Turkey’s Referendum: Authoritarianism and Electoral Fixes

As previously indicated I will be posting an appendix to my posts on Coup and Counter-Coup in Turkey, referring to Ottomanism, Kemalist republicanism and related issues. The sixteenth of April referendum does require a response of a more immediate kind. The referendum was on amendments to the Constitution largely concerned with transforming Turkey from a parliamentary republic, which it has been at least in principle since the formation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Recep Tayıp Erdoğan had already been breaking the Constitution since 2014 when he was elected President of Turkey after more than a decade as Prime Minister. On becoming President he transferred the chief executive power to the presidential palace (which has more than 1000 rooms and was built on Erdoğan’s orders using executive privilege to override court bans on building on the land concerned). This in itself tells you everything you need to know about the decay of Turkish democracy, from a starting point which was itself not a shining beacon to the world of purist constitutional democracy.

Erdoğan’s ambitions for an executive presidency in Turkey precede his elevation to that role. The shift from a President elected by the National Assembly to a President elected by popular vote came from a referendum of 2007, though Erdoğan is the first President of Turkey to take the office in this way. Kemal Atatürk (1923-1938) and then İsmet İnönü (1938-1950) were powerful presidents in a parliamentary system. This paradox arose because Turkey was a de facto one-party state in which only the Republican People’s Party had seats in the National Assembly from 1923 to 1943, though the Free Republican Party won seats in local elections. The elections of 1946 resulted in an opposition party and some independent deputies entering the National Assembly. In 1950 İnönü became the first Turkish (or Ottoman) leader to give up power peacefully as the result of elections and the Republican People’s Party became the first political party to give up power in this manner. During the one party period, the President was the dominant figure in the Republican People’s Party and therefore acted as the head of government, though with a Prime Minister and some genuine divisions of responsibilities.

Not only did Erdoğan start using powers he had not been given in the constitution in 2014, the whole evolution towards a presidential system has been done in a way to benefit him personally. He was Prime Minister over three terms from 2002 to 2014, an office to be abolished in 2019 as a result of the recent referendum, and was the head of government. He has acted as effective head of government since 2014, regardless of the Prime Minister having this role. The office of Prime Minister will still exist until 2019 and most of the constitutional changes as a result of the referendum will not come into force until then. Erdoğan can then have the two terms of executive presidency in addition to the term he is currently serving which will still constitutionally limit his powers in ways that mean the Prime Minister should be head of government. In this sense, the system is working as in the days of the one party system. So Erdoğan can serve as head of government in Turkey from 2003 until 2029. Furthermore he may be able to add another term if the National Assembly goes to an early election during his second term.

The President will have the power to dissolve the National Assembly, and this could easily happen simply because the President wishes to have a third term. The amended constitution at least restricts the President to two five-year terms plus most of a third term in special conditions. So the possibility exists of Erdoğan running the Turkish government from 2003 to 2034, a highly unusual situation in any democracy and one likely to undermine the democracy in question, particularly as the powers of the President now include control of appointment of senior judges, senior civil servants, senior bureaucrats, the right to issue decrees as laws, the right to appoint all cabinet ministers without National Assembly approval, and the right to appoint two vice-presidents without National Assembly approval. Theses figures will not be required to answer questions in the National Assembly and, like the President, will benefit from lifetime immunity with regard to alleged crimes committed in office. That is to say, the President and his associates will have immunity for life unless the National Assembly votes to suspend the immunity, with a high enough majority required to make this unlikely unless there is a massive collapse in the number of AKP deputies, or of Erdoğan’s control of the AKP.

We cannot even say that these changes designed to produce a President above normal democratic constitutional checks and balances, dominating the whole governmental process and state machinery in a way unprecedented in Turkey’s multi-party history, have been agreed to by a genuine majority vote. The referendum was held in state of emergency conditions, which still prevails. A state of emergency in which opposition journalists have been detained in large numbers on flimsy charges as ‘terrorists’, opposition deputies (from Kurdish rights-leftist HDP) have been detained on a similar basis. State media and most private media groups operate as media organs of the AKP. The state of emergency has been applied in a particularly harsh way in the southeast (Kurdish majority) part of the country where elected local government has been replaced by central government appointees. There are 500,000 displaced persons in the southeast resulting from PKK terror and the state security reaction which led to military bombardment of whole towns and urban districts until they were reduced to rubble. It was clearly not easy for them to vote and it looks like a large number did not vote. Extreme intimidation of No campaigners was the norm in the southeast where large numbers of HDP election observers were denied access to polling booths. Intimidation of the No campaign took place elsewhere if in a less extreme way and public spaces were dominated by Yes publicity.

The count was itself full of flagrant irregularities. The number of polling stations recording a 100% vote for Yes was far greater than the number recording 100% AKP votes in recent elections. There was another party campaigning for the Yes, the hardline nationalistic MHP, but the party split over the leader’s support for Yes and all the evidence is that overwhelmingly most MHP voters did not vote Yes. Given that some AKP voters defected from Yes, not many but no less than 5%, there was no reason to expect an increased number of polling stations with a 100% vote and of course suspicion is in order about polling stations which recorded such results in the past.

An AKP politician who is a member of the national electoral board (itself packed with AKP appointees) requested that all ballot papers used to vote, but not carrying a stamp to show they have been authorised for that polling station by an official, should be counted. This is illegal but the request was granted. AKP apologists were quick to say that opposition requests in the past for counting such ballots (because maybe they were stuck together when the official was stamping papers) were granted in the past. Small illegality does not excuse large illegality and the scale of counting of such ballot papers was much larger than previously.

During the count the state news agency was announcing results before they were released by the electoral board. A strange and suspicious situation. The international media, following the state news agency, failed to see the discrepancy also confusing the percentage of ballot boxes opened with votes cast, giving a very misleading impression of a big lead amongst most votes cast early in the evening. The election board results then went off line and were not shared with the opposition. When results came back online they showed a very different pattern than before the break in service, more in line with the state news agency announcements.

Given the close (51.4% for Yes) nature of the official result, there are a number of reasons to think that No won in votes cast, and even if we ignore the voting irregularities, there is reason to think that in a less intimidating atmosphere, particularly in the southeast, more Yes voters would have cast a vote. In these circumstances I suggest that even on a very cautious reckoning, the number of votes cast for No was at least 51% and that with a less intimidating and disruptive atmosphere, another 2% would have gone to No. To say on this basis that 53% voted No is I believe a very cautious estimate. There is very probably a clear majority of Turkish voters against the new presidential system, at least 55%.

The narrow result clearly caused embarrassment to Erdoğan and the AKP who had predicted a very big victory for Yes. They have gone quieter since then, but with no let up in authoritarian measures. Just two days ago Wikipedia was blocked in Turkey, several thousand state employees were dismissed using emergency powers and a number of NGOs were closed in a similar way. The context of the supposed Yes victory gives hope that there is opposition to the Erdoğan/AKP destruction of liberal democracy, but recent measures suggest they are as determined as ever to use the tools of state to obliterate opposition, or just any sense of independence from the party-state machine.

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