Voices from Turkey: What Locals Think of the Referendum

By Gönül Tol | Director of Turkey Program - The Middle East Institute | Apr 13, 2017
Voices from Turkey: What Locals Think of the Referendum

On April 16, Turkish citizens will head to the polls to vote in a landmark referendum on the proposed constitutional changes that, if passed, will transition the country from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. This referendum is the pinnacle of an election cycle that has been in motion since 2014, and has left the country increasingly polarized. The momentous vote is also occurring within the context of the continued state of emergency declared in the aftermath of the attempted coup in July last year, the ongoing waves of terrorist attacks, and the escalation of the Syrian civil war. Below are local voices we interviewed on the referendum in an attempt to gain on-the-ground perspectives on the upcoming referendum. We picked four cities - Mersin, Diyarbakir, Izmir and Konya - which are strongholds of all four parties in parliament, and talked to scholars, journalists, and experts based in those cities.

 

Why did we pick Izmir?

Izmir is situated on the mid-section of the Aegean coast and is home to 4.2 million residents. It is the third largest city in Turkey, after Istanbul and Ankara. Popularly known as the “C.H.P.’s castle,” Izmir is considered a liberal bastion in Turkish politics. A look at the recent history of voting in Izmir shows that despite many attempts by the A.K.P to appeal to the Izmir public with promises of infrastructure and other projects, the C.H.P. maintains its stronghold over Izmir. In the last presidential election in 2014, the C.H.P. candidate received 58.64 percent of the vote, and currently, Izmir MPs in parliament are mostly C.H.P.. In both the 2007 and 2010 constitutional referenda, the electorate strongly rejected the government's constitutional reform proposals. Izmir was also a site of anti-A.K.P. protests in 2013.

Tanju Tosun graduated from Ankara University, Faculty of Economics and Administration Sciences, Department of Public Administration. He has a Ph.D in political science, and has been a professor of International Relations at Ege University, Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences, in Izmir since 1998. His area of expertise is elections, political parties, political systems, and voting behavior. He is the author of many books on Turkish politics and voting behavior in Turkey. 

Gonul Tol: How is the mood in Izmir? Are C.H.P. supporters excited and ready to go to the polls, or have they lost their faith in change?

Tanju Tosun: Izmir voters, particularly C.H.P. voters, are ready to vote. Since it is going to be a close race, they know that every vote counts. There is optimism among Izmir’s C.H.P. voters that this time, Erdogan can be defeated. So they are highly motivated. Izmir is a polarized town. It is a C.H.P. stronghold, but there are also die-hard A.K.P. supporters. That is why, unlike the rest of the country where you have many undecided voters, Izmir’s electorate is pretty sure on where they stand on the referendum.

GT: One of the concerns of the “no” camp is that after 15 years of A.K.P. rule, people lost their faith in change, and after so many elections in such a short period of time they are exhausted. So they will not go to the ballot, which will help the “yes” camp. But you are saying that the turnout will be high?

TT: I think that in both Izmir and the majority of Turkey, participation will be higher compared to past referendum experiences of Turkey. Usually, the turnout is higher in general elections than in referendums. But this time it is different. People feel that they will be voting on the type of political regime they will be living under, so they will be voting on their future.

GT: The C.H.P. has been focusing on "positive messaging." Instead of attacking the ruling party and Erdogan directly, it has been focusing on the content of the referendum package. Do you think this has helped the C.H.P. get its message across? Do you think the C.H.P. could be able to appeal to those who are not traditional C.H.P. supporters?

TT: In previous elections, the C.H.P. had adopted negative campaigns and they all failed to woo those who were undecided or outside the C.H.P.’s traditional base. I believe that this time around, it was a wise strategy for the C.H.P. to focus on the content of the package of the proposed amendments to the constitution instead of keeping the focus on Erdogan’s personality. For the C.H.P. to be successful in this race, it needs to convince the undecided voters and those who voted for the A.K.P. in previous elections. Attacking Erdogan’s personality would not resonate within this bloc, and they need to be convinced that the proposed changes will make it harder to address Turkey’s pressing problems. I think the C.H.P. has been doing a good job conveying this message, but whether it has appealed to non-C.H.P. voters is another matter. I do not think they have been convinced yet. 

