streets to protest the handling of the vote.

In calling the referendum, Erdoğan rolled the dice for a regime change that will allow him to enjoy the privileges of the presidency free from legal inquiry and accountability for many years to come. Yet this could prove costly both domestically and internationally.

Erdoğan ascended to power in 2002. For most of the last fifteen years, he has ruled the country (first as prime minister, then, since 2014, as president) in relative political and economic stability. But Turkey has been in turmoil since 2013, and increasingly so since last July. In the nine months since the coup attempt, thousands of dissidents have been jailed, purged, or forced to leave the country.

Turkey’s foreign relations and its domestic politics are bound tightly together. The Syrian war and the ISIS phenomenon have created a power vacuum in the region, giving Turkey an opportunity to market its geopolitics in the form of an agreement with the EU. But its actions in the international arena have antagonized large segments of the Turkish population, particularly the Kurds.

At the same time, the state’s hard-line, security-oriented policies on the Kurdish issue and its 2015 termination of the so-called Peace Process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have complicated its relations with the rest of the world.

Turkey’s military crossed the Syrian border with Operation Euphrates Shield, targeting both Islamic State (IS) and Kurdish fighters of the Popular Protection Units (YPG), probably the most effective forces on the Syrian battlefield against IS. Some critics accused Turkey of using the fight against IS as a cover to attack the Kurds in northern Syria.

Meanwhile, mass mobilizations—by women, academics, peace activists, and others—show that popular dissent is hard to contain. Although it is impossible to know how the current crisis will resolve, one thing is certain. The people of Turkey and the Middle East will continue to challenge Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, no matter how prolonged his presidency.

[Sociologist Azat Z. Gündoğan is a visiting scholar with the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell University. His appointment is made possible in part by a fellowship from the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund. In November 2016, he and his wife, historian Nilay Ozok-Gündoğan, received the Middle East Studies Association’s Academic Freedom Award on behalf of more than 2,000 Turkish scholars who signed a peace petition in January of that year.] 

After the Referendum: The Coming Leviathan

by Ismet Akça

The constitutional referendum and its results form an important turning point in Turkish political history. The establishment of superpresidentialism was presented as a remedy for the ongoing crises of hegemony and of state in Turkey. The June and October elections in 2015 were the previous unsuccessful steps for this change of political regime. Erdoğan did not recognize the results of the June 2015 elections and announced in August 2015 that the political regime had already been changed de facto and should now be changed de jure. In other words, he forced the superpresidential regime by creating a political crisis. His de facto mode of governance, based on the state of exception created by the new war policy in the Kurdish populated cities, gained legal clothing through the declaration of a “state of emergency” after the failed coup attempt in July 2016.

The referendum is handicapped in terms of legitimacy. First, it has been realized under the state of emergency, and the party-state enormously limited the political space for oppositional campaigns through various repressive mechanisms. Second, the legitimacy of the results is also severely contested because of the serious electoral fraud identified in the reports of international agencies (OSCE) and of independent initiatives (Oy ve Ötesi). The fact that the YES could win by a slight margin aggravated the question of legitimacy under those conditions. Well aware of this problem, the victory speeches of Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and Erdoğan at that night were a move for a fait accompli.

Such a contested result could not thus solve the crisis of hegemony within the power bloc. In order to overcome it, Erdoğan will no doubt immediately act as the new superpresident in order to establish an autocratic power supported with a state form more and more characterized by fascist traits. Erdoğan’s first moves seem to be to clean up the party by incorporation and purges after becoming the leader of the party, probably in May, and to continue the purges in the state apparatuses under the state of emergency. This also means re-establishing relatively stable but submissive relations with the US while continuing the tensions with the EU as a tool for nationalist mobilization, disciplining the big bourgeoisie by forcing it to accept economic gains in exchange for political submissiveness.  No doubt this is already a hard job full of contentions, but a feasible one.

The societal dimension of the crisis of hegemony has not been solved; on the contrary, it is deepened. In addition to the social constituencies of the Gezi movement and the Kurdish political movement in alliance with socialists (as seen in the HDP’s success in the elections of June 2015), the NO bloc has also included the whole Republicanist constituency (CHP) and an important part of the radical nationalists (MHP). Yet unlike Erdoğan’s YES bloc, the NO bloc is so heterogeneous in social and political terms that a counter-hegemonic attack seems really difficult for now. First of all, the main opposition party, the CHP, already accepted the “defeat” in the first round, stood against the street protests, and started to hope for the presidential elections in 2019. Second, what Gezi revealed as indispensable is still valid for the much smaller and weaker ongoing street protests, which are the source of hope against Erdoğan’s new Leviathan: to keep alive the important political mobilization during the referendum campaign and to construct its own political subject. It is absolutely the time of neither defeatism nor unrealistic romanticism, but of an enduring struggle.

