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Turkey’s Referendum Could Backfire on Erdogan

Posted by hkarner - 24. März 2017

Date: 24-03-2017
Source: The Wall Street Journal

The stakes are high—and outcome uncertain—for vote on enhanced powers for the presidency

ISTANBUL—Appearances can deceive.

Only one campaign is in sight less than a month before the April 16 referendum that would give Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vast new powers.

Building-size billboards feature a giant likeness of Mr. Erdogan urging the nation to vote “Yes.” On TV networks, government officials brand those opposing this executive presidency plan as traitors or supporters of terrorism. Finding any evidence of the “No” campaign can be mission impossible.

And yet, despite such a charged environment, a referendum victory for Mr. Erdogan looks surprisingly uncertain. Opinion polls keep showing a nation starkly divided along the middle—with a significant part of Mr. Erdogan’s own Justice and Development Party, or AKP, electorate balking at the idea of scrapping Turkey’s tradition of parliamentary democracy.

“This is a huge problem for them: they were thinking they will easily get 60%,” says Etyen Mahcupyan, a political consultant who served as adviser to former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a leading figure in AKP. “And if we have a surprise on election day, it will be to the benefit of the ‘No’ vote. The government has created a ‘Yes’ atmosphere and many people are afraid of admitting that they will vote ‘No,’ and are not telling the truth to the pollsters.”

Even though the referendum campaign unfolds under the state of emergency imposed following July’s failed coup attempt against Mr. Erdogan, Turkey’s voting process makes outright ballot-stuffing difficult.

Mr. Erdogan’s camp, of course, can still win the referendum. “We are sure we will receive a majority,” AKP’s deputy chairman Yasin Aktay said in an interview. “The opposition is not convincing. They have no argumentation except saying that we are bringing dictatorship or a one-man administration, which is not true.”

Yet, the very fact that the outcome is now in doubt has re-energized the opposition to Turkey’s leader—just months after his hold on authority, in the wake of the July putsch attempt, seemed beyond any challenge.

The stakes can’t be higher. If Mr. Erdogan loses, that would be his most dramatic setback since coming to power in 2003, shattering his aura of near-magic invincibility. A referendum defeat could also change the geopolitical trajectory of one of America’s most important partners in the Middle East and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance—just as Mr. Erdogan is steering Turkey further and further from its traditional bonds with the West.

“If ‘No’ wins, an irreversible situation will arise for the first time for AKP. They see this as a matter of life or death,” said Sezgin Tanrikulu, a lawmaker for the opposition CHP party. “If that happens, AKP will not be the same AKP and Turkey won’t be the same Turkey. Citizens, who now have so much despair, will acquire new self-confidence and new hope.”

A referendum defeat, if it occurs, wouldn’t force Mr. Erdogan, whose mandate runs until 2019, to step down, and wouldn’t necessarily prompt new elections in the immediate future. But it would almost certainly usher a period of new political instability as Mr. Erdogan struggles to regain momentum against emboldened foes.

Mr. Erdogan’s strategy in the past, when faced with challenges to his authority, has been to escalate crises and create new ones, at home and abroad. That’s something that many, in Turkey and Western capitals, fear may happen in coming weeks, and even more so should voters reject his proposals on April 16.

In the summer of 2015, after an election in which AKP failed to secure absolute parliamentary majority for the first time, Mr. Erdogan—instead of moving to create a coalition government—unleashed all-out war against Kurdish militants and then called snap elections within months. The AKP regained its majority amid the nationalist fervor. In a similar attempt to rally the nationalist vote, he stoked diplomatic confrontations with the Netherlands and Germany in recent weeks.

Such an appeal to the Turkish nationalist electorate that traditionally follows the MHP party, one of four represented in Turkey’s parliament, is indispensable for Mr. Erdogan’s referendum plans. He managed to pass the referendum legislation, which required the support of three-fifths of lawmakers, only thanks to a new alliance with the MHP’s leadership.

That parliamentary support has yet to translate into backing by actual MHP voters, cautioned former MHP lawmaker Sinan Ogan, who is opposed to the proposals.

The MHP secured 11.9% of votes in Turkey’s most recent elections, in November 2015, and represents a critical swing constituency.

“The key to the referendum is now with MHP,” said Mr. Ogan. “And in MHP, the top says ‘Yes’ and the grass-roots say ‘No.’ ”

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