Friday,28 July, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)
Friday,28 July, 2017
Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan’s wishful thinking

Erdogan is pulling out all the stops to see through his plan to make Turkey a presidential system with him at the top. But he may have a nasty surprise in store

Erdogan’s wishful thinking
Erdogan’s wishful thinking

Turkey brims with strange ironies as it approaches the 16 April referendum on proposed constitutional amendments. Some make one laugh and cry at the same time.

Last week, in one of his non-stop television appearances, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan informed audiences, who await his every word with bated breath, that he would join the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) the day after the people cast their votes in favour of the amendment bill. “I am the founder of that party,” he declared, ignoring its many co-founders. “I want to continue serving in my capacity as a member of that party. I do not know when its current leaders will call for an extraordinary general convention to elect a new party chairman.”

The remarks triggered a buzz across social networking sites. “When did he ever leave the party?” people asked about the man who kept track of the minutest detail and controlled what was happening in the remotest corners of the AKP’s corridors. From the ethereal heights of the White Palace, from which he pulls the strings of AKP branches throughout the land, he engineered the removal of Ahmet Davutoglu, who somehow got it into his head that he was a prime minister in the established sense in other parliamentary systems. His replacement was a confirmed yes-man vowed to serve as Erdogan’s henchman in dealing the deathblow to the parliamentary system in Turkey.

Erdogan is also convinced the results of the referendum will hand him his long sought after victory. In fact, he has stated that he has already begun to prepare for the next presidential elections to be held in November 2019, in accordance with the amended provisions of the constitution.

In addition to the six channels on state-run television, at least 40 satellite channels broadcast his speeches, movements and rallies around the clock. On top of this are the dozens of pro-government newspapers that feature his photo beneath banner headlines on their front pages every day. The Supreme Election Board has decided that he is far too lofty for it to remind about the regulations regarding impartiality and fairness in media coverage during electoral campaigns. He, himself, is oblivious to the polarisation and animosities he has stirred in society by labelling all who plan to vote “no” to the amendment bill as “traitors”, “Gulenists”, “terrorists”, etc.

Yet, in spite of that confidence and all the advantages enjoyed by the “yes” campaigners, there are reports that AKP/Erdogan circles are worried. The reason is obvious. As referendum day approaches, independent opinion polls indicate that 50.8 per cent of respondents are opposed to the constitutional amendments and 49.2 per cent are in favour.

As opposition to the bill is strongest in the major cities, such as Istanbul and Izmir, instructions have been handed down to launch convoys of campaign busses of all sizes to tour city streets with large photos of the president and the word “Evet” (yes) blazoned on their sides with microphones blaring, “Vote yes for stability”.

Thousands of pro-amendment posters and banners deck every available wall, and huge billboards with Erdogan’s smiling face look down on drivers at every major intersection. Even the walls of foreign consulates and embassies have not been spared, as though to suggest that all those foreign powers are also in favour of Turkey’s constitutional amendments. In the towns and villages of the Anatolian countryside, mayors and mukhtars maintain constant contact with the heads of prominent families who, in turn, coordinate with AKP-run municipalities to distribute sacks of rice, flour and gold wedding presents and other “gifts”.

But even with all that propaganda and all those “incentives” on offer, the ruling party is still jittery. Above all, it feels that its major ally in this project, the National Movement Party (MHP), will let it down. MHP chief Devlet Bahceli has vowed his support. Reversing his long-held opposition to the presidential system, he struck the deal with Prime Minister Yildirim that made it possible to submit the amendment bill to parliament in the first place. However, other key figures in his party and a very large portion of the party base are opposed to the bill and have been actively campaigning for a “no” vote. Even promises of ministerial seats in the post-referendum government have failed to win them over.

It is in large part because such large opposition has come from the ultranationalist right that AKP officials have had to eat their words after labelling “no” campaigners as supporters of the separatist PKK and Gulenists. “No” campaigners have also been given some margin of freedom for their activities. But they have nothing compared to the freedoms, access to media and the resources available to the “yes” campaigns. Opponents to the amendments have to grovel and beg to set up a tiny stall or hold a rally for their campaigns. AKP campaigners have no need to ask for permission and they put up costly pavilions fitted out with heaters and elegant chandeliers. They also get the choice locations in town; in fact, they get almost all locations, from the central squares to the side streets and back alleys where you’ll find glossy “yes” brochures, posters and pictures of the master of the transition to the presidential system.

True, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the largest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), manages to get some of his speeches and rallies broadcast. But for the most part these are edited down to snippets on state TV and then followed by news stories or interviews intended to dismiss what he says or accuse him of lying. These are then followed by other news stories itemising Erdogan’s many magnificent achievements: airports, roads, bridges and the like. In his last rally on Sunday, in Sinop, Kilicdaroglu indicated he was fed up with that obsession with calling him names and challenged the president to a debate “like they do in all democracies”. “I’ll give you half an hour and I’ll take only 15 minutes. Surely that’s an offer you can’t refuse,” he said.

Regardless of the government propaganda and fanfare, political, economic and social realities on the ground lead any impartial observer to predict that the results of the forthcoming referendum will not turn out as Erdogan and his regime have planned. Rather, they will mark the beginning of Turkey’s gradual return to democracy, which was virtually moribund.

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