On April 16, Turkish citizens will go to the polls to vote on a package of constitutional amendments. The package proposes fundamental changes to Turkey’s parliamentary system of government—it would expand the powers of the presidency and dissolve the position of prime minister, among other changes. Public opinion is split on the referendum, and many pollsters hesitate to predict the outcome. Much of the debate surrounding the referendum draws on the country’s divisive leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Many see the referendum as not simply a vote on Turkey’s system of government, but on the future of Erdoğan’s position as Turkey’s leader.

Erdoğan has been a central figure in Turkish politics for the past two decades. He was the mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998 and a founder of the current ruling party, the AKP.  Erdoğan served three terms as prime minister, from 2003 to 2014. After reaching his term limit, he won the presidency in 2014. Many believe that he is the most influential Turkish politician in since Atatürk.

While Erdoğan is currently eligible for one more term as president, a “yes” vote at the polls on the April 19 referendum could pave the way for Erdogan to remain the country’s president for an additional term, through 2029.

The vote comes during a period of great change and uncertainty in Turkey. A recent string of terrorist attacks has claimed the lives of hundreds of Turkish citizens. The Syrian Civil War continues to unfold on Turkey’s doorstep. In the midst of the global refugee crisis, Turkey has accepted roughly half of the five million Syrians who have fled their home country. The decades-long conflict between government officials and Turkey’s Kurdish population continues.

Though Erdoğan has a loyal base of supporters, in recent years many Turkish citizens have challenged his government in a range of ways, from political organizing to widespread protests. Concerns about government corruption and growing authoritarianism sparked massive protests in Gezi Park in 2013. Last summer, an attempted military coup failed to oust Erdoğan. In its wake, while some citizens have rallied around the government and rejected the military’s attempt to intervene in politics, others have expressed concern that Erdoğan and his ruling party are seizing the opportunity to crush dissent and further consolidate their power. Individual’s views on these recent development may shape decisions at the ballot box on the 16th. In the video below, Brown University professor Stephen Kinzer describes how the Turkish government responded to the 2016 coup attempt.

 

Turkish Students Weigh In

In a recent interview in Taksim Square, Istanbul, New York Times correspondent Patrick Kingsley discussed the upcoming referendum with two students at Bagazici University—Mert Nacakgedigi and Dilara Arslan. Though they are good friends, the two students have starkly different interpretations about what the proposed constitutional changes would mean for their country’s future. While Dilara plans to vote in favor of the amendments, Mert will vote against them.

Interview by Patrick Kingsley of the New York Times.

Dilara

Dilara is double major in political science and sociology. She believes that the current parliamentary system has failed Turkey and hopes that a shift to a presidential system will bring stability to a country that has experienced political upheaval and tenuous parliamentary coalitions for decades. Dilara reminds viewers that, since the country’s founding less that one hundred years ago, Turkey has had more than sixty governments. She’s confident that the constitutional amendments will not only bring stability, but will also facilitate the consolidation of democracy in Turkey.

“I see it as a step towards democracy. Considering what the current government has done in favor of democracy in my opinion from the 2004 package of women’s rights to the economic liberalism over the past ten, fifteen years, I see this as just another step towards democracy.”

Dilara Arslan, Bagazici University student, March 24, 2017

Dilara applauds the ruling party’s efforts to expand freedoms for women that wear headscarves by lifting restrictions that had long kept kept veiled women out of public institutions like universities and government offices. She believes the constitutional changes will bring Turkey’s government more in line with many Western governments. She is concerned that foreign governments and international media sources have been encouraging people in Turkey to vote “no.”

Mert

Mert Nacakgedigi is a double major in political science and history. He expresses concern about the future of Turkey’s democracy and he warns that the amendments will demolish Turkey’s system of checks and balances. Mert says that people don’t feel free to openly oppose the proposed constitutional change, particularly those who work for or interact closely with the government. He’s unconvinced that the proposed changes will help address the challenges facing his country or offer any improvements to Turkey’s government.

“When I see the referendum…I only have one question. Do we need this referendum? Do we have a constitutional problem? [Is] our first problem a constitutional problem? I don’t think so.”

—Mert Nacakgedigi, Bagazici University student, March 24, 2017

Dilara and Mert emphasize that despite a climate of political polarization in their country, they’re able to respectfully disagree and remain friends. In many ways, they share a similar vision for their country—a desire for expanded rights and opportunities, a commitment to strengthening their democracy, and a hope that that Turkey will successfully address security concerns and the problem of terrorism. How a “yes” or ”no” vote on the referendum will shape the country’s future remains to be seen.

Interested in Teaching about Turkey?

Empire, Republic, Democracy: Turkey’s Past and Future traces the final years of the Ottoman Empire, the struggle for independence, and Turkish resistance against European imperialism. Students explore recent developments, such as the Syrian Civil War, the emergence of ISIS, the global refugee crisis, and the attempted military coup of 2016. In a culminating simulation, students grapple with the questions and challenges facing people in Turkey today.

  • What should Turkey’s democracy look like?
  • What role should religion play in Turkey’s government and society?
  • Should Turkey expand human rights and freedoms?
  • What role should Turkey play in the region and the world?

Banner image: Kristine Riskaer (CC BY 2.0).