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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

If Turkey Says No

In less than a month, citizens of the Republic of Turkey will head to the polls to decide on a referendum to fundamentally alter their structure of government.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called a referendum, asking the Turkish people to vote on whether their democracy, which is set up in a parliamentary structure, to change to a presidential system.

A parliamentary system very closely merges the executive and legislative branches of government in the position of Prime Minister, while they are much more separate in a presidential system.
Erdogan, as President, in theory, does not wield a lot of power. Most of the power, again, in theory, is concentrated in the Prime Minister, Binali YıldırımYıldırım, however, is a relatively new prime minister. The previous Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, was dismissed by President Erdoğan, and many speculate that the reason for his removal from office was due to his opposition to the referendum.

Turkey’s current political climate means that this referendum has been full of very passionate campaigning and massive emotion. 

The ruling Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, is the architect of this referendum. A mildly Islamist, right-wing party, it enjoys strong support throughout the Turkish heartlands, which despite Turkey’s official status of secular democracy, are mostly populated by conservative Muslim Turks.

These heartlands, however, are not as heavily populated as other areas of Turkey. The western coastline, where cities like Istanbul and Izmir sit, are strongholds for the Republican People’s Party, which is known by its Turkish initials CHP. A left-wing, Kemalist, nationalist party, the CHP is the strongest party supporting a “No” vote. It gained about 25% of the vote in the last general election, whereas AKP gained 49.5%. Despite its left-wing roots, the CHP has mostly campaigned in recent years on its secularist and nationalist sentiments and strengthening democracy rather than its economic viewpoints in contrast to the AKP’s invoking of Islam.

The pivotal party, however, is neither of these. It’s the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP. The leader of this party, a man named Devlet Bahceli, is campaigning for a Yes vote, but he leads a bitterly divided party. While Bahceli has put his chips in with Erdogan and the AKP and supports a "Yes" vote, many MHP voters are vocally opposed to that decision. The MHP, even though it is quite a bit smaller than both the AKP and CHP, is big enough that it could be the deciding factor in this referendum. If the party’s voting base rejects Bahceli’s decision en masse, the referendum could fail.

In the June and November 2015 Turkish elections, the ruling AKP managed to secure more than 40% of the vote. The CHP pulled in around 25% both times, and the Kurdish interest People's Democratic Party (HDP) and MHP tallied in the low-to-mid teens. 

Polling currently indicates that the referendum could go down to the wire. At the moment, "No" seems to have the lead, but the lead is narrow and there remain a sizable contingent of undecided voters. 

Critics of the referendum have insinuated that this is merely a power-grab by the ruling party. Indeed, Erdoğan would gain a large amount of formally enumerated power if "Yes" wins. 

If Turkey says no, however, it will only be the first act of a major pivot. While not quite on the level of Brexit, the decision to stay with the parliamentary system will shake Turkey’s political climate to its core.

Devlet Bahceli will likely be one of the first to fall. If he supports “Yes”, but most of the MHP voting base checks the “No” box on election day and the referendum fails, he will likely be removed from his post or resign in disgrace. It is estimated that around 50-80% of MHP voters are leaning towards voting no, and only around 20-25% are likely to vote "Yes". Bahceli is even on record as being against the political referendum in the past. If he doesn't get removed, the MHP risks an even bigger loss of popularity. 

President Erdoğan will be thoroughly embarrassed. His supporters will have come off a massive loss, and those who oppose his policies will have put a large roadblock in his way. His resignation is far less likely, though.


The MHP will have a decision to make. Its  recent cooperative role with the AKP is similar to that of a smaller party in a coalition government, and these parties typically do not gain much sympathy with voters. If the referendum fails, the MHP may have to undergo a massive transformation and rebranding after its ignominious partnership with the AKP, which is very well may be forced to abandon. 


That would represent a massive opportunity for the similarly nationalist CHP. While the MHP and CHP differ on many issues, they are both still nationalist. Indeed, the MHP was born from disillusioned CHP party members.

If the MHP falls into disarray, the CHP has an opportunity to reach out to the party’s voters and grow its size, something it seems to be struggling with in previous elections. If CHP and a rebranded MHP partner against the AKP, they could represent a real challenge to the Islamist party in the next election, as their combined vote total was slightly larger than that of the AKP in the June 2015 elections.


The Kurdish Question would still present a daunting challenge to a possible nationalist government. While AKP is not particularly loved or trusted among the Turkish Kurd population in the southeast, they are even more wary of the CHP and certainly the MHP because of the two parties’ nationalist principles. Furthermore, it’s not really clear which party would hold more clout. CHP is bigger, but it would have to compromise with the MHP so as to not lose favor with a possible coalition. The MHP is completely and unequivocally opposed to dialogue with the Kurdish HDP, the CHP is not. Indeed, when the CHP floated the idea of a possible CHP-MHP-HDP government with Bahceli as Prime Minister, Bahceli vehemently refused.

A potential coalition could, however, work to strengthen the democratic institutions within the country by pushing through reforms that would benefit both the Turkish and Kurdish populations, but not brand these reforms as concessions to the PKK terrorist group. One such reform that could work for both would be a lowering of the electoral threshold.

Turkey has dozens of political parties but due to the 10% threshold needed to gain seats in parliament, only four are represented in the Grand National Assembly in Ankara. This makes it difficult for any Kurdish-interest party to get into Parliament because Kurds are a minority everywhere except the southeast of the country. If the threshold could be lowered to say, 5%, greater representation for parties of all types could be had. 

This is, obviously, only one possible reform. But if Turkey says no this coming month, it's in for a serious pivot, and anything could happen. 


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