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Turkish referendum that is not

Even when it is obvious that a given regime is a dictatorship or a particular election an utter sham, one has to act as if it is not in order to reproduce the democratic system.

lead Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives a speech during an event to close the electoral campaign in Sariyer, near Istanbul, Turkey, 15 April 2017. Michael Kappeler/Press Agency. All rights reserved.Citizens of Turkey are about to vote in a referendum to decide whether to abandon the country’s parliamentary regime for an exceptionally powerful executive presidency. Constitutional amendments in question would grant the president complete power to rule with impunity over the executive and the budget, and a considerable authority over the judiciary, while relegating the parliament to a shadow of its former self with minimal power of scrutiny.

On paper, this is probably ‘the most radical political change since the modern republic’s foundation in 1923’ and ‘the culmination of a steady drift towards authoritarianism in Turkey which began a decade ago.

However, from a strictly practical perspective, it is possible to argue that there is hardly any point in the coming Turkish referendum to be held on April 16, 2017. Despite all the hype within the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps, both of which consider it as the most important vote ever to be cast in the country’s history, one tends to miss that the referendum cannot yield a major change in practical terms regardless of what the actual result may be. The referendum cannot yield a major change in practical terms regardless of what the actual result may be.

If ‘yes’ votes carry the day and the constitutional amendments pass, the ‘new’ regime will be largely the same as the one that has already been in practice since 28 August 2014, the day Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took the oath of office and became the 12th President of Turkey. At least since then, Erdoğan has been ruling de facto as the executive President, and acting upon the capacities ‘new’ amendments propose to grant him with completely impunity. Enjoying an absolute authority over the sheepishly loyal AKP government he has personally handpicked, Erdoğan has already issued executive decrees, dismissed and appointed ministers, managed the use of armed forces both within and beyond the country’s borders, nullifying the elections, dissolving the parliament, declaring a state of emergency, and ordering mass institutional purges and arrests of MPs, mayors, journalists, academics, businessmen and others.

In the contrary case where the amendments fail to pass, there is no indication whatsoever that the current situation where Erdoğan maintains a complete grip on power will not simply continue. The very fact that the referendum is to be held under the current state of emergency (going on for over 8 months and able to be extended indefinitely) is an obvious sign that things are not expected to change much in the aftermath of the referendum, even if the opposition votes somehow ‘win’.

Especially in the absence of any organized opposition or institutional limitation to speak of under the ongoing state of emergency where his word is practically law, it is therefore not immediately clear to see why Erdoğan has insisted on holding a referendum. After all, at best, it would retrospectively grant de jure cover to his de facto rule. Is it even necessary to make all this look legitimate in a country where the sovereign can and does rule in a manner that is completely unrestrained by principles of rule of law and the separation of powers, and either violently suppresses or renders subservient almost all entities that are designed to check and balance his sovereign power?

In my opinion, the significance of this particular referendum lies entirely in its symbolic and spacial dimensions, a combination of which constitutes the reason why Erdoğan and the AKP government have been pushing hard for it to take place. On the one hand, the April 16 referendum is a symbolic act because it constitutes an indispensable step to granting democratic legitimacy to Erdoğan’s one-man rule. That is, of course, insofar as democracy is crudely degraded to the unconstrained rule of a numerical majority, usually ‘gained’ under highly questionable, unfair and opaque circumstances of campaigning, voting and counting. Nonetheless, a significant feature of the democratic hegemony of the post-war era is that it is a symbolic one, obliging the ruling classes to maintain the façade of democracy by displaying at least a nominal respect for its formal procedures. Even when it is obvious that a given regime is a dictatorship or a particular election an utter sham, one has to act as if it is not in order to reproduce the democratic system.

This, after all, is the why many patently nondemocratic regimes feel obliged to call themselves democracies, such as the ‘Democratic’ Republics of Congo, North Korea, and Laos. It is also the reason why regimes like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan, Lukashenko’s Belarus, and Aliyev’s Azerbaijan still go through the symbolic ritual of ‘democratic’ elections under conditions that all but negate the very point of holding elections in the first place. Erdoğan’s regime, in this sense, needs those credentials to maintain the democratic façade, without which its deeply corrupt and increasingly violent rule is simply naked, but in a twisted and reflexive sense.

Even though the current regime in Turkey would probably continue undisturbed even after a ‘no’ result, those who have stood by it cannot do so in the absence of the symbolic efficacy provided by ‘popular sovereignty’ that enables them to disavow the brute facts of the real. That is to say, without the seal of approval the April 16 referendum is supposed to provide, it is impossible to maintain the collective lie and keep acting as if the political regime in Turkey carries even minimal democratic legitimacy.

The April 16 referendum is also a spatial act that serves to further polarize and consolidate the bipolar hegemony in Turkish politics around the figure of Erdoğan himself, antagonistically dividing society between the two homogenous camps of Erdoğanists and anti-Erdoğanists. Reducing the plurality of positions within the political space to a bipolar division of ‘yes’ and ‘no’, it functions as a litmus test that compels all to disclose their ‘true colors’ vis-à-vis the figure of Erdoğan.

This has already created an irreconcilable schism within the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the only significant competitor to the AKP for the country’s overwhelmingly right-wing electorate. Accusing the MHP leader and his clique of acting as Erdoğan’s fifth column, a sizable group led by several MPs has rejected the official ‘yes’ stance of the party and splintered off to campaign for a ‘no’ vote. A similar yet less prominent line of division is discernable among the Kurdish political movements as well. An Erdoğanist minority has been in formation around the optimistic conviction that a decisive victory in the referendum would give the President the necessary boost of power and confidence to restart the peace negotiations with the Kurds. It is the maintenance and reinforcement of this particular antagonism, the bipolar form itself, which is of vital importance for the survival of Erdoğan’s and, by extension, AKP’s hegemony in Turkish politics.

It is the maintenance and reinforcement of this particular antagonism, the bipolar form itself, which is of vital importance for the survival of Erdoğan’s and, by extension, AKP’s hegemony in Turkish politics. In the absence of any other mobilizing factors that used to enable the AKP government to consolidate and expand its support base (such as economic policies generating prosperity and growth, welfare policies offering social security, foreign policy success stories providing a sense of national pride and common identity) this pure antagonism based on a cult of personality that depicts every political conflict as a matter of life and death for the leader and ‘the people’ he is supposed to embody is the only way for the AKP to remain in power. Thus, the April 16 referendum is an act of desperation on AKP’s part, which uses perhaps the only gun left in its war chest: Erdoğan.

In this sense, the referendum is also the ultimate expression of Erdoğan’s political narcissism, indicating that he is willing to risk it all just to maintain his position in the spotlight and remain the locus of the Turkish body politic. In the midst of all that chaos, violence and noise, the April 16 referendum is ultimately a very expensive and reckless way of forcing every single citizen in Turkey to answer an essentially personal and, in fact, trivial question: Don’t you like Erdoğan? After fifteen years in power alone, it is rather tragic to witness the crumbling of a once mighty self-confidence into a sad question that begs for an affirmation of self-worth in the eyes of others.

About the author

Halil Gürhanli is a Research Fellow of Political Science and part-time lecturer teaching on populism, democratic theory and Turkish politics at the Department of Political and Economic Studies, University of Helsinki, Finland. Find him on twitter @halilgurhanli


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