Referendum in Turkey: The ‘no’ bloc needs a programme
Murat Somer: The ‘No’ bloc owes its success to its calm. The results have given them self-confidence and this needs to be maintained.
Serpil Ilgun from Evrensel talked to Murat Somer, Associate Professor of Political Sciences and International Relations from Koc University in Istanbul about the Turkish referendum and its social outcomes.
Somer shared the view that the 48.6 percent share of the vote by the “No” bloc has opened a new path for democratic popular movement, but for that they need to have an alternative political programme. “Such programme could help this bloc overcome its divisions and even enable some sections of the “yes” bloc to lend their support,” said Somer, as there are many people in the ‘yes’ side with some real concerns.
He believes that Turkey is going through a process of construction of an electoral authoritarian regime, and claims that “as this is not fixed yet all political actors have a window of opportunity now”.
Somer, who is known for his work on democratisation, authoritarian and hybrid regimes, Kurdish question, political Islam, politics of ethnicity and conflicts, also talked about possible effects of the referendum on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Let’s begin with the decision of the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) to consider the unstamped ballot papers as valid (the law requires all ballot papers should have an official stamp) which caused a lot of uproar.
Since 1950 Turkey has successfully held transparent elections in general. Previous problems were small and local and were resolved within the law. The extent of today’s allegations have the potential to influence the results of the overall referendum. The decision of the YSK presents important problems: 1. Creating suspicion about its independence, 2. The extent of the mistake or wrongdoing may change the result of the referendum, 3. Disregard for a vital principle regarding safe and secret balloting. This principle was also violated during the vote in the parliament on constitutional amendment.
When unstamped ballot papers are considered valid it is not possible to argue the case for secret balloting, or to make sure that the ballot paper is not illegally taken in from outside. As it was allowed to stamp the unstamped ballot papers while the vote was still going on, in other words, evidence was tampered with, it is almost impossible to have a recount.
What would you say to those claims that unstamped ballot papers were part of a plan in case the “No” vote won (to demand the cancellation of the vote by bringing on this issue)?
Without evidence we cannot know this but obeying the rules and regulations is important for democracy. The issue is that YSK violated the most basic principles and cast doubt on the referendum. I think there is lack of an independent institution that could effectively deal with all allegations of irregularities.
The first and second biggest parties in opposition object to the results in 60 percent of the ballot boxes. Millions of people are doubtful of the referendum result. At this stage an independent institution was to ensure a transparent process and inquiry. But this didn’t happen. Objections were sidelined and a new de facto situation was created. If this hadn’t happened we might have come to the conclusion that the irregularities were not to such an extent that would change the referendum result. But the YSK quickly concluded that “there was no violation” without proper investigation.
This created an unprecedented mistrust among the public regarding future elections. The ‘No’ bloc, which I think should be called the ‘democracy bloc’ should now concentrate on reforms and mechanisms that will ensure safe and lawful elections, an impartial YSK, and equal rights for all parties during the campaign process. These demands could also attract support from some sections of the ‘Yes’ side, and preparations could start for these demands for reforms as early as for the forthcoming elections in 2019.
How could this be achieved?
They need to have an alternative programme and a presidential candidate who could raise the demand for democracy and a scrutinized administration, pledging for reforms to strengthen the parliemantarian system and democracy. Such a candidate who gets the support of various sections can even restrict their power to ensure this transition.
This could be a semi-presidential system, which could also get support from within the AKP, ensuring real separation of powers, judiciary independence and impartiality. This agenda could also help the ‘No’ bloc to overcome its divisions.
The official application for the annulment of the referendum has been turned down. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition, went to the supreme court , with no success, and now taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights. Half of the population feel angry and unsettled because they think the referendum result is unjust. Despite criminalisation and raids street protests are going on, but the opposition view on this is divided. What do you think is the way forward?
The democracy bloc needs to express their just cause continuously and use all legitimate methods in its search for justice. But this should not overshadow more important goals such as different sections of people coming together on a common ground to discuss how to be successful in the 2019 elections, how divisions can be overcome, what kind of candidate can be put forward and on what kind of political programme, etc.
What would you say to the criticisms that the CHP is not full heartedly defending its objections to the YSK decision on the referendum results or the demand for the invalidation of the referendum, and not supporting the street protests?
