by Derek Davison
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics almost since the day he, along with Abdullah Gul, Bulent Arinc, and others, founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001. AKP won a huge victory in Turkey’s 2002 parliamentary elections, and Erdogan, who was banned from electoral politics at the time, won election to parliament and stepped into the role of prime minister in 2003. When his parliamentary career ran up against AKP’s self-imposed three-term limit for its legislators, Erdogan made himself a candidate for president in 2014. He won that election, the first popular election for a head of state in Turkey’s history. As prime minister and then president, Erdogan has been sitting—increasingly alone—at the top of Turkey’s political hierarchy for the past 14 years.
Since he began planning for his departure from the prime minister post—constitutionally the most powerful office in the Turkish government—one thing has occupied Erdogan’s time, effort, and attention above all other matters: changing Turkey’s constitution. Although Erdogan, by virtue of his own preeminence and his ability to outmaneuver and discard potential rivals, has remained the preeminent figure in Turkey even while occupying the largely ceremonial office of president, he wants to change Turkey’s government from a parliamentary system to a presidential system, wherein the presidency would formally be the most powerful office in the state. Supporters of this sweeping change say it would strengthen the Turkish government and avoid a return to the days of unstable coalitions and the threat of military intervention into the political realm. Opponents say that the change, as Erdogan and AKP have designed it, would leave Erdogan as something approximating an elected dictator, answerable to no one and with few checks on his power.
On January 21, the Turkish parliament passed a package of constitutional changes meant to fulfill Erdogan’s plan. The measure passed with 339 votes, not enough votes to alter the constitution outright but enough to trigger a national referendum over the proposed changes. That referendum has been scheduled for April 16. Erdogan, along with the leadership of AKP and most of the leadership of Turkey’s right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), have been in heavy campaign mode for the past several weeks, urging Turks to vote “yes.”
The Polls Show…Very Little
Public opinion polling on the referendum vote has been, charitably, a mess. For the most part, one group of polls has consistently shown a significant lead for the “no” side while a different set of polls has consistently shown a significant lead for the “yes” side. The two groups have been so far apart that it’s almost as if they’ve been polling on two different events involving two different populations. Freelance journalist and long-time Turkey reporter Michael Daventry explains that public opinion polling in Turkey has long been a mess, period, so this phenomenon is not unique to this particular campaign. But Daventry’s own poll tracker suggests that the “yes” lead has steadily shrunk since December and is now very slim at best.
This is presumably not the way Erdogan wanted things to go. Some polls have shown considerably less uniformity among Erdogan’s base—AKP and MHP voters—than among the opposition’s base. According to these surveys, a substantial portion of AKP voters opposes these constitutional changes outright and another substantial portion remains unconvinced, while among MHP voters a large majority opposes the changes. Meanwhile, upwards of 90 percent of the supporters of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have coalesced behind the “no” position. The uneven polling cannot but cause Erdogan and his supporters some anxiety heading into the referendum vote.
In one sense, poll results like these are not that unsurprising. AKP and MHP voters tend to skew conservative, and fundamentally restructuring the entire Turkish government is anything but a conservative action.
But in another sense, it would be remarkable if Erdogan’s side were to lose this election, simply because, as Turkey is now constituted, the opposition has no real way to organize or wage a campaign. During his 14 years at the head of the Turkish state, Erdogan has systematically removed potential dissenters within AKP, stifled any semblance of independent Turkish media, and, most recently, taken to jailing high-profile leaders of the political opposition.
The Politics of Fear
If Erdogan was at one point struggling to find a unifying message that could rally potential supporters, he seems to have found one in recent weeks, with an assist from the German and Dutch governments. In early March, a number of German municipalities cited technical and security concerns as they cancelled planned rallies in favor of the Turkish referendum, which were supposed to feature members of Erdogan’s cabinet speaking to crowds of Turkish nationals living in Germany. The reaction from Ankara, already in a diplomatic spat with Berlin over the Turkish government’s detention of German journalist Deniz Yucel, was swift and intense. Turkey’s justice minister, Bekir Bozdag, who was scheduled to appear at one of the cancelled rallies, said that “Germany today has become a shelter for all those who commit crimes against Turkey,” and Erdogan accused the German government of “aiding and abetting terrorism.” Then he went a step further:
A defiant Erdogan said he could travel to Germany himself to rally support for the constitutional changes to grant him greater power.
“Germany, you have no relation whatsoever to democracy and you should know that your current actions are no different to those of the Nazi period,” Erdogan said at a rally in Istanbul.
“If I want to come to Germany, I will, and if you don’t let me in through your doors, if you don’t let me speak, then I will make the world rise to its feet,” he told a separate event.
