Turkish referendum: First step to 'New Turkey' or shameless power-grab?

On April 16, Turkish voters will decide whether to give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the new powers he's pushing for. Nil Köksal explains what's at stake.

Nearly 60 million Turks are voting in the referendum

The upcoming Turkish referendum will determine whether the populace will grant President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greater powers. (Turkish Presidential Press Service/Associated Press)

Yes or no questions, by definition, are supposed to be clear-cut, black and white.

But like so much in Turkey, the decision more than 58 million of its citizens — including three million abroad — will make on April 16 is a lesson in shades of grey.

Turks are voting in a referendum on whether to change their country's constitution and give more power to current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan — there's no disputing that.

The real question is, would these changes help or hurt a country crucial to the stability and balance of power in the region?

Here's a closer look at what's at stake.

How did we get here?

In 2014, after serving as prime minister for 11 years, Erdogan won the post of president. Until then, the presidency was secondary to the prime ministership and largely ceremonial. But Erdogan made it clear from the start that he would not be a rubber stamp president — he was going to change the job and the country.

On April 16, Turks will have to cast a vote for Yes ("Evet") or No ("Hayir"). (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

He would not be "a protocol president," he said at the time, but "a sweating, running, bustling president."

The trauma of the last few years has fueled Erdogan's argument for a new constitution. The war in Syria and the humanitarian crisis that have brought roughly three million refugees to Turkey, deadly ISIS attacks and the attempted coup are just some of the reasons why, Erdogan insists, a presidential system will be better for Turkey.

His opponents argue that Erdogan is the architect of many of those problems.

Erdogan's reform package has been so contentious, MPs got into brawls during the parliamentary debate on the changes. It isn't Erdogan, the opposition says — it's the idea that any leader now or in the future might have so much unchecked power over the country.

What the 'Yes' camp says

Erdogan's campaign hinges on convincing voters that a "Yes" vote means stability and modernity — a "New Turkey," as he's called it.

Erdogan's campaign has been trying to convince Turks that a 'Yes' vote means stability and modernity. (YDylan Martinez/Reuters)

There are 18 items in the constitutional reform package Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) want to see become law in Turkey.

Among the key changes:

  • Turkey will no longer have a prime minister
  • The president will be head of government, head of state and, unlike before, head of a political party
  • The president will appoint ministers, top state officials and much of the judiciary
  • The president will be able to dissolve parliament and declare a state of emergency

Erdogan and his supporters say this will bring true democracy to Turkey and erase the bureaucracy they believe is holding the country back.

What Team 'No' says

Critics who want the country to vote "No" insist Erdogan's plan will install a de facto dictatorship — and they say there's a pattern of behaviour that validates their concerns.

One problem opponents point to is the fact that nearly three years into Erdogan's presidency, censorship has increased and Turkey has become a country that jails more journalists than any other. The government's argument is usually that they are not journalists, but spies or terrorist supporters.

There have been several brawls in the Turkish parliament over Erdogan's constitutional reform package. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

While all of the party leaders are given air time, Erdogan and his ministers monopolize most of the daily television coverage.

Those in the "No" camp hope a vote in their favour will help curb Erdogan's ambitions, and maybe also force his government to mend the country's quickly fraying ties with the West.

Beyond the cultural impact of losing its natural and historic connections with Europe, nearly half of Turkey's imports and exports are tied to business with EU countries. The idea of losing that when the country's economy is already struggling is terrifying for many here.

One of his opponents, People's Democratic Party (HDP) MP Garo Paylan, hopes a "No" vote will embolden anxious Erdogan allies too afraid to challenge him now.

"I know that half of [Erdogan's] MPs are not happy with his ideology," Paylan said. If the "Yes" side loses the referendum, there is hope, Paylan said, that AKP reformers could convince Erdogan to shift course and relax the authoritarianism he said has gripped Turkey for the last two years.

Not a fair fight

Selin Sayek Böke is an opposition MP in Turkey and said that the Erdogan government has 'labelled everyone campaigning for 'No' as terrorists.' (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

The referendum campaign has been heavy with violence and intimidation. In one case, amateur video shows a man accosting a woman handing out "No" flyers, demanding she stop. Bystanders intervened to protect her.

"They've labelled everyone campaigning for 'No' as terrorists," opposition MP Selin Sayek Böke said. "This very vulgar language in politics has been trickling down into a physical brutality on the streets."

Böke, the deputy leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP), has faced death threats herself.
In a rebuke of Erdogan's tendency to paint many of his critics as extremists, the satire magazine Penguin recently suggested that the referendum question is really 'Yes' or 'Terrorist.' (Penguen)

"No" supporters say they are also being denied access to mainstream media outlets and to young voters. Members of the governing AKP are able to campaign on state-run university campuses, while opposition politicians have been barred from those same campuses.

Meanwhile, HDP co-chairs Figan Yuksekdag and Selahaatin Demirtas are in prison, among the party's 13 elected MPs, on allegations of supporting terror. The government alleges they are working with the militant PKK, a group considered a terror organization by Turkey, the EU and the U.S.

Paylan called the allegations "propaganda" and "a huge lie." The HDP arrests are on top of the tens of thousands of journalists, writers and academics rounded up, fired, or arrested in the months since the deadly attempted coup last July.

The wildcard

Erdogan would not have been able to get his reform package off the ground without the help of an unlikely alliance with Devlet Bahceli, the leader of Turkey's Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Bahceli said repeatedly, for years, that he would never support a presidential system. Several members of his party have quit as a result of his support of Erdogan, and are among a growing group of nationalists supporting the "No" campaign.

The odds

Recent polls in Turkey reveal a very tight race, with polling firm Gezici Research putting the 'No" side slightly ahead, at 51 per cent. The near-even split we've seen in several recent votes in Turkey is yet another reminder of how divided this country is.

Do not expect Erdogan to step down if his side loses. Some are predicting he might push for an early election instead. The next general election is supposed to be in 2019, but Erdogan could call for a vote as early as October.


Nil Köksal is the host of World Report, CBC's flagship national radio news show. She begins her mornings with more than a million loyal listeners. She returned from her post as CBC’s foreign correspondent in Turkey in 2018.