The Bosphorus bridge which connects city's European and Asian side over the Bosphorus, is covered by fog in Istanbul, April 4, 2010.
Murad Sezer / Reuters

On a clear evening in Istanbul’s Besiktas district, a dozen police officers eyed hundreds of people as they packed a private ferry on the Bosphorus. The passengers were attending an event to mobilize support for a “no” vote on a constitutional referendum scheduled for April 16. Equally wary of the police and any potential pro-“yes” saboteurs, a pair of organizers patted down each passenger before allowing him or her aboard.

“It’s not going to be a fair vote, so we have to work hard to make people believe ‘no’ can win,” Yusuf Alp, a young leftist organizer, shouted above the cheers from the passengers as the ferry pulled off into the twilight. The organizers could not gain permission from the local government to use space on land, so they enlisted the help of a friend who owns the boat. After three hours of chanting, the passengers, their morale high, scooped up buttons and stickers with a simple “no” on them before heading home.

Supporters of pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) hold "No" placards in Turkish and Kurdish during a campaign meeting for the April 16 constitutional referendum, in Diyarbakir, Turkey, March 2, 2017.
Supporters of pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) hold "No" placards in Turkish and Kurdish during a campaign meeting for the April 16 constitutional referendum, in Diyarbakir, Turkey, March 2, 2017.
Sertac Kayar / Reuters
The latest polls by two of Turkey’s oldest firms, Metropoll and A&G, have shown that Turks are evenly split in the run-up to the referendum, with the difference between pro-government “yes” voters and “no” voters at less than five percent.  The “no” contingent is hoping not only to persuade longtime critics of the government to turn out, but also to connect to the undecideds, which some polls have put as high as 20 percent.

If the amendments are approved, they would be President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crowning political victory, making him the most powerful Turkish leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. They would open the path for Erdogan to run for two additional five-year terms when his current one expires in 2019. Meanwhile, they would eliminate the office of the prime minister and give responsibility for appointing the cabinet to the president, who would not need approval from parliament for his nominations. The president would also have the power to unilaterally dissolve parliament, effectively binding the lawmakers to his or her political agenda.

Furthermore, the amendments would give the president the power to legislate unilaterally through official decrees, as long as those decrees do not infringe on individual freedoms already enshrined in the constitution. The trouble is that under the new system, the judicial branch, which would decide on the constitutionality of any decrees, would also effectively be under the president’s control, as the president would control the appointment of judges to the country’s top courts.

These changes are a long time coming. Erdogan, who led the country as prime minister from 2003 to 2014 and as president since 2014, has long said that a new constitution that accurately reflects the “national will” is his political end goal. He argues that political power needs to be concentrated in one branch to overcome the problems of Turkey’s “dysfunctional” parliament.

That is an argument many Turks find absurd—except for a five-month period in 2015 that triggered fresh elections, Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) has enjoyed a majority in parliament since 2002. And after the crackdown on protesters in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013, Erdogan brazenly stripped powers from every branch of the government. “I had friends killed in Gezi,” Nehir Sevim, a leftist activist who was part of the 2013 protests told me. “Since then, we have been killed by terrorists in bombings, and we have been jailed. The government is a half dictatorship already, but they are doing it illegally. With this referendum, it will become legal; it will be written in the constitution itself.”

Those who speak out about the constitutional changes are up against a government-sponsored campaign that has branded them an existential threat.
Since the Gezi protests, Turkey’s judiciary has been purged of thousands of critics of Erdogan. The institution now effectively treats Erdogan’s regular speeches lambasting opponents as orders to jail critical journalists and intellectuals. Last May, Erdogan forced the resignation of a subtly critical Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. After that, Erdogan began chairing cabinet and national security meetings, despite a constitution that envisions the presidency as largely a ceremonial one. For his part, Davutoglu’s replacement, Binali Yildirim, has said that Turkey needs to legalize what is already a de facto presidential system. 

There are those who support Erdogan’s constitution tinkering of course. His backers point to the turbulent 1990s, when a string of coalition governments collapsed, ending with a military coup in 1997 that forced out the AKP’s parent party and mentor, Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. Turkey’s staunchly secular military accused Erbakan of being too Islamist because his coalition government had pushed for reforms that included lifting restrictions on women wearing headscarves in the public sector. After that coup, the Islamists, including Erdogan, were jailed and barred from politics, only to regroup as the AKP and win an outright majority in 2002. As late as 2008, courts were trying to ban the AKP on charges that its policies violated the secular constitution. Only in 2013 were lawmakers able to completely lift the headscarf ban for civil servants. For Erdogan’s supporters, the judicial branch remains controlled by a secular elite that does not respect popular sentiment. 

Yet the possibility of the judiciary’s undermining Erdgoan’s vision seems unlikely, even to Islamists to the right of Erdogan’s AKP. “It’s laughable,” said Temel Karamollaoglu, who lost his parliamentary seat after the 1997 coup and now heads the Saadet Party, a small but influential Islamist movement still clinging to Erbakan’s ideology. (Erbakan had ridiculed Turks for trying to join the European Union. Erdogan, at least initially, made EU membership a central part of his party’s platform, drawing millions of votes from non-Islamist liberals.) AKP officials, Karamollaoglu told me, “have been able to do whatever they want; there is no reason for these amendments.”

