Turkey: Constitutional Referendum during a State of Emergency


Turkey's upcoming constitutional referendum on 16 April 2017 is deeply polarizing Turkish society. According to the latest polls, the battle for the constitutional reform package is a neck and neck race, with the opposition having a slight lead for now. So far neither side has taken a convincing lead but if president Erdoğan gains the necessary support for the referendum, eighteen amendments will alter the Turkish constitution in a way that will grant the president sweeping powers. It will mark fundamental changes to the Constitutional Law of  the 93-year old Turkish Republic. Prior to the referendum, Turkey's already brittle democracy had been dealt a huge blow by the declaration of the State of Emergency after the failed coup in July 2016, which initiated a purge of a nearly unprecedented scale.

Turkey is still in a State of Emergency since the coup attempt in July 2016. The state of Emergency was declared first in July 2016 for a period of three months, extended in October 2016 and consequently extended again in January 2017. It is due to expire April 19, three days after the constitutional referendum. However Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has already indicated that the State of Emergency will be extended once again, thereby further prolonging the extraordinary state of affairs that has marked the granting of unlimited discretionary powers to the executive and administrative authorities and the derogation of human rights in Turkey.

Since the State of Emergency Turkish authorities have purged well over 100.000 civil servants and arrested over 40.000 persons, including judges, prosecutors, teachers and academics as well as initiated a crackdown on civil liberties, shut down critical media outlets and jailed and removed critical journalists and members of opposition parties from their positions, including elected mayors and members of parliament. Concurrently there has been a dramatic rise in human rights violations in the conflict in the predominantly Kurdish Southeast of Turkey, and Turkish authorities seem unable or unwilling to ensure effective investigations and criminal accountability for violations of human rights.

Campaigning for the Constitutional Referendum

The State of Emergency has deepened divisions in Turkish society in the lead up to the referendum. As the scope of the State of Emergency has been extended beyond the instigators of the coup d'etat to the critical media and opposition groups at large, the level playing field for campaigning in the referendum has been tilted in favor of president Erdoğan. Although initially relatively calm, the campaign on the referendum has turned toxic. The campaign has seen a convergence of state authorities and the governing party of president Erdoğan, severly limited (political) opposition as well as a general lack of free public debate and access to critical media about the referendum. The ''NO-camp'', those advocating for a ''NO-vote'' have been struggling with many obstructions such as sabotage, intimidation, violence and arbitrary arrests and detentions. The polarization has gone as far as to label opponents as supporters of the coup d’etat, terrorists and traitors of Turkey.

Polarization in Turkey, a poster on the referendum. Which side would you choose: evet (yes) or hayir (no)? In the YES-camp: president Erdoğan, prime minister Yıldırım and chairman of the MHP party Devlet Bahçeli In the NO-camp: Fethullah Gülen of the Gülen Movement, leader of the HDP party Selahattin Demirtaş, leader of the CHP party Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and the leader of ISIS Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi (photo by Pinar Tremblay, Al-Monitor)

Looking past the Referendum and the State of Emergency

Since the State of Emergency Turkish authorities have taken a sharp turn away from democracy and the rule of law. However, many Turkish citizens, in Turkey and abroad, hope for a state of normalcy to return after the referendum. Despite the acerbic environment in which the referendum will take place, the hope is that Turkish authorities will organize (technically) fair elections, accept the results of the referendum, halt the polarization and revoke the State of Emergency and the suspension of human rights in Turkey.