Turkey’s Referendum: a Clinch for Ultimate P...

Turkey’s Referendum: a Clinch for Ultimate Power


Setting the stage

After months of debate in a state of crisis, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has successfully called for a democratic vote that could be the country’s last. Even if the vote results in a no, there are valuable lessons to be learnt from this ‘democratic’ process. It has shown us that when enough support is behind a given option, any decision can be made within the system of democracy; even the decision to abolish it.

The country will vote in a referendum this Sunday, the 16th of April, to either accept or reject a set of amendments to the constitution that would increase Erdogan’s power, decrease the influence of the parliament and direct Turkey towards authoritarian rule. As a NATO ally, an active actor in the war in Syria and host to 3 million refugees, the political climate that will manifest itself in Turkey after the elections will have global implications.

There have been several critical events that have brought Turkey to this point. Once hailed as a model government for the entire Middle East by European and North American governments, Erdogan’s AKP have been in power since 2002. However, AKP has become more and more authoritarian 2009 onwards and has shifted to a rhetoric in which Erdogan is presented as the strong and unfailing leader that the country needs. A cult of personality has developed.

Following the anti-government Gezi protests in 2013, the tension increased as the public opinion became more polarized and the government’s attitude towards the opposition became more repressive.   After losing the majority in parliament (while still having the highest percentage) in an election in June of 2015, followed by the dissolution of the peace process with Kurdish representatives, the ceasefire between the Turkish army and PKK was broken. The campaign of repression that followed left hundreds dead and a million people internally displaced. Erdogan’s party subsequently won back the parliamentary majority in the re-elections in November 2015. Many in Turkey worry that a no vote in the referendum would result in a similar outcome or further political instability and increased violence.

The political and social tension in Turkey culminated in an attempted coup on July 15th, 2016. During the attempted coup, bridges in Istanbul were shut down by military tanks (controlled by the small percentage of the army that was involved in the coup). Soldiers also took over the national media, bombed the parliament and attempted to kidnap Erdogan, who was on vacation at the time. He responded by joining a news channel via FaceTime and calling for people to take the streets. The coup attempt failed and what followed was a state of emergency that is still in place, an extended crackdown on the opposition and an increasingly unstable political climate.

Despite the political repression and intimidation, the resistance against Erdoğan’s authoritarianism continues strong, ranging from NO campaigns on university campuses to LGBTQ parades/protests, to regional resistance against environmental destruction and in many cases simply continuing to be who you are and living the way you wish. However, the continuation of this resistance might get even harder if the formerly mentioned constitutional amendments get approved at the referendum.

Referendum to amend the constitution

The proposed amendments would transform Turkey’s government from a parliamentary system to a presidential system, in which the president is elected by the public. The president would have the right to appoint and dismiss aids and ministers, as well as high level public servants. Furthermore, the president will have the right to declare a state of emergency of up to six months, and will gain almost full control over the army and authority to decide on military action (a point to keep in mind as Turkey is a key recipient of Canada’s military exports). The president will also have sole control over preparing the budget of the country, which will then be approved by the ministers. He will also no longer have to cut ties with his affiliated party. In addition to all this increase in the power of the president, it will also be much harder to monitor and appeal his actions, as this will need a majority suggestion from the ministers and a three-fifths majority approval for an investigation to be launched in an AKP majority parliament.

Aside from these broad-ranging political reforms, these changes would also constitutionalize something that is already happening in practice, namely, the power of the president to appoint the chancellors of universities. While this may not seem as pressing an issue, it has far-reaching consequences since it has the potential to affect the education of Turkey’s youth for generations to come. Erdogan has been appointing chancellors to universities for the past year and after the coup attempt he has also been issuing statutory decrees to dismiss academics. Some of these academics belong to the Academics for Peace initiative.

An attack on academia

The academic realm has always been a recurrent field for political agendas to play out.. The constant structural changes in the examination system that affected millions of students, the shift to the 4+4+4 education system, the increased number of Imam Hatips (religious schools) and the aforementioned assignment of university chancellors are only a few of the ways in which the education system was influenced. These changes, gradually, yet recently more obviously, expose the government’s desire to nationalize and islamize the curricula while leaving very little space for free thought. There have been an array of responses in the face of political intervention and repression in the academic world, one of which is Academics for Peace.

The Academics for Peace initiative came out of a convergence of academics in 2012 to address hunger strikes by Kurdish prisoners. 264 academics from over 50 universities signed a declaration stating that the demands of the prisoners were just and that they would talk about these demands in their classes and articles until they were met. Since this first convergence they have been producing much needed scholarship on the Kurdish issue and topics pertaining to it (such as the negotiation processes, the development and integration of peace, inclusivity in education, etc). As well as flooding the academic realms with these pertinent issues, Academics for Peace has been doing public advocacy campaigns for a peaceful, just and inclusive society.

Since then the support for the initiative has grown and more academics have signed the petition. Notably, in January 2016, more than a thousand academics signed a petition condemning the government crackdown in Kurdish cities, which had resulted in the internal displacement of a million people. There have been petitions signed around the world in solidarity with the Academics in Turkey by thousands of international academics. However, the pressure on academia will only grow if the referendum results in a yes vote.

Recently, the government has been forcing journalists, teachers and academics who are suspected of being tied to the attempted coup to be fired from their jobs; though this has also extended to anyone who is in opposition with the government. While the dangers behind arresting journalists is widely talked about, the fates of teachers and academics are not as widely considered.

Considering the parallels between what has been happening in Turkey for the past few years and what is happening in other parts of the world with right-wing, nationalist governments taking power or leading election polls, there is much that can be learned from the current troubling developments in Turkey.

This global trend emphasizes the importance of a sustained countermovement that must advocate for peace, justice and inclusion; and a persuasive academia lies at the heart of shaping the intellectual cornerstones of this countermovement. A strong academia is necessary to produce knowledge that will challenge quasi-authoritarian governments, as they currently exist in Turkey. In a broader sense, it is of paramount importance to have teachers who can stand against government propaganda and promote an environment of critical thought in educational curriculums.

Yet there is reason to be hopeful of the next generation. High school students around the country have staged demonstrations outside their schools and during graduation ceremonies in order to protest government intervention in Turkey’s education systems. University campuses have been the primary stage in which dissenting voices have been manifested. Erdogan’s regime might be overestimating the willingness of the free thinking youth to submit to a propaganda-driven curriculum. The next few years will show whether this is true. A NO vote will hopefully be the first step towards rebuilding and reconciling.