Referendum moment: Will Turkey say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to Erdoğan’s power grab?

That the race in Turkey’s existential referendum is neck and neck is in itself self-explanatory. A nation sharply divided by half, not simply in civilized disagreement, but turned against each other in mistrust, enmity, vengeance.

A day before the country’s nearly 55 million voters go to the polls, it stands clear Turkey is at a point to plunge into a deeper crisis from Monday on, no matter what the outcome.

Fate of the nation is on razor’s edge, as reliable polls point out a narrow gap that varies between 49-51 % either way. As of Thursday there was still around 5 % undecided voters, and the historic record of a late ‘yes’ turnout make the AKP side hopeful. On the other hand, the higher the turnout, the more chances for the ‘no’ camp is noted.

Erdoğan went this time with full force, determined on victory, by emphasizing stability and security. His rhetoric has done a strong job on playing onto public fear of a return to a past filled with poverty. He underlined continuity in public services and it is clear he is seen, like Putin, as a symbol for national pride. It is with those notions that he injects he seems to be mobilizing a mass support.

As a case of extreme populist, Erdoğan has known that merging Islamism with militarism under the banner ‘Turko-Islamic Synthesis’ would be a winning formula for his hypnotized masses, and his intense efforts in that direction since mid-2015 bore fruit.

He prepared the ground for autocracy when he masterfully transformed the murky coup attempt last summer into a contra-golpe, with an immense purge and oppression as a result. It is apparent that, with the State of Emergency in place, he sees the ground ripe for a ful-scale power grab.

In that context, those observers who draw comparisons between the 1934 German referendum – following the Reichstag fire a year before – and Turkey’s upcoming one, do seem to have a valid point.


‘No’ camp, irreparably fragmented because of rigid, obsessive and obstinate identity politics within itself – it is composed of Secular-Centrists, Kemalists, Kurds, Alevis leftists, Gülenists and some disgruntled ultra-nationalist Turks – has campaigned in separate ways, but with only one point in common.

They were united in deep fear that a one-man rule will turn Turkey into a Central Asian republic with strong Baathist and Ottomanist ingredients, where Erdoğan will be the untouchable supreme ruler who will treat all who are not in support for his autocratic model as pariahs, and display no respect for rule of law and human rights. It is this post-coup ‘new Turkey’ as envisioned by him that is perceived as a nightmare.

‘If you don’t say no this time; nobody anymore will ask you anything’ a slogan by the no campaign went.

‘You will be asked if you are an idiot or not. All you have to do is to answer yes or no!’ was another call, circulating in social media.


But, regardless the outcome on Sunday, Turkey will see its crisis, profound and existential, become even more complicated.

By a ‘crisis politics’ based on steady polarisation, Erdoğan managed to bring the worst out of the people, and in a deeper sense, he wants a majority to say yes to a rule heavily stained with corruption, to absence of justice and to a police state constructed on its rotten institutions.

So, this vote will be about an approval of ‘mobocracy’, or not.

Yet, the result will make a little difference. If the majority votes yes, Erdoğan will have a carte-blanche to rule for another 14 years, remain unaccountable and claim legitimacy before the western allies who, after all, may see more ‘benefits’ under him than otherwise. Meanwhile, with the separation of powers and rule of law vanishing, Erdoğan will continue to complete his autocratic architecture towards a ‘dynasty format’.

If the majority votes no, turbulence will be imminent. The ruling party, AKP, will use its powers to extend the State of Emergency to control the power, while Erdoğan will feel obliged to tighten his grip even further to repress a possible rebellion inside the party, and raise the pressure for all the opposition groups – topped by the Kurds – who will feel emboldened to challenge his power.

In this sense, a ‘no’ victory will light up a tiny flicker of hope for a return to democratic order; it will only help win some more time.


About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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