With three days until referendum day, at least part of the nationalist vote is still up for grabs
On Thursday evening, the Turkish nationalist message in the referendum campaign was thrown into confusion. Barely an hour later, it was cleared up again.
On NTV, one of the country’s biggest news channels, was nationalist leader Devlet Bahçeli – who is in large part responsible for this referendum by unexpectedly announcing he supported the governing AK Party’s plans for an executive presidency.
On TGRT, a smaller rival, was President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan making the latest of his pre-referendum media appearances.
Mr Bahçeli’s broadcast made the headlines first when he hinted nationalist voters would vote ‘No’ – contrary to his party’s line – if there was any suggestion of Turkey switching to a federal system of local government in the future.
His comments stemmed from a fuss that began four days ago, when Şükrü Karatepe, one of President Erdoğan’s legion of advisors, wrote an essay on the devolution of power to local government.
The essay, published in a magazine printed by Ankara’s local municipality, is actually a thoughtful piece about how to reform local administrations in Turkey. It points out that there are two executives – the elected mayor and the appointed governor – in every Turkish locality and argues that this “double-headed” system needs reform.
The F word
But the press coverage was quite different.
“A state-based system coming after a ‘Yes’ vote,” bellowed the secularist Sözcü on Monday, even though the word “federal” doesn’t appear once in Mr Karatepe’s essay. That is no matter to a Turkish nationalist: federalism is a dirty word for them and any hint of division to Turkey’s indivisible unity is utterly intolerable.
So intolerable, in fact, that Mr Bahçeli – hitherto loyal to Mr Erdoğan’s cause – picked up on the row.
He used his NTV appearance to call on Mr Erdoğan to explicitly rule out federalism entirely.
And rule it out the president did – during a near-simultaneous broadcast on a rival channel.
“There was a statement by my advisor on this matter,” he told TGRT Haber, a rolling news channel. “But they distorted what he said, so my advisor made a statement clarifying it.”
“There is nothing of the sort,” he continued, referring to federalism. “Did you hear [such a commitment] from me? You did not.”
In itself, the row is not important. Turkey is one of the most centralised countries in Europe and is holding a referendum on centralising even further. That isn’t exactly a sign of an imminent trickle of power to the regions.
But tonight does bring focus on where the battle is being fought in the referendum’s dying days.
This website has previously noted how the campaign is being fought on the right wing of the political spectrum.
Securing Turkish nationalist sentiment is the key to an Erdoğan victory. But the confusion over federalism and the speed with which this evening’s statements were issued suggest some voters feel the messages are not fully clear.
The Yes side does not yet have this campaign in the bag.