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A referendum over ruling Turkey or over ruling the world?

The huge concern about the referendum from Western and Arab writers came from the same people who embraced Egypt's coup

On 16 April, Turkey held a referendum about its system of governance. There is no doubt that the results of the referendum, which endorsed the shift toward a presidential system, showed that the public was divided over the package of constitutional amendments. In fact, the division had been obvious since the moment the draft amendments were brought before parliament in January.

This is not the place to discuss the package of 18 amendments that laid the foundation for the shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system of governance. Many people, inside as well as outside the country, have written about the significance of these articles and their implications for the system of governance. It is also certain that the debate about them will continue during the coming two years, at least until the process of transition is completed in the wake of simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections that are supposed to be held in the autumn of 2019.

There has not been a single important head of government in the history of Turkey that did not end up calling for a shift toward a presidential system

What is important now is the highly significant indications of the referendum and the results it has generated. 

In a country whose population already exceeds 80 million, in addition to about five million expatriates, the number of those who have the right to vote is about 58 million. About 86 percent of those eligible to vote actually went to the polls in what is considered to be an unprecedented rate of participation and one that is unheard of in any of the main Western democracies.

Not only does such an amazing polling rate point to the Turks’ profound sense of belonging to their homeland and a sense of responsibility toward its future, but it also reflects the depth of Turkish democratic roots, despite its turbulent history, and the solid conviction that democracy is the sole peaceful and rational option for political change.


Divided country

The results were very close. Slightly more than 51 per cent of voters backed the constitutional amendments and slightly more than 48 percent voted against them. Those who opposed the amendments say that the referendum results indicate that the presidential system does not enjoy the support of a convincing majority and that President Erdogan, who led the campaign in support of the amendments, together with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), failed to acquire the necessary popular support.


On the other hand, the supporters of the presidential system respond by saying that the minute difference in the ratio of those who support vis-a-vis those who oppose conceals the size of the difference between the numbers on both sides, which exceeds 1.3 million votes. They add that the referendum campaign succeeded in raising the ratio of the supporters from less than 30 percent a few month ago to more than 51 percent on the day of the referendum. 

Turkey, like the rest of the countries of the Mashreq, is politically divided. It is not only divided over the issues of education, health and income tax, as in the case of stable Western democracies, but also over the basic principles that are of relevance to nations and states. In countries that are divided to such an extent, the parliamentary system does not work as it should and can become an element of hindrance and disturbance instead of establishing political reassurance and confidence.

There has not been a single important head of government in the history of Turkey, since political pluralism began in 1950, that did not end up calling for a shift toward a presidential system, including Adnan Menderes, Suleyman Demirel, Turgut Ozal and Necmettin Erbakan. 

The Kurdish street has distanced itself from the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and the policies it has pursued since the summer of 2015
The problem did not emerge during the reigns of Kemal Ataturk and Ismet Inonu, from 1923 to 1950, because both of them ruled the country under the single-party government of the People’s Republican Party (CHP), and gave themselves considerable powers notwithstanding the constitution and the parliamentary system.

Indeed, a section of the Turkish political class and the Turkish street rejects, as a matter of principle, the change toward the presidential system. However, the division among the majority of the people is not over the presidential system per se but rather over which presidential system. This is what led to the results the referendum yielded. 

Figures from most of the provinces where the nationalists, the MHP, enjoy tangible influence show that the level of support for the constitutional amendments is not very different from the level of support achieved by the AK party in the elections of November 2015. In other words, the support lent by the Nationalist Party to the presidential system, which is considered to be the baby of the Justice and Development Party, did indeed help in pushing the amendments through parliament, but did not add much to the number of voters who supported the changes during the referendum.


Kurds vote yes

A section of no less than five per cent of AK party grassroots voted "no" in the referendum because they did not find the justifications provided by the "yes" campaign convincing. Most of these people belong to the middle class and are big city dwellers. This explains why the presidential system camp lost the majority in the five biggest cities: Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Adana and Antalya. 