GT: If the ruling party wins on April 16th, how would this impact the C.H.P.? Would this lead to a new "soul search" within the C.H.P., or shake Kilicdaroglu's rule?

TT: It depends on how well the “yes” camp does in the referendum. If it receives 60 percent of the popular vote, that could spell trouble for the C.H.P. leadership. The opposition within the party would certainly be emboldened if the “no” camp loses to 60 percent. They might try to mobilize people within the party to bring a new administration. But I think such opposition has little chance to succeed because the current C.H.P. leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, and his team have strong ties with local organizations, and maintain control over the central party organization.

So, a loss in the referendum might not bring about a leadership change within the C.H.P., but it would certainly put pressure on Kilicdaroglu and his team to make changes in the way the party functions, conveys its messages, and relate to the electorate. 

 

Why did we pick Diyarbakir?

Diyarbakir, situated on the banks of the Tigris River, is one of the largest cities of Turkey’s Kurdish region. It is considered the “spiritual capital” of the Kurdish diaspora that stretches over Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. It has a population of around 1.7 million people. Diyarbakir’s co-mayors, Gultan Kisanak and Firat Anli, who were swept into office with 55 percent of the vote in 2014, have been in pre-trial detention since October 30, 2016, on thinly supported charges of being members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (P.K.K.).

Diyarbakir is the stronghold of the pro-Kurdish H.D.P.

Harun Ercan is based in Diyarbakir. He completed his MA thesis on the dynamics of radicalization of the Kurdish movement in Turkey at the Comparative Studies in History and Society program at Koc University in Istanbul. As a lecturer at Koc University, he taught courses on the political history and social movements of Turkey. He also has worked as the International Relations advisor to the co-mayors of Diyarbakir, Gultan Kisanak and Firat Anli, until 2016. He is currently pursuing his doctoral studies at the State University of New York at Binghamton, focusing on Civil War, Conflict Resolution, and Social Movements theories with a specific focus on the endgame of armed conflicts. He has published a number of academic articles on the Kurdish question, and has also worked as the founding editorial board member of Toplum and Kuram, which when launched in 2009, was the first academic journal in Turkey to focus on Kurdish issues. 

Gonul Tol: Since the collapse of the ceasefire between the P.K.K. and Turkey in the summer of 2015, hundreds of thousands of people had to flee their homes. The clashes have killed hundreds of civilians, destroyed Kurdish cities and small businesses. How is the mood in Diyarbakir? Do people expect anything to change with the referendum? Do they have hope?

Harun Ercan: Though the overwhelming majority of the Kurds in Diyarbakir will vote against the constitutional amendment proposals, many are apprehensive, as they believe that the referendum will end in Erdogan’s favour. People from different segments of Kurdish society share the general concern of the absence of peace and the ongoing state of emergency implementations that are carried out harshly, compared to other regions of Turkey. Since the state of emergency rule went into effect last July, Kurds have bitterly experienced in practice what Erdogan’s executive presidency vision looks like before the April 16th referendum. Daily life is still extremely militarized, with check points in major streets of Diyarbakir despite no violent incidents taking place since January. The possibility of Erdogan’s victory on April 16th frightens the H.D.P.’s Kurds on various grounds. Business people think that the government might seize their assets using alleged links to the P.K.K.; Kurdish civil servants who are still employed are afraid of losing their occupations, as thousands are dismissed already; and the Kurdish middle class is concerned about further instability and economic crisis due to possible reescalation. Additionally, those who barely scrape by and constitute the majority of the Kurdish population are tired of war and don’t believe that the referendum result will change Erdogan’s aggressive policies.  