It is vital to know how to take the leadership in this kind of crises, responding quickly and decisively with well thought out steps and with strategies to communicate with the public. However, the challenges the CHP is faced with are not unique to Turkey but very similar to those regimes with what we call electoral authoritarianism. Right now in Turkey this kind of regime is in the process of being established. It is not settled yet and it could take a better or a worse direction.
In such regimes there is a political arena determined by the political power, a very restricted arena which is open to manipulations. What you can do is very limited so long as you accept to work within this arena, where you are always the one being beaten up, tripped up and shown to be weak. That is the aim. When you reject to practise politics in this arena you are marginalised. It might be relatively easy for a party which has developed with a strong rank and file as it has the experience to deal with such issues. But CHP has never been outside the system. It considers itself to be representing the state and has no experience, knowledge or reflex in having to make such choices. Same dilemmas are true for the opposition in civic society. But the advantage is that in Turkey an electoral authoritarian regime is not settled yet.
You need to show the public that all your steps are well thought out, you need to prepare the public opinion and make a strong case. You need to be seen in a strong position to defend your rights. Otherwise, in hybrid regimes the biggest danger is to be in the right but be in a weak position. This is how CHP is being portrayed. But this is not a CHP issue alone. What is important is to agree on some common principles and act in a united way. This is not hard. The rule of law and fair elections can be this common ground.
AKP’s success has worn off
AKP has lost votes for the first time in its history in the big cities. Some people see this as “AKP entering a period of regression”.
This is bad news for AKP and good news for the opposition. Big towns represent change. AKP’s rise to power was a result of it representing the new and the change. This had two bases: one was to represent the people against the elite and the status quo, and the other was its claim to represent what was national. This was successful up until 2011 but now has worn off as this political movement began to represent the status quo, power and privilege. This is a big potential for the opposition to delve into, as now they could be the one who represent change.
It is true that AKP has gone into a period of regression; its votes are decreasing. But this doesn’t mean that it would reflect in change of political power as this is not a political system with equal rights of competition in the real sense of the word. Even those who voted ‘no’ were in the belief that AKP would find a way to win anyway and nothing would change.
So, people need to believe that political power could change hands...
Yes. The belief “They would find a way to win” is inherent in authoritarian regimes, and this is very dangerous. The way to overcome this requires overcoming polarisation. Therefore, building bridges is very important, especially with those sections supporting the government for this or that reason.
The ‘no’ bloc needs to open up to the countryside and try to understand them better. People in big cities are relatively free to express their thoughts in elections. But in small places, especially in Kurdish regions casting a ‘no’ vote brings dire consequences. Therefore, the ‘yes’ vote in Anatolia should not be assessed with prejudice. People in the country need to believe in the possibility of change so they can vote for it. This trust need to be established with them.
What are the main characteristics of the referendum results?
Firstly, there is a huge number of people who gather around President Erdogan, who still trust him and can be mobilised by him. Secondly, the referendum campaign was an asymmetric one. For those who voted ‘yes’ the AKP and the Erdogan element was in the fore, while those who voted ‘no’ did so to protect democracy and because they opposed the presidential system. This is where the asymmetry is. The ‘yes’ people were for a strong state, a people’s state, a big Turkey and for trust in the leader. Now the ‘no’ side should be the guardian of this. For example, AKP promised safeguards for the criticisms of the opposition regarding the scrutiny over the president, a functional parliament, an independent judiciary, etc. Now the ‘no’ bloc could say to those who voted ‘yes’ to lend support to their bloc for the materialisation of these promises.
The 48.6% vote didn’t suffice to stop the presidential system but the ‘no’ bloc is not demoralised. Why?
Because this result was achieved despite all unequal conditions and the state of emergency. Therefore, the 48.6 percent result didn’t cause any feeling of defeat. And there is a case of self confidence of being in the right. This needs to be maintained. This campaign helped overcome some fears and prejudice. Many people who couldn’t dream of talking to each other talked and worked together.
The greatest danger today is to adopt a language of division. If the ‘no’ bloc see the other side as a monolithic group and use a divisive rhetoric they would upset the apple cart. Because the ‘no’ bloc owes its success to its calm and to not using an offensive language. If they maintain this they will continue to win.
The democracy bloc should also be able to set an alternative and be a ray of hope to the Kurdish people. For a peaceful solution to Kurdish question the Turkish side, especially its political elites need to discuss and internalise many things. 2019 may not be a realistic target for that but for this bloc to create an alternative to the presidential system it needs to come up with pledges to get the support of the Kurds.