The Turkish referendum could extend President Erdoğan’s one-man rule.
A piece of bicolored paper. On the left is printed EVET (YES), in black font over a white background, and on the right, HAYIR (NO), in black font over a light brown background. A regular A8 sheet of paper such as this ballot I am holding normally weighs around 0.5 grams. This one feels like a ton.
I am in Chicago, standing behind a cardboard voting booth after traveling over six hours by bus from St. Louis to vote. The surface of the booth is covered with test runs from previous voters trying out the stamp. They read TERCİH, meaning preference. Before stamping the ballot, I test it on my hand to keep a fleeting souvenir of this moment. The action reminds me of earlier elections, when officials stained voters’ fingers with permanent dark purple ink in order to avoid electoral fraud. Days after voting, you would see people with inky fingers and nails.
In my 14 years of voting life, I have participated in four general elections, two local elections, two referenda, and one presidential election. This time, I feel lonely and worried for my country’s future. I miss the old days when we did not speak of voting as if it were the end of the world.
No chance to mess up. Push the stamp, and let it do its trick.
I put the ballot in the envelope, seal it, and head over to the transparent ballot box. I give the “voter’s pose,”and smile to the camera. I do not feel good, but alas! On April 16, 2017, I will know whether the future of my country will be sealed by a president with unprecedented powers. Yet the proposed new presidential system is not that different from its US and French counterparts. So why the fear?
A presidential system, Turkish style…
For over 90 years, Turkey was a parliamentary democracy. Since 1946, multiple political parties competed in elections. Parties were often forced into forming a coalition, which, especially during the 1990s, proved to be unstable. For the last 15 years, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a majority to single-handedly form the government, with one exception. In the June 2015 election, the AKP obtained less than half the parliamentary seats due to a number of factors: the Gezi Park Protests of Summer 2013; the corruption scandal of Winter 2013; terrorists attacks in Turkish urban centers starting late 2014; shady deals with Islamist rebels in Syria; and the growing appeal of the Kurdish front (HDP), which won 13 percent of the votes, taking 80 seats from the AKP. Hence, the AKP was forced into a coalition—a coalition that was never realized. Subsequently, attacks by Kurdish guerrillas (PKK) and ISIS became more frequent. Turkey was drawn into the Syrian civil war. The Turkish currency devalued. Relations with the European Union and the US soured. And we had the October re-election the same year, where the AKP, having benefited from all this increasing instability, triumphed.
The April 16 referendum on constitutional reforms represents a fundamental break with this parliamentary tradition and proposes to replace it with a presidential system of government that would provide Erdoğan with sweeping powers over parliament and the judiciary. The president, who in theory is not aligned with any political party, would now be “Head of the State” (Devlet Başkanı) with political party affiliation. While proponents argue that the proposed changes will reduce political tension between the two branches of the executive (the president and the cabinet, the latter to be abolished under the proposed changes to the constitution), thereby increasing efficiency by prioritizing consensus over contestation, opponents claim that a YES vote will diminish critical checks and balances as the president would acquire ability to select the cabinet (powers currently held by the prime minister, who would be replaced by a vice president). The new system would also enable the president to issue executive orders and declare a state of emergency without consulting the parliament, which, interestingly, was not widely criticized in the US until Donald Trump became president and issued his controversial “Muslim ban.” However, whereas the Republican party in the US can question and even undermine presidential proposals, in Turkey such an act often leads to one’s removal from the party, and the reshuffling of cabinet—both of which Turks have witnessed multiple times over the past five years.
A YES vote will also extend the president’s role in judicial appointments, with powers to appoint nearly half of the members of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), the main authority in charge of appointing judges and prosecutors. The other half of the members will be selected by the parliament, where the president’s party will likely control the majority of seats. A major reshuffling of the High Council already took place in the aftermath of the June 15 coup attempt. While proponents of the proposed constitutional amendments argue that the measure is necessary to avoid infiltration of the judiciary by future coup-plotters, opponents fear that such changes will only further undermine the independence of the judiciary.
Last but not least, the referendum will take place under the same state of emergency that enabled Erdoğan and the AKP government to execute a massive purge of perceived adversaries following the July 15 coup attempt, and to establish a climate of intimidation: detaining and imprisoning countless journalists, mayors, and members of parliament; laying off academics, judges, and prosecutors; and shutting down media outlets. In some parts of the country, people will have to vote in neighborhoods other than their own due for security reasons and following the mass displacement of Kurdish citizens from conflict zones.
While the referendum is hailed by members of the AKP as the most democratic means to decide the country’s future—evident in populist discourses on “bringing the ballot box to the people,” “settling business at the ballot box,” and “giving the voice to the people”—the political field is riddled with structural constraints, which disempower the opposition and disregard the voice of at least half the Turkish population.
“Hayırlı olsun!”, my Turkish friends told me before I left for Chicago. One could translate this phrase as “May your practice have a good outcome.” Within the context of a referendum in which Turks are divided between a YES (EVET) vote and a NO (HAYIR) vote, the phrase, which contains the same root as NO (HAYIR) attains new meaning. Its very utterance reflects one’s voting preference. Turkey may yet vote NO, but with so much at stake for Erdoğan and his AKP, it is hard to conceive of any outcome but a YES.
As for me, I choose to say “geçmiş olsun” (let it pass/may you get over it), like we do to those who have gone through a painful or stressful experience. For I am glad that voting is over…
Oguz Alyanak is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology and a McDonnell scholar at Washington University in St. Louis. His fieldwork in Strasbourg, funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, was on moral anxieties pertaining to Muslim Turkish men’s going out habits.
Cite as: Alyanak, Oguz. 2017. “Turkey Votes.” Anthropology News website, April 14, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.409