SUPPORTERS OF Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wave national flags as they wait for his arrival at the Presidential Palace in Ankara..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Constitutional changes that will change Turkey’s parliamentary system to presidential one (a new system whereby the president will be allowed to be affiliated to a political party) were approved by a referendum on April 16. This referendum will bring about changes in 18 articles of the Turkish constitution, amending the powers of the president as well as ending the office of prime minister and giving the president power to appoint the members of the Council of Ministers. Furthermore, the number of Parliament members will increase to 600. All the changes introduced by the referendum will come into effect with presidential and general elections to be held in tandem on November 3, 2019.
Surely the fact that it was a narrow win for the “yes” camp sends an important message. The result, once again, clearly showed people are still deeply wary of the prospect of “federalism.” Previously the presidential system idea garnered support of only around 25% of the electorate, due to fears it could lead to federalism. This led to new arrangements in the proposed constitutional changes which shut the door on federalism as an option. Also, the proposed system was changed from a typical presidential system to a party-affiliated presidential system.
The aforementioned arrangements erased the concerns of the public to a large extent, and even allowed the AKP to secure the support of the nationalist MHP party, which had taken an adamant stance against federalism. However, only a couple of days before the referendum, two presidential advisers mentioned “federalism,” which greatly irked people. Many analysts believe that despite such statements vehemently rejected by the president and the prime minister, the last-minute remarks resulted in the loss of 2% to 3% of “yes” voters on April 16.
It is crucial that when the constitution is changed it should be welcomed by the entirety of the people.
As Prime Minister Binali Yildirim aptly put on July 25, 2016: “It has to be something that is accepted by the majority of the society, if not 100%. It has to be a text that will be acceptable to them. It is obvious that it is not something that we can do alone; for this reason, we need to work with all the political parties.”
This is important, because the April 16 referendum was perceived as the confrontation of two opposing ideas, which was what happened in the general elections, as well. While some people are worried that Turkey’s democracy will take a hit, others are worried that conservatives might end up getting persecuted just like in the 1990s. There are valid points on both of these arguments.
Turkey is a democratic, Muslim country. It is one of the few countries throughout the world, and the only Muslim one, that has the word “secular” in its constitution. We Turks are proud and blessed to have been living in a democratic country for 94 years. These concepts helped prevent Turkey falling into the trap of bigotry and radicalism as had happened to some Middle Eastern countries.
Despite all of these facts, some circles sought to twist the excellent democracy and freedom introduced by Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and attempted to persecute religious people. As a result, military coups happened, religious people were blacklisted and Turkey went through times that certainly didn’t befit a democracy. At the moment, religious Turks are worried that the bad old days might be coming back, and that’s why they keep their distance from the main opposition party CHP and have a hard time believing in its promises.
As to the other 50%, like in every other country there is a small group of radicals in Turkey that still manage to get their voices heard. Their occasional remarks rightly unsettle our people, who are wary of the horrible mentality of radicalism. This terrible state of mind, that is opposed to women’s freedom to choose what to wear, to arts and music, seriously troubles the millions of people that want to protect the democracy Ataturk fought so hard to build.
Regrettably, the disturbing verbal onslaught of such radicals is sometimes attributed to all religious people, and the right-wing government cannot escape taking some of the blame for it. The situation takes its toll on the AKP and deprives it of votes from Turkey’s coastal cities; this is once again what happened in the referendum.
This is why Turkey is sharply divided into two in every election. Unless both sides work on their practices and narrative, the situation doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon.
But what is it that has to change? The main opposition party has to work on its way of doing politics. Proving the other party wrong may shake public trust in the other side, but it’s not a method to gain people’s favor. Instead, the main opposition party should opt to address the concerns of the 50% it cannot seem to win over.
The CHP can show protectiveness over conservative values while rightfully continuing to oppose the radical mindset. It can openly state that freedoms and democracy are preached by true Islam and guarantee religious people that they will never be victimized again.
Similarly, if the ruling party explicitly criticizes and condemns the mentality of the radicals and shows at every turn how democracy, secularism and freedom are the most fundamental and indispensable principles of our country, and effectively champion modernism, art, science and freedoms – which are praised and encouraged by our religion – and if they bring women to the forefront regardless of whether they choose modern or traditional attire, it will be able to win over the secular people.
It is true that the ruling party is actively making an effort to this end, but the public still expects something more substantial.
Democracy is plurality and is a blessing. However, such a sharp divide in a country is a risk, especially for countries like Turkey. It is essential to maintain stability in Turkey, which is one of the most important allies of the US and of Israel in the region, and the only Islamic country to be a member of NATO.
We hope that the coming days will usher in policies that will end this polarization and alleviate any lingering fears.