Erdoğan's Referendum ‎

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak examines the tumultuous discourse surrounding the Turkish referendum on consolidation of ‎Erdoğan’s political authority.
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“With the new constitution, the people will rule” –from Twitter

“With the new constitution, the people will rule” –from Twitter

In the aftermath of unprecedented ‎terrorism in ‎Turkey last month, ‎social ‎networking ‎sites (SNS) ‎are engaged ‎in ‎fierce ‎political ‎debate ‎over ‎the ‎ruling ‎party's attempt to replace the ‎current parliamentary ‎system ‎with ‎a ‎presidential ‎system. ‎The ‎change ‎is ‎expected ‎to ‎grant ‎President ‎Recep ‎Tayyip ‎Erdoğan ‎authority ‎over ‎the ‎executive ‎branch ‎and ‎lead ‎to ‎increased ‎centralization ‎of ‎the ‎government. ‎The ‎discourse ‎on ‎SNS ‎affords ‎a ‎glimpse ‎into ‎the ‎political ‎opinions ‎of ‎rival ‎camps.

The ‎failed ‎military ‎coup ‎of ‎July ‎15, ‎2016, ‎and the resulting ‎mass ‎demonstrations ‎against ‎military ‎intervention ‎in ‎Turkish ‎politics, ‎significantly ‎strengthened ‎the ‎standing ‎of ‎Erdoğan ‎and ‎his ‎former ‎political ‎party, ‎the ‎Justice ‎and ‎Development ‎Party ‎ (AKP). ‎Erdoğan ‎‎ ‎took ‎advantage ‎of ‎these ‎waves ‎of ‎support ‎to ‎strengthen ‎measures ‎against ‎the ‎Kurdish ‎political ‎movement, ‎ ‎arresting ‎the Peoples’ ‎Democratic ‎Party ‎(HDP) ‎leaders ‎in ‎November. ‎This ‎marked ‎the ‎beginning ‎of ‎a ‎pact ‎between ‎Erdoğan ‎‎and ‎the ‎Nationalist ‎Movement ‎Party ‎(MHP), ‎led ‎by ‎Devlet ‎Bahçeli. ‎With the reinforcement of ‎Turkish ‎identity and ‎the ‎position ‎of ‎Islam ‎in ‎the ‎public ‎sphere, ‎the ‎ideological ‎gap ‎between ‎the ‎parties ‎is narrowing, ‎allowing ‎MHP ‎to ‎support ‎AKP's political agenda. ‎

As the primary item on of its political agenda, AKP is utilizing MHP's support to attempt to introduce a presidential system, centralizing the Turkish political system. Such an amendment ‎would ‎require ‎a ‎ majority of ‎367 ‎votes ‎to be cast ‎in ‎favor. ‎Because the combined ‎AKP ‎and ‎MHP bloc ‎are ‎11 ‎votes ‎short ‎of ‎that ‎number, ‎they ‎have instead proposed ‎a ‎national ‎referendum, ‎which ‎requires ‎only ‎330 ‎votes ‎in ‎favor. ‎The ‎referendum ‎is ‎expected ‎to ‎encompass ‎a ‎comprehensive ‎package ‎of ‎reforms. The primary reform would ‎ ‎transform ‎the ‎parliamentary ‎system ‎into ‎a ‎presidential ‎one, ‎ weakening ‎the ‎system ‎of ‎checks ‎and ‎balances. Other reforms included in the package ‎ ‎would ‎strengthen ‎the ‎ ‎judiciary's executive ‎branch and ‎change the judicial appointment process.

Although ‎MHP ‎was ‎successful ‎in ‎recruiting ‎the ‎votes ‎necessary ‎to ‎conduct ‎the ‎referendum, ‎which ‎is ‎scheduled ‎for ‎April ‎2017, ‎resistance to ‎party ‎chairman ‎Bahçeli ‎is ‎being ‎voiced ‎within ‎the ‎party. Led ‎by ‎Meral ‎Akşener, thirteen ‎of the party's ‎parliamentarians ‎have decided ‎not ‎to ‎support ‎the ‎reform ‎package. ‎Opposition ‎was ‎also ‎expressed on ‎‎SNS, ‎where ‎ordinary ‎users ‎and ‎Turkish ‎celebrities ‎called up‎on ‎members ‎of ‎MHP ‎to ‎oppose ‎the ‎referendum. ‎They attacked ‎the ‎chairman ‎as ‎“a ‎traitor ‎that ‎sold ‎himself ‎to ‎Erdoğan‎.” ‎In response, ‎supporters ‎of ‎Bahçeli ‎accused the ‎leaders ‎of ‎internal party ‎opposition ‎‎ ‎of ‎divisiveness ‎and ‎called ‎on the party's ‎supporters ‎to back ‎Bahçeli.

