Turkey referendum shows secularism eroding – but still a potent force

Turkey's ruling party cast its referendum win as a vote of confidence for further democratic reforms. But the 42 percent 'no' vote signals a polarized nation.

Burhan Ozbilici/AP
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan casts his vote in a referendum on changes to the Constitution that was crafted in the wake of Turkey's 1980 military coup, in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday.

Turkey's ruling party lost no time Monday in preparing to further expand democratic reforms, just a day after its big win in a referendum on amending the country's Constitution.

The European Union welcomed Turkeys' approval of 26 constitutional amendments that bring the country one step closer to possible EU membership. President Obama heralded the nearly 80 percent turnout as an example of the “vibrancy of Turkey's democracy.”

The 58 percent backing by Turkish voters Sunday was widely interpreted as a vote of confidence for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development party, known as the AKP. As it has long promised, the Islam-rooted AKP will now begin drafting a new civilian constitution to replace the current military one, which was imposed in the aftermath of a 1980 coup.

But the result of Sunday's referendum also marks how polarized politics have become. A vociferous “no” campaign mounted by opposition parties still garnered 42 percent of the vote – with particularly strong showings in Turkey's more secular west and southern coast – though the final result demonstrated how the power of Turkey’s secular establishment has been eroding.

“I’m not sure if the Old Guard are capable of coming to terms with reality,” says Ihsan Dagi, a columnist of the Today’s Zaman newspaper. “The process of democratization in Turkey is a change of power…and those who used to enjoy the power, the privileges, and the resources of the system, do not really give them up voluntarily." The result is more division “because the apparent losers in this game are not prepared to give up. They will fight to the end,” says Mr. Dagi.

Opposition scrambles to reshape message

While AKP officials heralded the vote,  opposition members were left to wonder how they can reshape their message in time to convince more Turks to side with them before elections next year, in which Mr. Erdogan is expected to seek a third term.

Spearheading the “no” effort was Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the new leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which was founded by the man who in 1923 forged modern Turkey and its powerful state apparatus – Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Sunday marked the traditional power structure's third major defeat at the hands of the AKP since the party – with its roots in banned Islamic parties of the past – came to power in 2002.

While the CHP has less than one-third the seats that the AKP holds in parliament, the Kemalist party is still the second largest. Yet embarrassingly for its leader, Mr. Kilicdaroglu was forced to explain on Monday why he was not allowed to vote, because of a mix-up with his papers and residence status.

The leader of the next largest opposition party gave a stark warning.

“The AKP mobilization of state resources, resort to illegal tools – such as pressure, bribery, lies and threats to achieve political ends has become a dark page in our history,” Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) said in a statement. “Turkey has entered a dark period full of vital risks.”

An end to unassailable state power?

But most at risk after Sunday’s vote were politics as they have been played in decades past, when state power exercised through the military and high court judges was an unassailable aspect of “Kemalism.” The referendum result means that Turkey's old guard can no longer use those levers in the same way.

“They don’t really have the credibility to resist the change,” says columnist Dagi, adding in an interview that the newly approved constitutional changes will further restrict their moves.

“Turkish politics has escaped from the domination of this Kemalist establishment – the CHP, the military, the high judiciary are not in a position to control events in Turkey,” says Dagi. “Simply as Turkey becomes more and more democratic, more and more plural and competitive, and engaged in the global world – it’s not a controllable environment."

In recent years, the AKP has battled the military and the judiciary, which along with the secular opposition has accused the AKP of secretly plotting to turn Turkey into an Islamist state. Instead, senior military officials – including some serving generals – have been arrested themselves for plotting to topple the government, in the course of a lengthy investigation known as Ergenekon.

The reforms approved on Sunday expanded the rights for women, children, and workers, but also – most controversially – the ability of elected officials to shape Turkey’s judiciary, which has been a thorn in the side of the AKP for nearly a decade.

The immunity of generals who carried out the 1980 coup was also lifted, though the vote itself came on precisely the 30th anniversary of the coup – and the day the statute of limitations expired.

Despite that apparent legal limit, on Monday rights groups in several cities began petitioning prosecutors to launch cases against the leaders of the coup, which ushered in a period of severe repression that included torture and executions.

Turkish editorials show range of responses

Turkish newspapers reflected a variety of views, like those expressed by voters on Sunday.

An editorial in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News said that both sides had “overstated” the significance of the vote.

“Those fearing a weakening of military authority as the harbinger of a sharia-based state have forgotten that the rise of political Islam in Turkey was engineered by the military itself after the 1980 coup,” the newspaper wrote. “Those who will celebrate Sunday’s victory as the capping of statist power or the emasculation of a ‘Kemalist elite’ risk disappointment.”

While the paper argued that power in Turkey “is just as diffused today as it was yesterday,” that message did not convince Mehmet Yilmaz, writing in the Turkish-language sister publication Hurriyet.

“Nobody can stand in the way of Erdogan now,” said Mr. Yilmaz. “What Turkey will see now is a series of steps that will turn him into [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin.”

Other analysts say there are limits.

“The referendum result is not an open check to the AK Party,” says Dagi. “It is an approval of a project of civilianization and democratization. AK Party cannot do whatever it wants, based on these results – no way.”

“If the AK Party reads this properly, they will proceed more aggressively with reform projects in Turkey,” such as questions with ethnic Kurds, and over Armenia and Cyprus, adds Mr. Dagi. “These results indicate (to) the AKP that they are free, supported by the people, to take these issues to a settlement.”

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