GT: But Erdogan is still courting the Kurdish vote. How did they receive Erdogan's most recent Diyarbakir rally and the message he delivered there?

HE: Since the beginning of the A.K.P.’s rule in 2002, Erdogan has visited Diyarbakir many times and delivered many speeches, but in the past he addressed a much larger crowd, sometimes numbering around 30,000 people. But this time it was only a few thousand. There were so few people attending the rally, that at the last minute they changed the venue and picked a much smaller place.  Erdogan’s speech could have made an impact on the Kurds only if he promised a return to the peace talks after the referendum. Without that, Erdogan’s message did not resonate among the people of Diyarbakir. For the first time since the A.K.P. came to power, all the main streets in Diyarbakir were decorated with Turkish flags and Erdogan’s pictures while locals remained locked up throughout the day due to extra-ordinary security measures taken by 7,000 policemen. Looking at the Newroz celebrations held on March 21st instead of Edogan’s rally, can give us more clues about the upcoming referendum. Newroz celebrations are better indicators of the level of support for the H.D.P.. Despite Kemal Kurkut, a Kurdish university student, being shot to death by Turkish police that morning, thousands of Kurds attended the celebrations, and the number of participants was approximately 40-50 percent higher compared to the previous year’s attendance figures. 

GT: Who do people blame more for the ongoing clashes in the region, the P.K.K., the H.D.P., or the government?

HE: The armed conflict in urban areas that ended in June 2016 has left 255,000 people homeless and more than 2,000 dead, including hundreds of Kurdish civilians. Initially, the majority of locals were blaming the P.K.K. for bringing the war into cities from mountains. The tide has turned after the government’s heavy handed military response to the P.K.K.’s urban warfare. Aside from the military response, the government carried out a full-blown repression campaign targeting elected Kurdish politicians. So far, 83 municipalities out of 103 controlled by the pro-Kurdish party were appointed state commissioners while 88 elected co-mayors are in jail, in addition to 13 MPs of the People’s Democratic Party (H.D.P.). Especially the imprisonment of Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the H.D.P., has dealt a blow to the government’s narrative that puts the blame entirely on the P.K.K.. It has become a symbol of dissent to the government’s crackdown on Kurdish opposition.

GT: What is the campaign message/strategy of the government in the region?

HE: By controlling the media, denying the H.D.P. platforms to get its message across, and jailing Kurdish politicians, the government is trying to prevent the H.D.P. from running an effective campaign. All TV stations, dailies, and news agencies in the region critical of the government were closed down in September 2016. The H.D.P. has no access to mainstream media. Since September, approximately 6,000 party executives or members of the H.D.P. (and its regional sister, D.B.P.) have been imprisoned, which has almost depleted the human resources of the A.K.P.’s only rival party in the Kurdish region. In certain provinces like Bingol, Elazig, Gaziantep, and Urfa, almost all those who could work for the H.D.P. campaign are now in prison. This has already paved the way for the A.K.P. to consolidate its own voting base in those cities. But in cities such as Diyarbakir, Mardin, Van, Sirnak, Siirt, and Hakkari, where the H.D.P. has more than 50% popular support, the H.D.P. seems to have consolidated its base and convinced the electorate to join the “no” camp. Local A.K.P. officials’ promise of a return to peace negotiations if the “yes” bloc wins does not seem to have persuaded the Kurds living in the region.

GT: Can Erdogan capture votes from the H.D.P.'s base? What about conservative Kurds? How are they going to cast their votes on April 16th? Or will they stay home and not vote?

HE: It is difficult for Erdogan to capture a considerable number of votes from the H.D.P.’s base mainly because his referendum campaign promises almost nothing for any Kurd who has voted at least once for the H.D.P. The A.K.P. used to be popular in the region since it was perceived by the Kurds as the voice of anti-Kemalist establishment as well as foci of resolution to the Kurdish question. But the A.K.P.’s alliance with the ultra-nationalist M.H.P. has alienated some conservative Kurds who used to vote for the A.K.P., leaving the A.K.P. with only religious Kurds and profit-seeking groups/individuals: those who want to benefit from the government’s clientelistic network. The majority of conservative Kurds seem to be sitting on the fence.