Unsurprisingly, ‎Erdoğan's supporters contributed to Bahçeli's ‎ ‎online ‎ support.‎ They ‎posted ‎graphics ‎portraying ‎the two ‎as ‎leaders ‎cooperating ‎to ‎advance ‎Turkey. ‎Supporters ‎of ‎Erdoğan ‎added ‎that ‎the ‎amendments ‎would ‎make ‎it ‎possible ‎to ‎eradicate ‎elite ‎influence ‎from ‎Turkish ‎government ‎(see ‎picture).[1] ‎In ‎order ‎to ‎justify ‎support ‎for ‎the ‎package ‎of ‎reforms up for ‎referendum, ‎users ‎claim ‎that ‎the ‎opposition ‎of ‎secular ‎Turks ‎and ‎international ‎powers ‎– such ‎as ‎the ‎United ‎States, ‎Great ‎Britain, ‎and ‎Israel ‎– ‎to ‎the proffered ‎presidential ‎system emerges from ‎“a ‎lack ‎of ‎desire ‎to ‎see ‎a ‎stronger ‎Turkey.” ‎They also ‎claimed ‎that ‎“all ‎citizens ‎of ‎Turkey ‎must ‎support ‎the ‎package ‎of ‎reforms.”[2]

The ‎secular ‎camp, ‎ ‎depicted ‎as ‎plotting ‎‎Turkey’s ‎demise, ‎responded with the counter‎claim ‎that ‎drastic ‎shifts ‎would result in ‎a ‎regime ‎change, ‎and ‎not improved governance. ‎From their perspective, ‎the proposed reforms ‎would ‎lead ‎to ‎the ‎death ‎of ‎the ‎Republic, replaced with a ‎Sultanate headed by of ‎Erdoğan. ‎Like ‎some nationalist ‎users, some ‎secular ‎voices ‎also ‎criticized ‎Bahçeli’s ‎behavior. ‎There ‎were even ‎those ‎who ‎claimed ‎that ‎Erdoğan ‎possesses compromising ‎recordings ‎of ‎Bahçeli ‎that ‎‎leave ‎him open to extortion, motivating the ‎agreement.[3] ‎In addition to ‎these ‎conspiracy ‎theories, ‎many ‎secular Turks ‎expressed ‎frustration ‎with the ‎parliamentary proceedings. ‎They ‎called ‎on ‎the ‎Turkish ‎people to preserve the values of Atatürk, the republic's founder, by ‎strongly ‎opposing ‎the ‎reforms ‎presented ‎in ‎the ‎referendum. ‎Many ‎users ‎in ‎this ‎camp ‎changed ‎their ‎profile ‎pictures ‎to ‎a ‎graphic ‎of ‎the ‎word ‎“No” ‎(“Hayır” ‎in ‎Turkish) ‎and ‎called ‎for ‎voters ‎to ‎“Oppose ‎the ‎dictatorship” ‎using ‎the ‎hashtag ‎“We ‎are ‎rising ‎up ‎– ‎If ‎not ‎now…when?” ‎(see ‎picture). ‎Although their ‎goal ‎is ‎to ‎evoke ‎a ‎popular ‎uprising, ‎ ‎they ‎have ‎not yet ‎had ‎much ‎success.[4] ‎Secular ‎users ‎also ‎expressed ‎opposition ‎to the parliament's ‎legislative ‎moves, ‎claiming ‎that ‎the post-coup state of ‎emergency was an ‎attempt to stifle ‎democracy.

Analogous to ‎the ‎‎online tumult, ‎ ‎parliament was thrust into chaos. ‎At one point, ‎members ‎of ‎the ‎secular ‎Republican ‎People’s ‎Party ‎(CHP) ‎stormed ‎the ‎podium ‎in ‎an ‎attempt ‎to ‎halt ‎the ‎vote on sections of the referendum's reforms. ‎The ‎uproar that followed ‎ended ‎with ‎one ‎broken ‎nose, ‎complaints ‎of ‎being ‎bitten, ‎and ‎the ‎podium's destruction. ‎SNS ‎users responded by ‎expressing ‎their ‎anger ‎at ‎the ‎members ‎of ‎Parliament, who they ‎accused ‎of ‎childlike ‎behavior.[5]

At ‎this ‎stage, ‎the ‎Kurds ‎are ‎avoiding ‎taking ‎an official ‎stance ‎on ‎these ‎political ‎issues, ‎despite ‎their ‎reflexive ‎opposition ‎to ‎Bahçeli ‎and ‎his ‎party. ‎This ‎response ‎is ‎apparently ‎a product ‎of ‎the ‎apathy ‎of ‎many ‎in ‎ ‎HDP ‎to ‎the ‎reforms. ‎Ironically, ‎a ‎few ‎Kurdish ‎users do support ‎the ‎presidential ‎system, ‎in the ‎hope ‎that subjecting ‎Erdoğan to fewer political pressures would ‎bring him ‎back ‎to ‎the ‎negotiating ‎table.

Public ‎discourse ‎on ‎Turkish ‎SNS ‎reveals ‎how ‎the ‎political attempt ‎to ‎institute ‎a ‎presidential system ‎is ‎perceived ‎as ‎a ‎means ‎to ‎reinforce ‎Erdoğan’s ‎status. ‎Among ‎Turkish ‎users, ‎there ‎are ‎many ‎who‎‎ ‎are ‎critical ‎of ‎these ‎moves, ‎unswayed ‎by ‎‎nationalist ‎justifications. ‎It ‎is ‎important ‎to ‎note ‎the ‎strong, ‎even ‎violent, ‎opposition ‎ ‎in ‎parliament ‎by ‎those ‎who ‎consider ‎the referendum ‎an ‎affront ‎to ‎the ‎Republican ‎nature ‎of ‎Turkey. However, this opposition ‎plays ‎into ‎the ‎hands ‎of ‎Erdoğan, ‎who ‎is essentially leaving the dirty work to his supporters in parliament. By doing so, he ‎successfully ‎maintains ‎a ‎presidential ‎image ‎despite ‎the ‎tumultuous ‎atmosphere.

[1] #Evet #Senibaşkanyapacağız #TürkiyeİçinEVET

[4] #AyağaKalkıyoruz #Hayır

[5] #11ocak2017tbmmkavgası #tbmm #kavga