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Three things that can lose you a referendum

Turkey prepares for its second referendum in three years

Erdoğan Kılıçdaroğlu

Turkey prepares for its second referendum in three years

It’s referendum time in Turkey again. On 12 September, 49 million or so Turks will be asked to approve the latest package of substantive changes to the constitution drafted 28 years ago by the country’s last military junta. In the best traditions of irony, voting day wil also mark thirty years since the coup that put that junta in power.

The last time Turks were consulted on constitutional change was October 2007, when the headline reform was to the presidency. “We want a president elected by the people,” the AK government proclaimed, “and may he hold office for two five-year terms.” 69 percent of voters agreed. Changes relating to parliament’s voting rules and term in office were bundled into the same package. All said, an easy win.

Three weeks tomorrow, voters will be called back again, but this time it won’t be as straightforward for the AK Party. Opinion polls indicate the yes vote is ahead, but only narrowly so, and a large proportion of voters are still undecided. Three reasons help explain why 2007 won’t be repeated again.

The first is the Turkish army, which is not a factor in this referendum. In 2007, the General Staff published its notorious “e-coup” online, criticising the government and the threat it posed to the secular state. The gamble back-fired: AK called a snap poll, was returned by an increased majority, and went through a honeymoon period that helped it comfortably win the referendum too. Many AK supporters then were simply those alarmed by the prospect of a military intervention.

This time, there is no stand-off with the military. Aside from a spat surrounding the appointment of one particular general to the post of Land Forces Commander, the government and army have been in full agreement – over the fight against the PKK – and there is no anti-coup sentiment to exploit.

This helps partly explain the second reason why history won’t be repeated – that the government’s support base is shrinking. 2007 saw a strong government with a strong mandate presiding over a strengthening economy; 2010 brings us a weaker government with a nearly-expired mandate, presiding over an economy out of recession but facing unemployment above 10 percent. Put another way, the people are bored with this government and aren’t all that richer than they were three years ago. Besides, they now have a credible alternative.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was elected leader of the opposition CHP in late May. Turkish voters were interested: here at last was a personality to rival Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, prime minister, who spoke colloquially about jobs and public services, and didn’t have that aura of elitism that followed the former CHP leader around.

Mr Kılıçdaroğlu has maintained his party’s support of a no vote, not entirely out of a compulsive rejection of anything proposed by AK, but also because of rational argument: why, for instance, is a package of such diverse reforms being voted as a whole, rather than as individual clauses? The CHP leader’s voice will sway many in the next few weeks.

The third reason why this referendum will be no easy win is that the proposed reforms are hideously complicated. I certainly can’t profess to understanding them all yet, and I suspect a lot of the Turkish public is with me. Part of the reason for this is the lack of any headlining reform: in 2007, people were promised the right to elect their own president. Most people understood that. In 2010, people are being promised that senior judges will be appointed in a slightly different way. A marketing dream this is not.

As it stands, the governing AK party is supported by the far-right Great Union Party (BBP) and the religious Felicity Party (SP) in a yes vote. Aside from the CHP, the major parties urging a no vote are the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), the centre-right Democrats (DP) and the centre-left DSP. The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) are currently boycotting the vote, but have incidated they may switch to a yes if some of their demands are met.

But more on that in a future post. Over the coming weeks, I’ll examine the arguments of the yes and no camps, cover the political machinations as Mssrs Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu campaign, and come to a – no doubt highly influential – conclusion over what verdict Turks should reach on 12 September.