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Will Turks give blessing to Erdogan’s autocratic course?

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s referendum campaign is drowning Turkey in populist and nationalist bluster, but it seems to have little effect in swaying the vote, including in Erdogan’s own conservative base.
A campaign banner for the upcoming referendum with the picture of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is seen on Taksim square in central Istanbul, Turkey March 15, 2017. REUTERS/Murad Sezer - RTX314BZ

With less than a month to go before Turkey’s April 16 referendum, the democratic and free climate this fateful vote requires is nowhere to be seen. The country is engulfed in a toxic campaign teeming with autocratic displays of populist nationalism aimed at boosting support for constitutional changes designed to hand sweeping executive powers to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the words of veteran Hurriyet columnist Taha Akyol, “The government’s propaganda machine is working full throttle in a formidable ‘yes’ campaign, using also the powers of the state. … We see on a daily basis how the ‘yes’ vote is promoted through state power and how the same state power is used to suppress the ‘no’ vote.”

The most striking example in this regard is perhaps the “no” campaign of former Interior Minister Meral Aksener, whose appeal to nationalist and conservative voters makes her a serious threat in government eyes. Aksener’s public events face regular disruptions through a variety of means, ranging from power cuts at campaign venues to rally bans and physical attacks.

Another example is the abolition of a provision in electoral laws that stipulated penalties for private TV networks and stations that fail to provide balanced and objective coverage of competing campaigns. The government scrapped the provision in February through a legislative decree, a tool made available by the state of emergency in effect since the July 15 coup attempt, flouting the constitution, which says that amendments to electoral laws can take effect only a year after adopted. The loss of this provision means that the voice of the opposition is now completely absent from the scores of pro-government channels.

Violations of law and the evisceration of rules have become a hallmark of the campaign. Chief among them is Erdogan’s breach of the president’s neutrality, a norm enshrined in both the constitution and the presidential oath. Erdogan says the provision is no longer relevant because he was elected directly by the people and asserts his right to take sides. He leads a bellicose “yes” campaign, vilifying the “no” camp and fanning artificial tensions, as in the recent crises with Germany and the Netherlands.

The narrative of the “yes” campaign is equally destructive for Turkish democracy. The substance of the constitutional changes is rarely addressed, eclipsed by a nationalist, security-centered and oppressive bluster. A slogan Erdogan shouts at rallies tells it in a nutshell: “You cannot divide the nation! You cannot take down the flag! You cannot break up the homeland! You cannot destroy our state! You cannot silence our azans [calls to worship]! You cannot bring this country to its knees!”

In this rhetoric, the “yes” vote represents national unity and power, while the “no” vote stands for partition and treason. Why the proposed presidential system represents unity and the existing parliamentarian one represents partition is of no importance in this narrative. The supposed righteousness of the “yes” vote rests not on the substance of the constitutional package but on the identities of the naysayers. This is so much so that the rhetoric often takes on a threatening tone against “no” voters, depicting them as adversaries of Islam or the nation. Erdogan’s assertion that “the naysayers stand on the side of the July 15 coup” speaks of itself.

The referendum campaign will go down in Turkish political history as a momentous chapter, teeming with omens of Erdogan’s march toward a nationalist populist order in which he seeks to transform his arbitrary and authoritarian tilt into an institutionalized, personalized grip on power.

In Erdogan’s eyes, only a certain segment of Turkish society — the one that rallies behind him — is “the nation.” Erdogan has increasingly identified himself with this “nation” since he was elected president in 2014. Accordingly, the leader represents the thinking of the nation, or rather, whatever the leader thinks at a given time on a given subject is regarded as the thought of the nation. The first critical aspect here, which reflects the spirit of the constitutional changes, is that the intermediaries, institutions and mechanisms between the leader and the nation are reduced to a minimum. The second aspect, which has emerged as a key element of the aspired populist order, is the rejection of those who object to this system as outcasts who do not belong to the nation.

So what will it mean for Turkey if the referendum ends in Erdogan’s favor? He will likely take this as a popular approval of his arbitrary practices after the coup attempt and even use it as a ground to normalize the emergency-rule regime. That’s what he seems to suggest when he says that a “yes” outcome “will be an answer, an important rebuke to July 15.”

A victory for Erdogan is likely to bring Turkey’s already tense relations with the European Union to a freeze. He already declared his intentions last week, saying, “We will review our ties with the EU after April 16. They will no longer be able to threaten us, neither with the membership process nor the [refugee] readmission deal. That’s over.”

The EU is hardly in a friendlier mood. Besides the lasting effects that the “Nazi” rants against European countries will have, the EU is highly critical of the constitutional changes and the referendum process, as the March 13 statement of two top EU officials reflect.

So the most critical question now is this: Can Erdogan’s campaign strategy and political course lure the majority of Turks to his side, despite all the gloomy prospects? According to a pollster who has often worked for the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the president is on an uphill track.

“The AKP’s and Erdogan’s campaign rhetoric and the crises with Germany, the Netherlands and others have failed to bring over the conservative segment that has distanced itself from Erdogan’s policies,” Ibrahim Uslu, the director of the ANAR research company, told Al-Monitor. “Three months ago, the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes were neck and neck, and that’s how they remain today. But if we take into account the silent and covert naysayers who refuse to disclose their opinion, the ‘no’ vote seems to be leading with a small margin.”

One thing is clear — the referendum will be more than just choosing a system of governance. The vote is looming as a historic test for the Turkish nation — government opponents and sympathizers alike — on whether or not it can stop the country’s slide to autocracy.

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