GT: What would be the implications of the referendum result on the Kurdish question/ongoing clashes? Would a "no" vote or a "yes" vote increase the chances of resuming negotiations between the two sides?

HE: Domestic dynamics are not the sole drivers of Turkey’s Kurdish question. Regional factors play an important role as well. Developments in Rojava and Turkey cannot be isolated from each other. Therefore, resolution of Turkey’s Kurdish issue calls for a more integrated approach and recalibration of Turkey’s policy toward the P.Y.D. As long as Turkish hostility towards the Y.P.G. /S.D.F. presence in Syria continues, it is highly unlikely for peace negotiations to resume between the Turkish government and the P.K.K. Domestically, returning to the peace negotiations is possible only if Erdogan loses on April 16th, breaks his alliance with the M.H.P., and decides not to call for early elections. This is the scenario where Erdogan will not need the nationalist vote anymore and can afford to resume negotiations with the P.K.K. 

 

Why did we pick Mersin?

Mersin is located on the eastern Turkish coast of the Mediterranean. With around 2 million residents, Mersin has significant Arab, Turkmen, and Alevi populations. Mersin also experienced a wave of Kurdish migration in the 1990s, and many live in ghetto-like sections of the city. As a result, the M.H.P., an ultra-Turkish nationalist party, has gained increasing electoral support in Mersin. The municipal elections in 2014 left M.H.P. the victor with 31.9 percent of the vote, though C.H.P. continues to maintain a strong presence in the city as well. 

Mirza Turgut has been a journalist in Mersin for 25 years. 18 years ago, he founded Kent Radio and Mersin’s first internet news website, ufukturu.net, where in the span of 14 years he has written 4,700 articles ranging from local and domestic issues, to literature and art. He continues to host his commentary on Kent Radyo and publish his pieces on his website.

He is also the author of three books in Turkish titled Göçler ve Mersin Tarihi, Değişen Türkiye Değişemeyen Siyaset, and Rönesans Aydınlanma ve Sosyal Demokrasi.  

Gonul Tol: Mersin is one of those towns where ethnic identities are strong. There are considerable Arab, Turkmen, and Kurdish populations living in the city. So tension runs high, especially during elections. How is the current mood in Mersin on the eve of the referendum?

Mirza Turgut: There is a lack of excitement. People are tired of elections. The ruling party is having difficulty defending the constitutional amendments. So the local A.K.P. branches in Mersin are not actively campaigning, instead leaving the messaging to a few ministers who visit the town every now and then. The mayor of Mersin is from M.H.P., the party controls eight municipalities, and yet the M.H.P. leader, Devlet Bahceli, has not held a rally in Mersin. So there is vacuum that is filled by the main opposition, C.H.P., and the pro-Kurdish H.D.P. that is strong in some municipalities in Mersin. The C.H.P.’s messaging is effective and appealing to locals. It is focusing on the content of the referendum and urging the voters to vote based on that, instead of the party line.

GT: The M.H.P. has always had a strong presence in Mersin, as you mentioned. What is their election strategy there?

MT: Mersin is a town with a considerable Kurdish population and the P.K.K. has also been strong. Mersin has had its fair share of terror attacks. So the M.H.P. is focusing on terrorism and the fear of Kurdish quest for autonomy to woo voters, but I don’t think the electorate is buying it.

GT: So M.H.P. supporters are not responding to Bahceli’s “Kurdish separatism card?”

MT: No. We have conducted surveys with 1,100 people in Mersin. Our findings indicate that M.H.P base is not buying Bahceli’s argument.

GT: So they will not be backing Bahceli's “yes” campaign? 

