The remaining two weeks leading up to the April 16 constitutional referendum in Turkey will not be dominated as much by questions about the proposed changes as it will be by speculations of “one-man rule” and “regime changes” to Turkey’s system of governance. For months, spokespeople for the “no” campaign have told voters that “all hell is going to break loose” if the referendum passes. Undecided voters among the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) aren’t necessarily concerned with what lies ahead. Likewise, the electorate hardly bothers itself with the actual content of the reform bill itself, the limitations it places on executive powers, the political reaffiliation it necessitates of the president or the new role Parliament would play under the proposed system. Despite the desperate attempts of the main opposition party to fuel public fears of a “regime change” and potential “one-man rule,” voters have already dismissed these claims, acknowledging them for what they are: Fear-mongering tactics. On election day, undecided voters will enter the ballot box with one question in mind: What will happen if the “no” campaign wins?
Ahead of Turkey’s historic referendum, Republican People’s Party Chairman (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has exerted efforts to win over undecided voters by making the case that the “no” vote would not lead to chaos. Stressing that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the current government will remain in power even if the referendum does not pass, he pledged not to call for early elections if the referendum failed, adding during a recent interview that the CHP will show due respect to the president regardless of the outcome.
To be clear, the campaign strategy by the CHP leaders reflects a commitment to impressing voters to influence their decision regarding several constitutional amendments endorsed by President Erdoğan. As part of a cunning plan, opponents of the constitutional reform have carefully avoided targeting Mr. Erdoğan directly, opting instead for a “soft” approach – which involves directing their rhetoric toward the same people who have shown their support for the president for the past 15 years, telling them that their champion will remain in power even if the referendum fails.
Regardless of the outcome of April 16’s referendum, Turkish politics will enter a new era in which all political parties will be energized to launch new initiatives. At the same time, the country’s domestic order and foreign policy will undergo certain changes.
Without a doubt, the upcoming referendum is an effort to strengthen Turkey’s hand in an increasingly chaotic world and a dangerous region. The current debate is the product of the 2007 constitutional referendum, which led to the introduction of direct presidential elections and Mr. Erdoğan’s becoming Turkey’s first elected president in August 2014. As such, adopting a new system of government would mark a decisive step in the same direction.
While President Erdoğan and the current government will remain in charge even if the referendum fails, the bigger problem is related to the existing system’s tendency to provoke political crises. Before jumping to conclusions about Turkey’s system of governance, it is important to recall that the Gezi Park protests, the December 2013 judicial coup, the June 2015 parliamentary elections and the July 15 coup attempt all took place during Mr. Erdoğan’s tenure as prime minister and president.
Unless the constitutional reform bill passes, the groups and individuals seeking to hurt Turkey’s national interests will continue to find plenty of opportunities to meddle in Turkish politics and destabilize the country. Turkey’s foreign adversaries will continue making the case that Mr. Erdoğan’s so-called authoritarian tendencies and Islamist politics get in the way of our country’s progress. The Western media will put their anti-Erdoğan sentiments on replay and we will continue to see media reports claiming the president is reversing his country’s gains – which, of course, is a direct message to Turkish voters that they must rid themselves of Mr. Erdoğan, keeping Turkey exactly where the West wants it: On the receiving end of a smear campaign.
If the “no” campaign wins, the Turkish people will end up halfway across the proverbial river that they have been trying to cross for a decade. Under the circumstances, the only option would be to go back to a full-blown parliamentary system, given that the direct election of a president equipped with significant powers under the 1982 Constitution is not compatible with parliamentarism.
In that case, what would a return to parliamentarism look like? For starters, direct presidential elections would be abolished and a number of steps would be taken to reduce the Presidency to a ceremonial post – forcing the country to row back upriver with a broken paddle. If the referendum fails, the Turkish people will once again be up a creek without a paddle, trudging right back into the waters we have worked so hard to cross. In light of the above considerations, the final question that voters will ask themselves at the ballot box will be: What will happen if the “no” campaign wins?