By Alejandra Pajares
“We no longer have the luxury to be afraid and do nothing.”
In the April 2017 constitutional referendum, Turks will vote on whether they want an executive presidency or not. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and MHP are pushing for a yes vote; but this has triggered significant opposition from grassroots organisations.
One of the most creative opposition campaigns, HAYIR (“no”), gathers a number of organizations under its umbrella. Independent Turkey talks to BiBu (Biraradayız Buradayız), one of the local groups participating in the initiative.
From maybe to HAYIR
On Thursday February 10, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the date for the constitutional referendum as April 16. The expedited transition process as well as the authoritarian character of the “one-man regime” which the amendments propose continue to cause outrage among some sections of the public.
In parliament, two blocs have arisen: on one side, the YES campaign, backed by President Erdoğan, the AKP and the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). On the other, the opposition, supported by People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and Republican People’s Party (CHP).
At the ground level, diverse self-organised opposition groups such as feminist and LGBTQ groups, some environmental and human rights NGOs, secularist, socialist, libertarian, and left-oriented political groups, as well as Kurdish and pro-Kurdish voters, have joined forces and begun to mobilize under the HAYIR campaign. Their aim is to reach a majority of no votes at the referendum and block the presidential regime.
While the pro regime-changers argue that a presidential system will bring peace, prosperity and stability to the country, opposition groups worry that an executive presidency will lead to the end of democracy, the institutionalization of authoritarian rule, and increase political repression, as well as the centralization of power in the president’s hands. This could continue up until 2029, after the completion of two consecutive presidential terms, which is the maximum amount of time the same president will be able to stay in office under the new constitution.
Events following the June 2015 elections, such as the abrupt interruption of the peace talks regarding the Kurdish conflict, the signing of the EU-Turkey refugee deal in March 2016, the July military coup attempt in June 2016 and its aftermath, and the controversial deployment of Turkish troops on Syrian soil have left the country in political turmoil and economic recession.
The referendum will be held in the midst of a recently prolonged State of Emergency, which has allowed Erdoğan to rule by decree since the coup attempt in July 2016. Since then, political opposition occupying public charges has been either dismissed or jailed, and freedom of expression has been significantly undermined.
This paved the way to a rather uneven playing field for campaigning against, noted in the run up to the elections. A new statutory decree abolished the constitutional equality principle which gives the Supreme Election Board (YSK) the responsibility to ensure public and private broadcasters dedicate the same amount of time to all candidates during referendum periods. As a result, the public broadcaster TRT plans to give to the YES campaign double the airtime of the NO campaign.
Furthermore, the HAYIR campaign fears that election manipulation including power cuts, and discarded and overprinted ballots, which occurred during the November 2015 snap election, will be repeated in the upcoming referendum.
Formerly know as 10danSonra, BiBu (Biraradayız Buradayiz – Together Here), was formed in response to the current form of governance in Turkey, as a political association opposing the constitutional change.
Although a few smaller associations like BiBu and the feminist group Hayır Diyen Kadınlar (Women Say No) have been campaigning against the presidential system since January, the grassroots HAYIR campaign did not gain widespread support in Istanbul until the general meeting on 29 January, organised by the group HAYIR Kadıköy.
It took place at Yeldeğirmeni Sanat Merkezi, in Kadıköy, bringing together over two hundred people. The success of the meeting was such that within a week, a number of self-organized HAYIR district assemblies had spread throughout Istanbul, with various neighborhood councils were also created. From Beyoğlu to Üsküdar, and from Şişli to Beşiktas, both small and general meetings are being held regularly in the weeks leading up to the referendum.
“Within the last ten years, we’ve learned a lot, especially after the Gezi park protests.” Nilay, an activist from BiBu, told Independent Turkey. She continued to emphasize that despite the government’s success in influencing public opinion and dividing the public along social fault lines such as that between Kurdish and Turkish nationalists, and secularists and religious conservatives, through the use of polarizing discourse, “we’ve learnt how to work together through both our success stories and failures.”
The second HAYIR Kadıköy meeting, held on Sunday February 4, brought together over a hundred people. Most were representatives from neighborhood councils within Kadıköy but also from other districts who shared the progress and ideas that came up within their local groups. The meeting was focused on how to coordinate the movement on a horizontal basis, and raised new ideas on how to reach and approach indecisive voters.
As various groups voiced during the meeting, one of the greatest organizational challenges of campaigning in such a big metropole is keeping a horizontal network structure. Such as structure will on the one hand, align all the groups under a single umbrella campaign to maintain unity and ensure people’s security, and on the other hand, give enough freedom to each neighborhood council to conduct the HAYIR campaign as they wish, since the social demographics and dynamics of each neighborhood are different.