MT: No. According to our surveys, they are very critical of Bahceli’s alliance with the A.K.P. and the majority will be voting “no” on Sunday. Those who are voting “no” think that too much power in one man’s hands is too dangerous for a country like Turkey.

GT: What about Mersin in general?

MT: According to our polls, 65 percent will vote “no”.

GT: If the “no” camp wins on Sunday, what would happen to the M.H.P. and its leader Bahceli?

MT: The M.H.P. base in Mersin does not find Bahceli convincing. And there is a lot of excitement within the base for Merak Aksener, the dissident within the M.H.P. I think if the “no” camp wins, the opposition to Bahceli’s leadership might gain enough momentum to fracture the party. According to M.H.P. supporters in Mersin, Bahceli lost his credibility by jumping on Erdogan’s “presidentialism” train.

I also want to mention that our polls indicate that around 10 percent of the A.K.P. base in Mersin will vote “no” on Sunday. It will be an interesting race.

 

Why did we pick Konya?

Konya is a central Anatolian town. It is the seventh most populous city in Turkey and is an A.K.P. stronghold.

Birol Akgün graduated from Ankara University with a degree in public administration in 1993. He completed his masters and doctorate in political science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Upon his return to Turkey, he took a position as assistant professor in the department of international relations at Selçuk University, becoming a professor in 2009. He is currently the department head of international relations in the College of Political Science at Yıldırım Beyazit University.

His research work in 2003, titled "11 Eylül, Değişen Dünya Dengeleri ve Türkiye," won first place at Milliyet Newspaper’s Social Science Awards. His recent focus has been on international terror, security, and US foreign policy. Among his published works are, "Amerikan Başkanlığı: Cumhuriyetten İmparatorluğa", "11 Eylül Sonrasında Dünya, ABD ve Türkiye," "Türkiye’de Seçmen Davranışı ve Partiler Sistemi," and "UIuslararası Örgütler ve Türkiye." In addition to these, Akgün has published around 50 articles on comparative politics and international relations in domestic and international journals.

Gonul Tol: You worked in Konya, an A.K.P. stronghold, for many years. What do people in Konya think about the upcoming referendum?

Birol Akgün: May be except for 5 percent, the A.K.P. base thinks that switching to a presidential system is essential. Erdogan is a charismatic leader and his supporters would not question his thinking anyway. As long as he thinks that this is necessary, his base will support him 100 percent. Some might argue that the party’s base is not excited about the referendum but in fact they are. It just took time for them to get in the mood.

GT: So you do not agree with some public opinion polls that some A.K.P. supporters will vote “no” on Sunday?

BA: Even if there was doubt about the presidential system, it was only among the elites of the party who are not sure about what presidentialism would bring for them, not among the masses. May be a tiny segment of the base might not go to the polls but I don’t think this would be significant enough to effect the result. But of course we will never know until Sunday evening.

GT: What is the main reason behind a typical A.K.P. voter’s support for switching to a presidential system?

BA: I think the most important reason is the promise of economic and political stability and the concern over terrorism. People think that this government has brought economic prosperity and political stability to the country and they want continuity. The “no” camp does not offer a viable alternative. 

GT: But what does presidentialism mean for the A.K.P. base?

BA: Again, it means stability and getting rid of bureaucratic and military tutelage for ever. To a typical AKP voter, presidentialism is the only way to prevent future coups like the one we saw on July 15th.

GT: What would happen to the AKP if the “no” camp wins on Sunday?

BA: Of course the party might do some soul searching if the “no” camp wins, but it would not lead to dissidence within the party. Just like we saw after June 2015 elections when the A.K.P. lost its majority in the parliament, the base would rally around Erdogan and move on.

GT: Do you think Erdogan would call for early elections if he looses on Sunday? 

BA: Yes he would. It would be inevitable since the opposition would start questioning the legitimacy of the government and the only way to fix this is to call for early elections.