Decoding Turkey’s ‘Yes’ to Constitutional Amendments
On Sept. 12, Turkey voted in favor of constitutional amendments that could usher in an array of reforms and further curb the influence of the military. The 58 percent “yes” vote was touted as a victory for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) ahead of the General Elections of 2011 and the Presidential Elections of 2012. But that’s the short—and oversimplified—version of the story.
No more excuses
“Once again the opposition underestimated the strength of AKP. This result exceeds the most optimistic forecasts for a ‘yes’ vote. The majority of Turks voted for change,” said Amberin Zaman, the Turkey correspondent for the Economist.
But with victory comes responsibility—or at least the loss of excuses to escape from it. “The onus is now on AKP to make those changes. It no longer has the excuse of an obdurate judiciary to hide behind. The true test of AKP’s democratic credentials is now before us,” explained Zaman.
Taner Akcam, assistant professor of history at Clark University, agreed. “This is one of the important steps in Turkey’s democratization process and facing history. My hope is that the government upholds its promise for a totally new constitution, and its promises related to the Kurdish issue. They don’t have excuses anymore.”
A message to all
Baskin Oran, professor of political science at Ankara University, believes the result of the referendum is a message to all. The message to the People’s Republican Party (CHP) and the military is “to recognize the rights of the oppressed and the marginalized, instead of acting as champion of the nationalist civilian/military bureaucracy and of the educated petty bourgeoisie.” The message to the National Movement Party (MHP) is similar. It will “get nowhere by betting on nationalism from now on,” said Oran.
The days when the judiciary controlled the state are gone, he went on. The higher judiciary “must quit trying to replace the Executive and the Legislative through the wrong interpretation and also the repudiation of the laws, Constitution, and international treaties.”
Oran warns AKP to follow through with its promises, “because if it fails, the tide will definitely turn against it.” According to him, Turkey’s Pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which had called to boycott the referendum, “will get nowhere as long as it remains a Kurdish party. It has to become a ‘Turkey party’ by distancing itself from the PKK [the militant Workers’ Party of Kurdistan] and by defending the rights of all the oppressed and marginalized.” He criticized the left, too, for being “extremely split…with many voting ‘no’ just for the sake of voting against ‘Islamist’ AKP.” He adds, “They think they are leftists, but they are Ittihadists,[i]‘Revolution-from-Above’-ists, nationalists, and laicists.”
If you ignore the Kurds…
President Obama hailed the “vibrancy of Turkish democracy as reflected in the turnout for the referendum that took place across Turkey,” announced the White House on Sept. 12. The situation on the ground was—to put it mildly—a little different. Most voters in the densely Kurdish-populated provinces upheld BDP’s call to boycott the referendum.
Bilgin Ayata, whose Ph.D. dissertation at Johns Hopkins University examines the displacement of Kurds in Turkey, has a different assessment of the Kurdish situation than Oran. “An entire region in Turkey boycotted the vote. Such an outcome is hardly a victory for AKP or its main opponent, the CHP. The only party that could take out a victory from Sunday's referendum is the BDP.”
Ayata explained that the call to boycott was based on the fact that the proposed constitutional changes “did not touch upon key undemocratic elements, such as the 10 percent threshold for parties during elections,” and neglected Kurdish demands, including the recognition of Kurdish identity by the constitution.
Ayata considers the proposed constitutional changes to be contradictory. “Even though Prime Minister Erdogan presented them as a break from Turkey's military legacy, this was hardly the case. The proposed changes related only to a few elements of the undemocratic constitution and were rather contradictory: Some changes were indeed introducing more democracy, while others curbing existing rights,” she said.
“Nearly two-thirds of the population in southeast Turkey followed this call for boycott. In Hakkari, for example, the participation was less than 10 percent. Such a boycott coming from the region that suffered the most from the military legacy in Turkey in the past decades is rather telling. It sends a clear signal to Ankara: If you ignore the Kurds, the Kurds will ignore you.”
Lesser of two evils
Istanbul-based human rights activist Ayse Gunaysu was one of those who boycotted the vote—in part to express solidarity with the Kurds. “I boycotted the referendum to support the Kurdish position, to protest against the AKP government, and to express my conviction that the solution of the problems rested not with the constitutional changes offered, but elsewhere,” she said.
However, according to Gunaysu a “yes” vote was the lesser of two evils. “I knew that I would feel better if ‘yes’ votes won, and would feel defeated if ‘no’ votes prevailed. After all, nationalists on the left and right opted for ‘no.’ However, the ‘yes’ front included not only those who are opposed to Turkish military's domination, but also—for example—the soul mates of the violent Sunni Islamic mobs who resorted to violence against Alevis during a cultural festival in 1993, burning down a hotel, and causing the death of 37 Alevi intellectuals. So once again I found myself—like many others—in a position to choose between the lesser of two evils, while the ‘good’ is nowhere in sight.”
Khatchig Mouradian is the editor of the Boston-based The Armenian Weeklyand a doctoral student in history at Clark University.