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Turkey’s President Erdogan has gone to extremes to win Sunday’s referendum. Here’s why.

- April 14, 2017
Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters in Sakarya, Turkey, in March. (Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Press Service, Pool Photo via AP)

After years of wrangling for constitutional reform to consolidate his political power, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may finally get his wish. On Sunday, Turkey will vote on a referendum that seeks to formally switch the governing system from a parliamentary to presidential regime.

Nearly all in Turkey agree the current constitution, drafted by the military in 1982, needs to be updated. However, the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) previous use of constitutional reform packages to reconfigure domestic politics is hotly contested. And this time around, opposition actors believe the stakes are higher than ever.

The AKP-backed referendum unsurprisingly seeks to further reduce the role of the military in politics. After all, the Turkish Armed Forces and the AKP have had a rocky relationship to say the least, especially since the failed July 2016 coup attempt and the government’s subsequent purge of the military. What is surprising are the extreme, even bizarre tactics to which the party is resorting to win in Sunday’s polls. Examining the AKP’s efforts reveals just how much of a personal and professional stake Erdogan has in this referendum.

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In an attempt to delegitimize the opposition, AKP campaign materials have linked “No” voters with Fethullah Gülen — a self-exiled Islamic cleric living in the United States, whom the AKP blames for the 2016 coup attempt — branding supporters of both as terrorists. Hammering home the terrorism theme, one campaign poster ominously suggests voting “No” in the referendum equates to voting “Yes” for Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.


In one particularly unusual bid to gain votes, Erdogan recently issued an emergency decree allowing beauticians to use hospital-grade tools for laser hair removal. Though viciously mocked by critics on social media, the highly publicized event served as a rally of fashionable women for Erdogan and the “Yes” vote.

What has prompted Erdogan and his supporters to resort to such tactics?

The short answer is because he has so much at stake. If the referendum passes, it would not only institutionalize a regime that has incrementally eroded Turkey’s separation of powers under recent AKP rule but also entrench Erdogan at that regime’s helm. If the “Yes” votes have it, Erdogan, the leading political figure since becoming prime minister in 2003, then assuming the presidency in 2014, could rule essentially unchecked until 2029, possibly even longer by some estimates.

But not if a motley myriad of “No” supporters has anything to say about it.

Opposition to an executive presidency makes for strange bedfellows

The Republican People’s Party (CHP) is the main opposition party and has long criticized what they see as the AKP’s Islamization of Turkey’s secular republic. The extreme-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) is more divided. While aging MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli switched his tune from comparing Erdogan to Hitler to trying to rally his party’s support for the referendum, rival MHP member Meral Akşener gathered momentum after sharing a photo of her hand with a henna tattoo of a Turkish flag to announce her “No” vote on social media. The resulting hashtag #KinaliEllerHayirDiyor (Hands with Henna Say No) trended as a symbol of resistance for days.

Though ideologically at extreme odds with the MHP, Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) also virulently opposes the referendum. And while Kurdish leadership had briefly supported the idea of a presidential system during a short-lived “solution process” from 2013 to 2015, the breakdown of negotiations and of the PKK’s cease-fire has since hardened the enmity between the leaders and their respective constituencies. Despite the imprisonment of its two co-chairs and many local leaders on terrorist charges, HDP members seem determined to continue their “No” campaign.

In a close race, government repression matters

This weekend, however, none of this varied and strident opposition may matter much. Predicted outcomes of the referendum have fluctuated and vary by polling agency. In general, “No” seemed likely to prevail shortly after the vote was announced, while numbers released by Turkish polling companies ANAR and Konsensus on Wednesday predict a slight victory for “Yes.”

Reports suggest that AKP supporters are engaged in undemocratic practices to stymie opposition, including tactics known by scholars of comparative politics to create an uneven playing field. In particular, AKP has dominated the media by violent intimidation, media takeovers and silencing opposition voices. The “Yes” campaign received approximately 90 percent of airtime. Supposedly neutral public appearances such as inaugurations — or, say, decrees about beauticians — often turn into campaign speeches, while Turkish media generally neglect or refuse to cover opposition rallies.

Meanwhile, “No” billboards have been removed in AKP-friendly districts and campaign songs encouraging voters to reject the referendum have been banned. The Turkish government has also targeted social media users; 21-year-old Ali Gül was arrested after posting a “No”-themed video on YouTube, in which he rhetorically asks if he will be arrested.

Although independent election observer groups cannot participate at the polls due to the state of emergency, party members can witness polling procedures. Many would-be party observers have had their applications rejected by local election boards favorable to the AKP. Other reports of foul play include beatings of declared “No” voters and threats by AKP officials that Kurdish homes destroyed during the military campaign will not be rebuilt if “No” prevails.

Take it outside! Domestic politics in the foreign policy arena.

When actors face obstacles to political projects at home they may “take the fight outside,” as Europe has witnessed lately. Erdogan sent Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu to the Netherlands to hold rallies stirring up support for the referendum among Turks living abroad. When Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte — himself facing an election — blocked Çavuşoğlu’s entry in a last-minute show of political strength, Erdogan turned this rebuff to his advantage by accusing the West of openly obstructing the referendum.

Erdogan responded to his ministers being turned away by calling Europeans racists, Nazis and fascists. Adding that “medieval Europe” was the “enemy of the Turks and Islam,” the president cleverly used Turks’ resentment at apparent European discrimination to suit him electorally. By creating an external enemy while courting votes internationally, Erdogan generates support from Turkey’s nationalists at home and abroad.

Risky business

With the election too close to predict, both sides are clearly under pressure. Resource control and the use of intimidation from the “Yes” side force us to consider just what is motivating Erdogan to play every possible card in his hand for a victory.

For Erdogan, this is a referendum not only on a presidential system but also his entire political career. Should it fail, he could be prosecuted by future unsympathetic governments for charges from corruption to supporting terrorism. As prospect theorists predict, individuals in the domain of losses are more risk-acceptant than those in the domain of gains. For all the confidence he projects, Erdogan likely knows he is facing a potential existential threat, and this referendum may be the riskiest gambit he has yet undertaken.

Melina Dunham is a student at Barnard College, Columbia University majoring in political science and will be attending the Paris School of International Affairs at Sciences Po in the fall to pursue a master’s degree in International Public Management.  

Lisel Hintz is a visiting assistant professor of political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University and will be an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies beginning Fall 2017.