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4 reasons Turkey is destined for an imperial presidency

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's April referendum will pass, not because Turkish voters yearn for one-man rule or authoritarianism, but because the system is producing the desired outcomes for those in power.
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan attends a Republic Day ceremony at Anitkabir, the mausoleum of modern Turkey's founder Ataturk, to mark the republic's anniversary as he is flanked by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim (R) in Ankara, Turkey, October 29, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas - RTX2QXOL

Turkey's president has his political propaganda machine all oiled up and ready to roll to victory in April, when voters will very likely grant him exceptional powers.

On Jan. 21, Turkey's parliament approved 18 amendments to its tainted constitution, which dates back to 1982. The controversial reforms now need to pass a national referendum in April. On Jan. 22, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan answered questions about the referendum. When asked about the public opinion polls, he said, “It is too soon to share the results of the polls we have right now, but let me tell you this for now — we see that our people have warmed up to the idea of a partisan president. Indeed, if we were not sure of this, we would not have embarked on this business [supporting the referendum].”

What makes Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) so confident of winning the April referendum? Al-Monitor spoke with several senior bureaucrats, pro-AKP pundits, businessmen and members of different Islamist and nationalist groups and found four core explanations for Erdogan’s expected victory.

First is the referendum's ambiguity. Although the 18 amendments propose to reduce the legislative powers of the parliament while expanding the president's executive powers to unlimited levels, supporters blatantly deny this fact.

Erdogan has been dreaming of a “presidential system” for a long time. The campaign for this referendum has been molded according to the public's expectations. That is, in Turkish there are two different words to explain presidencies. One is “baskan,” indicating a singular executive, which is frequently used to refer to US presidents. Turkish presidents are called “cumhurbaskani,” indicating plural executives who head the republic, but not necessarily the head of the executive branch, as there is a prime minister. Erdogan has been advocating for the first version for years now, but the AKP’s base — while willing to use other leadership nicknames such as "captain" and the like for Erdogan — has not been accepting of the term baskan. So Erdogan has adjusted his rhetoric to “a partisan president of the republic,” which his base is willing to cheer for after all. It is a petty little detail, but it shows how deliberate and persistent Erdogan’s team has been to reach their goal of an imperial presidency.

Yet the campaign is not framed as a separation of powers, or one-man rule, but rather is presented with the charming slogan of “For a strong Turkey, say yes,” and the idea that if one is a patriotic, pious Turk, one will say yes to these changes because, finally, Turkey is now discarding its chains and becoming independent. It is declaring its own unique way of government. Only those who are not pleased with Turkey's success would be against this.

Social media is already bursting with images that separate the yes- and no-saying groups. All terror organizations that wreak havoc on Turkey are listed as naysayers: the Islamic State (IS), Kurdistan Workers Party and Gulen movement, plus Israel, the US, UK, Armenian lobby, Europe and Freemasons. The depiction of the coalition that says yes is also quite interesting. Starting with the AKP and Erdogan, it covers all the Islamic world, Turkish ultranationalists and all victims everywhere. The message is clear: Saying yes is the noble thing to do; saying no makes you a traitor. And plenty of journalists are paid handsomely to deflect attention from the boring details so the AKP can move on to its next step of rallying for the cause.

In this environment, how fair can we expect this referendum campaign to be? This leads to the second reason for Erdogan’s confidence: the fear factor. On Jan. 24, AKP spokesman Numan Kurtulmus said, “If yes votes win, terror organizations’ voice will die down. They will lose their motivation.” The message was loud and clear: If you want to stay alive, vote yes.

It's bad enough that the referendum will be held under emergency law, as pro-Kurdish lawmakers, whose slogan was “We will not allow you to become the president,” are in jail. Also, in the predominantly Kurdish regions, almost all elected local politicians are in jail. These districts and cities, often under curfews, are now under the rule of state-appointed trustees. This makes accessing information difficult and campaigning against the amendments almost impossible in the Kurdish areas.

To top all that, opposition groups are divided even further. Although all left-wing parties and some Islamist groups are against the amendments, they are busy trying to distance themselves from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) — even to the point of asking the HDP not to campaign or comment about the referendum. This could lead to voter alienation and hence decrease the percentage of naysayers.

Fear has seeped into all factions of society. Another reason for Erdogan’s victory is strong repression of any opposing voices. With all the arbitrary arrests, silenced media outlets and routine policing of social media, the only voices that can be heard are the ones sanctioned by the government. For example, on Jan. 24 a group of youths on an Istanbul ferry spontaneously started singing a well-known Turkish pop song, adopted as a jingle for rejecting the amendments. They were about to be arrested, but other passengers intervened. How can you advocate for the "no" camp if opposition is labeled as terrorism?

Even if the naysayers manage to bring their message to AKP voters, their reasoning is likely to fall on deaf ears. This is the result of years of populist policies and fanatic dedication. So the next reason for Erdogan’s expected victory is the vicious circle of trying to battle the cult of Erdogan. The moment his supporters hear facts that contradict their perceptions, they become morally outraged. Although the focus should be on the amendments, it turns into a choice between loving and hating Erdogan. Given that the proposed change of the system is likely to outlive Erdogan, why is everyone exclusively focused on Erdogan’s rule? Repeated exposure to falsehoods in this case makes truth unbearable and almost irrelevant.

An unintended consequence of trying to present facts to Erdogan’s base is that it tends to harden their misperceptions. This is a trap the opposition has fallen into repeatedly.

The fourth reason the amendments are likely to be approved is the AKP’s formidable grass-roots organization skills. Having gone through four elections since 2014, the AKP has mastered management of the ballot box and rallying its base to get out and vote. Although there is no legislative power left, Turkey's parliament is to grow in numbers and there is a proposal to allow 18-year-olds to run for office. These openings are determined by party leaders and, in a way, they are considered rewards from the "spoils of war." So the AKP’s base has a lot to win from the victory, and they are willing to fight tooth and nail for it. Another important factor in the AKP's strong organization is its access to government resources: Everything from employees of the Religious Affairs Directorate (who have been appointed even to the smallest towns and most remote villages) to unaccounted-for financial sources are all at the AKP’s disposal.

Erdogan has made it clear that he will hold public rallies to get the amendments approved. HDP spokesperson Ayhan Bilgen has asked a crucial question — where will the funding for their campaign come from — but it is unlikely that anyone will answer.

Although naysayers are anxious and struggling to keep hope alive, it is crucial for them to understand the reasons for a potential Erdogan victory before the die is cast.