How then did the amendments accomplish success? The answer is to be found in the Kurdish majority provinces in the southeast, where the main cities voted in favour of the amendments. In some cases, the number of yes votes was double the number of votes gained by the Justice and Development Party in the November 2015 elections.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C), flanked by his wife Emine Erdogan (rear L), delivers a speech to his supporters at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, 17 April, following the results in a nationwide referendum (AFP)

This result bears extremely important implications. The first is that the Kurdish street has distanced itself from the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and the policies it has pursued since the summer of 2015. The second is that the majority of the Kurds continue to have confidence in Erdogan’s and his administration’s ability to adopt a different approach toward resolving the Kurdish problem. The third is that the Justice and Development Party is not necessarily obliged to make concessions to the Turkish Nationalist Party over the Kurdish question. 

I have never seen such global interest in Turkey comparable to what I witnessed during the days that preceded the referendum and on the day of the referendum itself.

Irrespective of the debate about the presidential system, it is certain that the referendum is not the end of the road. What was put to the vote is a package of amendments to a constitution that has so far been amended dozens of times. Turkey has no choice but to agree, one day, on writing a new constitution, one that is completely new. When that moment arrives, the system of governance in Turkey will once again be subject to a review.

In addition, Turkey still has two years of a transitional period before the process of change toward the presidential system is completed. During those two years, the climate, the context and the policies of change in the system of governance will take precedence in terms of priority over the powers enjoyed by this or that administration. 

Yet the referendum was not a strictly Turkish affair. Since I first became acquainted with Turkish issues, at the time of studying for my doctorate around three decades ago, I have never seen such global interest in Turkey comparable to what I witnessed during the days that preceded the referendum and on the day of the referendum itself. Undoubtedly, not all this interest was comprehensible. Major Western newspapers dispatched their reporters to cover the Turkish poll.

These western reporters know nothing about the country’s traditions or about its culture

While in Turkey, these reporters spent most of their times in Istanbul’s comfortable hotels talking about the influence exercised by the chiefs of small Anatolian villages on their citizens, as if this was their greatest discovery of the flaws of Turkish democracy. These guys know nothing about the country’s traditions or about its culture; most of them do not realise that the chiefs of small villages, be they Turkish, Kurdish, Sunni or Alevite, have been exercising that influence for hundreds of years and that their influence does not only serve the Justice and Development Party but also the Republican People’s Party, the Nationalist Party and even the Kurdish Democratic Party. 

Supporters of tyranny

Some Arab writers have expressed concern about the future of Turkish democracy. The irony is that one of them is known to have been closely associated with former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. He is also known for celebrating the military coup and for calling on the Sisi regime to exterminate its opponents. Some of these writers are closely associated with Arab ruling families that have been active in the Arab world since 2011 in rallying support for the counter-revolution and for the return of military dictators to power.

Some Swiss newspapers published on their front pages appeals to the Turkish voters to say no to the constitutional amendments. The official German TV channel broadcast a special programme in support of the No camp. Some European capitals banned Turkish ministers from meeting Turkish voters living in Europe while providing protection to the (terrorist) PKK rallies that called for rejecting the amendments and for murdering the Turkish president.

The German Chancellor issued a joint communique together with her foreign minister expressing concern over the division that exists in Turkish public opinion. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe dispatched a mission to monitor voting during the referendum. The mission including two European parliamentarians who supported the PKK and who participated in the campaign against the constitutional amendments. 

Why should you bother about Turkey’s democratic destiny while ignoring countries such as Poland and Hungary inside the European Union?

What is all this interest in Turkey for? When you are not an Arab democrat, and when you don’t see your natural self anywhere but inside the camp that opposes democratic transition in your own country, why should you be worried about the future of democracy in a neighbouring country, one that is not even Arab?

And when you are a European official you must know for sure that Turkey, which has been standing at the door of the European Union for the past 50 years, will never one day become a member of the European Union. Why should you then bother about Turkey’s democratic destiny while ignoring countries such as Poland and Hungary inside the union and countries in the neighbourhood outside the union such as Egypt where the country is ruled by a gang of murderers. 

Yet, despite that, this country - Egypt - is visited by the German chancellor while thousands of its citizens are held in detention not far from the site where Angela Merkel held her press conference. 

In essence, this referendum was a strictly Turkish affair, no matter how divided the Turkish people happen to be about it. So, why does it seem as if this was a referendum on the government of the entire world? 

- Basheer Nafi is a senior research fellow at the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Supporters of the "yes" wave Turkish National flags as they cheer Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his speech at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, on April 17, 2017 following the results in a nationwide referendum that will determine Turkey's future destiny. (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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