The groups among the Kadıköy assembly agree that it is necessary to develop a common language, understandable to all, in order to increase awareness about the content of the elections. According to BiBu, there is very little knowledge among the general public about what the constitutional reforms entail. “When you explain to people what the constitutional amendments will bring, more people say no,” Nilay explained.
To this end, BiBu composed an informative bill, #BaşkanlığınFaturası, showing the economic and political costs of what they describe as a “one-man regime,” as well as the price that people have already paid leading up to it. The bill has been distributed in local mailboxes and uploaded to social media. “It is spreading really fast. Social media campaigning works very effectively,” BiBu told Independent Turkey.
Nilay explained that “a huge number of people are under the impression that they are either voting for Erdoğan or evaluating the performance of the AKP. It is much more than Erdoğan or the AKP because a change in the constitution signifies a huge change in the regime itself”, and it is not an easy one to reverse. According to Nilay, this is what the YES campaign relies on: “the polls show that the more we speak about the content of the constitutional changes themselves, the more people say no.”
Nilay stressed the importance of using “positive campaigning, to be creative, and to find unusual ways of making [themselves] heard.” She pointed out that amidst crackdowns on people’s freedom of expression by decree, it is hard to reach the public as “the mainstream media is largely dominated by the ruling party.”
Resistance under the State of Emergency
The steady eradication of political opposition from parliament, the on-going purge of public workers and academics, and the closure of numerous media channels, NGOs and associations since the declaration of the State of Emergency. BiBu argues “has created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. People who used to be very active during the past years went into their homes and stopped participating in public life, or even going out.”
It is an atmosphere, Nilay continued, “[that has] affected all of us”, including those who were involved in the pro-Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) group 10danSonra (After 10%) back in 2015.
10danSonra was created out of the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the group actively campaigned during the 2015 general elections to ensure that HDP reached the 10 percent threshold and obtain parliamentary representation. Following the elections, the group dissolved.
After months of inactivity and fear of repression, “we realised that the only way to explode this bubble of fear is by working together again. When we first met, we just wanted to make a declaration [about the arrest and detention of HDP co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ], but then we realised that the mere act of coming together again made us feel good and strong once more.”
Concern over the referendum is not only for the conditions in which it will occur. Opposition groups fear that what has been presented as an exceptional situation – the extreme powers of the presidency and parliament under the state of emergency – may become the norm after the constitutional change.
HDP Diyarbakır deputy Idris Baluken echoed the party’s position that a presidential regime will “bring an end to the rule of law in the country.”
“As members of a party whose representation has been targeted from the start,” Baluken said, “It is our right to say no to this constitutional amendment package.”
At a YES rally in Mersin on February 3 which coincided with the opening of a city hospital, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım argued that the constitutional amendments do not aim at a change in the regime, and encouraged the opposition to “change their minds” arguing that “those who resist change will become extinct.”
One of the most debated constitutional amendments is one that limits the powers of the parliament over the cabinet, which, if the presidential regime obtains the green light, will be replaced by a chamber of vice-presidents appointed by the president himself.
CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has accused the AKP of “trying to turn the democratic parliamentary regime into a totalitarian regime,” while Erdoğan has argued that “[there] needs to be one authority in the executive branch,” because, “two captains sink the ship.”
MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli, who a year ago referred to the presidential system as the recipe for a “sultanate without a throne,” now argues that it is the party’s historical and social responsibility to follow the presidential path in order to keep the cohesion of the Turkish Republic, fragmented after the military coup. The constitutional transition process, although supported by MHP in parliament, has not left the electorate of the nationalist party untouched. MHP-supporting groups like the Ülkü Ocakları and the Public Workers’ Union (Kamu Sen) have publicly positioned themselves against the constitutional change from the start.
Not a foregone conclusion
Polls are continuously oscillating between the YES and the NO majority. At this point in the campaign any predictions are highly uncertain. What the opposition fears is that misinformation about the content and nature of the referendum might lead people to vote on the basis of partisanship rather than on individual views. A recent study published by researchers at Koç University argues that this may well be the case: tracking data from 2015-2016, the authors found that partisanship is a significant factor in how people form their views on the proposed presidential system.
Meanwhile, the HAYIR campaign goes on. “At the beginning it was quite different, we were [distributing fliers] sort of secretly, in fear, but the more we did it, and saw that it was possible, the more empowered we felt,” said Nilay. However, “we’ve reached a point in which repression has gone so far, and so many people [have] paid such high prices, that we no longer have the luxury to be afraid and do nothing.”