Constitutional Crisis

A looming referendum in Turkey has once again turned into a showdown between secular and religious forces.


Not a day has gone by in Istanbul recently without a huge demonstration: Vans drive along main thoroughfares blasting Anatolian folk songs, volunteers distribute brochures, and neighborhoods are flooded with thousands of glossy billboards brandishing political slogans. It once again feels like election season in Turkey.

On Sept. 12, Turks will go to the polls to vote on a controversial package of constitutional reforms. Among other measures, the proposed reforms would reorganize the country’s higher courts, which traditionally have been bastions of Turkey’s uncompromising form of secularism.

In Turkey’s contentious political climate, those old, elite forces of secularism are constantly at odds with the rising conservative middle class based in central Anatolia – now mostly represented by the ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As Turks line up once again on different sides of this old divide, the referendum has become a stand-in for which vision will dominate the country’s future.

For AKP supporters, the package is an essential step toward improving a constitution that was imposed by Turkey’s military leaders after the 1980 coup. In making the case in favor of the reforms, Erdogan has harped on the political influence that the present constitution grants to the military, arguing that his party wishes to "end the humiliation of the coups" by bringing the courts in line with European standards.

Erdogan’s opponents see the referendum as an AKP ploy to exert its influence over the judiciary. The AKP is a conservative party with its roots in political Islam, and it is more comfortable with the role of religion in public life than Turkey’s traditional secularists. The powerful Constitutional Court has historically been a bastion of secularist influence in the country and has banned Islamist parties. In 2008, in fact, it censured the AKP for "anti-secular activities" and came within one vote of shutting it down entirely.

Gursel Tekin, vice president of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), is one of the figures who believes that the proposed amendments are more akin to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s court-packing scheme in the 1930s than a series of earnest technocratic reforms. He said he is concerned that the AKP wishes to have more "like-minded people" in the judiciary, so that the party can easily "advance its own agenda."

This pitch has left Turks divided almost exactly down the middle. Adil Gur, head of the A&G research firm, says that recent polls predicted that 45.5 percent of Turks approve of the measures, 42.1 oppose them, and 12.4 percent are still undecided. Gur has conducted about seven polls since the referendum date was officially announced earlier this year. Over that time, he has witnessed surprisingly few swings in the electorate’s opinions. "We believe it’s because the society is so polarized," Gur says. "People are likely to vote for the leaders, not so much [for what is in] the package."

Whether the referendum succeeds or fails, it will do little to alleviate Turkey’s most pressing ethnic dispute — escalating tensions between the country’s Kurdish minority and the state. Clashes between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist group that has waged a decades-long struggle against the state, and the Turkish army have claimed the lives of dozens this summer.

Erdogan didn’t include Kurdish rights in the constitutional reform package out of fear of alienating voters outside the predominantly Kurdish eastern regions. In response, the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the main legal Kurdish party, called on its supporters to boycott the Sept. 12 vote, none of which meets their demands.

By ignoring Kurdish interests, Erdogan is likely costing himself a reservoir of support from Kurdish voters that otherwise would have been his ally on limiting the power of Turkey’s old guard. According to Gur’s projections, 66 percent of the BDP’s approximately 1.7 million supporters will likely boycott the vote. If BDP voters turned out at the polls, he predicted, the AKP could have secured a 2 percent advantage over the opposition.

Faced with these challenges, Erdogan is leaving little to chance in his effort to push the referendum through. The AKP’s well-organized grassroots activists have taken full advantage of the month of Ramadan by organizing iftar dinners to break their fast with voters and talk politics. The party has also called on its supporters to cancel umra visits – trips observant Muslims take to the Islamic holy city of Mecca – in order not to lose "yes" votes.

Despite this frantic political maneuvering, many Turks are still preoccupied with the larger question of their country’s ultimate direction. Alaatin Masim, 53, is a pious Ramadan drummer and father of seven children. For the last month, he has beaten his drum around 3 a.m. each morning to wake residents for Suhur — the last meal that observant Muslims can eat before sunrise. Masim is afraid that Turkey’s possible accession to the European Union, which the AKP supports, could eventually cost him his livelihood. "I hear [playing drums] will be completely forbidden if Turkey enters the European Union" he says. "How am I going to feed my children?"

Masim’s political allegiances are mixed. He voted for the AKP in the last two elections, yet he carries a picture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the adamantly secular founder of the Turkish Republic, in his wallet. However, he has recently soured on the ruling party. "Only if [the AKP] bring jobs to us, I will vote for them," he says.

The referendum on Sunday will define the atmosphere heading into Turkey’s general elections next July. A sweeping victory by Erdogan could give him a major boost, and perhaps even pave the way for an entirely new constitution. Whether that would deepen Turkey’s current divides or present the country with a fresh start to reconcile its differences will be an even tougher test for Turkish democracy.

Afsin Yurdakul is a journalist, news anchor, and fellow with the Nieman Foundation.

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