The Nazi reference escalated the row from something involving a handful of local German governments to an international diplomatic crisis. Under pressure from her political right, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Erdogan’s remarks “sad,” and her government has said that it reserves the right to cancel any future pro-referendum rallies as long as Erdogan and his supporters persist in comparing the current German government to the Nazis, which likely violates German law around defaming the German state.
Recent tensions between Turkey and Germany, however, have paled in comparison to what’s transpired between Turkey and the Netherlands. In the wake of Erdogan’s “Nazi” comments, Amsterdam told Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu that his permission to enter the country to attend a March 11 pro-referendum rally in Rotterdam was being revoked, and went so far as to refuse permission for his plane to land. During the Rotterdam rally, Dutch authorities detained another member of the Turkish government, Family Affairs Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, and then deported her to Germany. Erdogan predictably lashed out at Amsterdam, among other things dredging up old accusations about Dutch peacekeepers’ complicity in the 1995 massacre of thousands of Muslims by Serbs in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.
These heated disputes with Berlin and Amsterdam aren’t winning Erdogan any new friends in Europe, but it’s entirely possible that they will help him win the referendum next month. Demagoguery, occasionally verging on paranoia, has long been one of Erdogan’s preferred political tools. At times Erdogan’s fears have seemed reasonable—last summer’s attempted coup showed, if nothing else, that some elements within the Turkish military were working against the elected AKP government. At times they’ve seemed overblown, as in the case of the now largely-discredited Ergenekon trials, which even Erdogan now disavows and whose convictions, handed down in 2013, have been overturned on appeal. At other times Erdogan has used fear as a political tool, as in his periodic attempts to deflect responsibility for bad economic news onto nefarious “bankers,” or his attempt to blame the 2013 Gezi Park protests on a shadowy international conspiracy in order to justify, and distract from, the brutality with which the security forces put down those protests.
In at least one case, Erdogan has used fear as a political weapon in order to directly influence a Turkish election. In Turkey’s June 2015 parliamentary elections, with Erdogan hoping to win a substantial AKP majority to support his constitutional changes, voters instead handed AKP something of a defeat. Though the party still “won” the election, it lost its sole parliamentary majority and was forced to pursue a coalition with at least one of Turkey’s three other major parties. But rather than make political concessions necessary to form a coalition, Erdogan tried a different tactic—escalating Turkey’s war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in southeastern Turkey. Due to the failure to form a governing coalition, snap polls were held in November. After five months of heavy fighting and an intensive AKP effort to portray the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) as nothing more than an arm of the PKK, Turkish voters handed AKP a resounding victory that restored the party’s legislative majority and helped pave the way for the referendum.
Erdogan’s New Enemy
Now, in the run up to the vote, Erdogan has settled on a new public enemy: Europe. Pivoting from the rows with Germany and the Netherlands, he’s told supporters in Turkey that the European Union has launched a new “Crusade” against Islam and the Turkish people. He’s refused to back down from his Nazi references and has even turned them into a political argument, telling voters that voting “yes” on the referendum was the best way to send a message to “racist, fascist, cruel…anti-Islam and anti-Turkish Europe.” He’s promised to “review” Turkey’s relations with the EU after the referendum, an implicit threat to abrogate the Syrian refugee deal Ankara struck with the bloc last year. He’s even made what could be construed as threatening remarks directed toward European citizens, saying that “if Europe continues this way, no European in any part of the world can walk safely on the streets.”
Although these remarks are ostensibly directed toward Europe, their real audience is the Turkish electorate. There’s good chance they’ll resonate. A 2014 Pew Research poll found that Turks have a generally unfavorable view of the EU, and there’s no reason to expect that this attitude has changed in the two-and-a-half years since that poll was published. Moreover, the image of a fascist, anti-Turkey Europe looming as a threat dovetails with Erdogan’s pro-referendum pitch that a strong presidency is necessary to protect Turkey from its enemies. And Erdogan’s base—mostly religious conservatives and, nowadays, Turkish nationalists—may be particularly receptive to a campaign that casts Erdogan as the defender of Turkey and Islam against the West.
A few recent European actions have fed into Erdogan’s narrative. Although there may have been legitimate security reasons for cancelling those pro-referendum rallies, the German government’s decision to allow an estimated 30,000 Kurds to protest against the referendum in Frankfurt on March 18 could be seen as playing favorites. Erdogan used a European Court of Justice ruling on March 14 allowing employers to ban headscarves as evidence for his assertion that Europe is “anti-Islam.” And recent EU warnings about the centralizing effects of the referendum’s constitutional changes may have the ironic effect of galvanizing Turkish support for those changes. But Erdogan has proven himself over the years to be an adept demagogue regardless of the material he’s given, and he may very well demagogue his way to another major political victory on April 16.