Karamollaoglu’s opposition to the amendments has drawn the ire of AKP loyalists, who accuse him of being too close to the secular Republican Peoples Party (CHP), which has opposed Erdogan’s amendments. “We don’t often see eye to eye with the CHP,” says Karamollaoglu, “but in this case, we are on the same side . . . A constitution is not just a law; it is a social contract, and it needs more than a majority approval.”

The AKP’s only ally in parliament, the conservative Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), too, is cracking under the referendum’s pressure. In January, hours after party head Devlet Bahçeli announced that he would support the amendments, his deputy chair, Atila Kaya, resigned. “My belief in nationalism and my understanding of Turkish nationalism,” he announced, “orders my conscience to say ‘no’ to the constitutional amendment.” A wave of defections among top party officials followed, including the heads of the MHP’s ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves faction. Some estimates put half of the MHP’s constituency in the “no” camp.

But those who speak out about the constitutional changes are up against a government-sponsored campaign that has branded them an existential threat, no different from the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Islamic State (ISIS), or those blamed for the failed July 15 coup attempt. “Who says no?” Erdogan told a cheering crowd in Ankara this February. “The PKK says no. Who says no? Those who want to divide and carve up this country say no. Who says no? Those who challenge our flag say no.

When it came time to vote on whether to hold the referendum, AKP lawmakers made a point to show their loyalty to Erdogan, holding up ballots for colleagues to take photos. And over the last month, the government has detained scores for passing out flyers or simply chanting slogans asking people to vote “no” in the referendum. News outlets have refused to run interviews or columns from outspoken naysayers, and anchors have been fired for expressing their views.

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wave national flags during a trial of soldiers accused of attempting to assassinate Erdogan on the night of the failed July 15 coup, in Mugla, Turkey, March 8, 2017.
Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wave national flags during a trial of soldiers accused of attempting to assassinate Erdogan on the night of the failed July 15 coup, in Mugla, Turkey, March 8, 2017.
Kenan Gurbuz / Reuters
Through it all, former President Abdullah Gul and former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, men who helped form the AKP, have been conspicuously absent from the party’s “yes” campaign events. Both Gul and Davutoglu have criticized Erdogan’s unilateral style of leadership, and there is speculation, and hope, among conservative Turks that the pair might form a new political party. 

Turkey has been under a state of emergency since the attempted coup against the government last summer—one that will continue “until everything has calmed down and everything is back in order,” Erdogan has said. For now, the country is run by edicts issued from Ankara. Hundreds of thousands of public workers accused of ties to the coup plotters or to other “terrorist” groups have been dismissed, had their passports canceled, and been barred from ever working in the public sector—a punishment one constitutional lawyer calls “civil death.” And along with the soldiers who were caught with guns in their hands the night of July 15, thousands of teachers, academics, and judges now stand accused of terrorism. At least 180 media outlets have been shuttered and 150 journalists jailed for “insulting” Erdogan or supporting “terrorist” groups through their work. Hundreds of nonprofits have been closed, their doors now sealed with a wax-stamped postcard akin to a medieval order from a sultan.

The atmosphere reminds conservatives of the February 1997 coup, which triggered the arrests of thousands of alleged Islamists by an overzealous secular military. “Today we are already under a coup of a different color,” Huda Kaya, a lawmaker from the HDP who was a prominent figure in the protest movement against the headscarf ban two decades ago, told me. Kaya, along with a dozen other HDP lawmakers, now faces terror charges over speeches prosecutors say supported the PKK. More than five thousand HDP workers are under arrest, and Ankara has replaced 80 pro-Kurdish district governments with bureaucratic caretakers, part of a campaign that seems aimed at gutting the Kurdish opposition ahead of the referendum.

Erdogan has called the “no” campaign “evil” because it supposedly seeks to reimpose restrictions such as the laws that kept headscarf-wearing women from working in public office.  The country’s largest Islamist women’s rights group, KADEM, has made the specter of a new headscarf ban from an undemocratic judiciary the focal point of its “yes” campaign. To Kaya, who spent a year in exile after the 1997 coup for protesting the ban, such rhetoric is an obvious and petty attempt at exploiting Turkey’s secular-conservative divide. “The AKP wants to frighten people into voting ‘yes’ by telling them another February 28 [coup] might undo their reforms,” she said. “But it’s a different Turkey today: It’s not just Kurds who are fighting. It’s not just conservative or religious—it’s all kinds of people who are opposed to this plan.”

The alliance of conservatives and nationalists that Erdogan has depended on since 2002 seems to be cracking as it confronts Erdogan’s drive to enshrine his already broad powers into the Turkish constitution. If given a chance to make its case, the “no” camp could hand Erdogan a defeat on April 16.  But Erdogan has other options on the table, including delaying the referendum or calling for new elections that could hand the AKP a two-thirds majority in parliament, which it could use to amend the constitution without a referendum.  Whether he wins or loses on April 16, however, Erdogan is sure to continue to try to polarize Turks in an imagined battle for their very existence.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • UMAR FAROOQ is correspondent for The Los Angeles Times and has reported for Foreign Policy, Christian Science Monitor, The Wall Street Journal, and others.
  • More By Umar Farooq