[Ismet Akça is an associate professor. His works focus on militarism, authoritarianism, neoliberalism, and the political sociology of Turkey. He is the co-editor of Turkey Reframed: Constituting Neoliberal Hegemony (Pluto Press, 2014).]

The Pitfalls of Democracy in Turkey

by Nicholas Glastonbury

Ever since Erdoğan managed a slim victory in the constitutional referendum, article after article in the Euro-American news media has bemoaned the “decline and fall of Turkish democracy,” “the end of Turkey’s democratic experiment,” and “the end of Turkey as we know it.” Death is a common trope used in these stories: “Turkey’s democracy has died,” laments a CNN headline, while Foreign Policy’s post-referendum analysis is headlined “RIP Turkey 1921-2017.” Implicit in these histrionic accounts is the outrageous claim that Turkey has been more or less an exemplary democracy for all its previous existence, and that it is only now that democracy in Turkey has been threatened.

One hardly needs to scratch the surface of the history of the Republic of Turkey to find instances of anti-democratic or illiberal policies. Every April, for example, activists commemorate those who died in the Armenian genocide, the foundational event of ethnic cleansing that underpins Turkish nationalist history. For nearly a century, Kurds have been subject to extrajudicial killing, state-sanctioned violence, torture, forced displacement, and more. Women face many forms of violence in public and in private, violence that state actors and courts tend to overlook. LGBTQ people also face multiple forms of violence, and have few (if any) protections when it comes to housing and employment. If democracy is understood to mean plurality, rights, protections of political and social difference, protections of civil disobedience, and freedom of expression, then the claim that Turkey has been democratic from 1921 until 2017 could not be more wrong.

Thus, a more nuanced account of the referendum is necessary, one that does not fall prey to a zero-sum game that insists on either the fabled “Turkish model” of democracy or the inevitable rise of oriental despotism, one that accounts for the historical and social context of the constitutional referendum. In the first place, the referendum only makes de jure what has been Erdoğan’s de facto mode of governing for many years now. At stake in the referendum, furthermore, were eighteen amendments that modify a constitution put in place in 1982 by a military junta that came to power in the 1980 coup d’etat. There is consensus across the political spectrum that this constitution is deeply undemocratic, whether because of its mandated ten-percent election threshold for political representation in parliament, its prohibitions of criticism of the Turkish government and the Turkish nation, its restrictions on wearing the headscarf in public, or its restrictions on the Kurdish language.

One of the cornerstones of the “YES” campaign has been to highlight the nondemocratic nature of this constitution. At a campaign rally in Kars on 31 March 2017, for example, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım declared that the “coup constitution is going in the trash.” He continued: “A civil constitution is coming, a constitution of the nation, that’s what this vote is about. Tutelage [vesayet] will come to an end, the will of the people will rule.” Ali Karahasanoğlu, a columnist in the pro-government newspaper Yeni Akit, similarly criticized supporters of the “NO” campaign: “What we have before us are two texts,” he writes, one of which is the 1982 constitution and the other of which is the text at stake in the referendum. “If you vote ‘NO’, you’re actually saying ‘YES’ to the 1982 coup constitution. Why, after allegedly voting ‘NO’ on the coup constitution thirty-five years ago, would you now say ‘YES’, thirty-five years later?” As these quotes from Yıldırım and Karahasanoğlu show, the “YES” campaign in the referendum mobilized a desire for an end to nondemocratic politics and a new, democratic constitution.

Ultimately, the constitutional referendum in Turkey highlights one of the central quandaries inherent in the notion of democracy: the difficulty in disentangling democratic means from democratic ends. Whether a constitution is written by a military junta or by a civilian government has no bearing on whether the constitution can secure rights, plurality, judicial independence, freedom of expression, civil disobedience—in short, whether the constitution can do the work of democracy. While Erdoğan’s victory in the referendum will surely have nondemocratic ends—as we have already seen with Erdoğan using his victory speech to herald the return of the death penalty, or the post-referendum arrest of dozens involved with the “NO” campaign—it was couched in the language of democracy, won by democratic means, and achieved through liberal, democratic institutions. If opposition to Erdoğan’s tightening grip on the state apparatus is going to have any success, it first needs to recognize that his antidemocratic practices are not a crisis in Turkish politics, but instead represent the culmination of longstanding governmental logics and political discourses.

[Nicholas Glastonbury is a translator and a doctoral student in cultural anthropology at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York. His research centers on Kurdish-language radio broadcasting from the former USSR, Cold War ideological struggles, nationalism, violence, gender, and sexuality. He is a Co-Editor of the Turkey Page.] 

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