Much ado about nothing

The result of the referendum is no victory for democracy, reports Esen Uslu

Turkey is set for a “ground-breaking political transformation”, claimed The Guardian, after the September 12 referendum on a package of constitutional amendments. Voters had “backed a constitutional shake-up designed to tame its once mighty secular establishment” and the result represented “a stunning political triumph for Turkey’s prime minister” Recep Erdogan (September 13). For those of us who sweated through the exceptionally hot and humid summer watching the media circus that followed the politicians around the country, what The Guardian writes is every bit as much empty phraseology as the politicians’ own long-winded rhetoric.

We must look back to February-March to recall the events causing the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to embark once more upon the road to amend the constitution. Public prosecutors charged several retired and serving military officers with plotting to stage a military takeover. The Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors (SCJP) attempted to block the proceedings by various means. Previously the constitutional court had dubbed the AKP a party of religious revivalism, but stopped short of banning it in the name of ‘secularism’.

The government decided to introduce a mini-package of constitutional reforms aiming to change the composition of the SCJP and other parts of judiciary, which were now mounting a last-ditch defence of the ‘legacy of Atatürk’ - ie, the nationalist-militarist founding ideology of the Turkish state - by blocking any attempt to try in the civilian courts the would-be junta poised to stage a coup. The government also wanted to prevent the constitutional court banning political parties deemed to threaten the existence and continuity of the Kemalist state.

The AKP attempted to sweeten the package by including long promised reforms to harmonise Turkish law with that of the European Union by including provisions on data protection, positive discrimination for women and the disabled, and children’s rights. The sop to the left was the proposal to remove the infamous article 15 of the 1982 constitution, granting immunity from prosecution to all members of the former junta.

The AKP also tried to portray the amendment on the banning political parties as a move favourable to the Kurds - Kurdish parties have been banned one after the other, despite winning elections outright in several provinces. If the amendment was passed, the chief prosecutor would have to seek permission from the Grand National Assembly before initiating a court case against any political party.

The initial reaction of both the so-called ‘social democratic’ Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP - the infamous Grey Wolves) was to refuse to cooperate in parliament. They said they would reverse their opposition if the AKP withdrew the amendments limiting the powers of the constitutional court, which the AKP declined to do.

By contrast, the initial reaction of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) was to declare it would be flexible. However, during the process, the attitude of the government as well as the state to the Kurdish movement hardened considerably after the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) ended its long truce. The BDP reacted by refusing to take part in the parliamentary debate.

The critical moment came with the annual meeting of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) that decides the promotion and retirement of the top brass. The generals provoked a crisis by insisting on the promotion of those in their ranks known to be closely associated with members of the junta facing trial. The government retaliated by threatening to arrest scores of high-ranking officers, including the general expected to become the new commander of land forces. In the end the military buckled and the government succeeded in promoting its preferred officers and forcing others to take mandatory retirement on the grounds of age.

The government’s success at the SMC was repeated at the annual meeting of the SCJP, when its representatives declined to participate. As a result the prosecutors and panel of judges dealing with the junta cases remained in place and could not be changed until after the referendum. The success of the government in dealing with its rivals in the military and judiciary provided it with a major boost in popularity prior to the referendum campaign.

In addition, the AKP leadership offered a number of concessions to various forces. To woo the Alevi Kurds it accused the CHP of responsibility for the Dersim massacres of the 1930s - official Turkish histories had previously talked of deaths resulting from state operations against terrorists. To woo the left it denounced the tortures of the 1980-82 military junta. Even the PKK was persuaded to declare another unilateral ceasefire for Ramadan until September 20 on the promise of further concessions. The AKP also milked the grievances of the 1970s rightwing militants who had suffered in junta jails.

The attitude of the left to the referendum varied enormously. The nationalist legal Communist Party (TKP) and the Labour Party (EMEP) formed a ‘no’ coalition with some other groups, including Alevi organisations which have traditionally taken their lead from the CHP.

A smaller section of the left ran a campaign under the slogan, “It is not sufficient, but yes!”, while supporting the BDP boycott in Kurdish regions. Another section cooperated closely with Kurdish organisations trying to build a boycott front in Turkey proper, especially in the principal cities.

The position of the nationalist left that locked itself in with the CHP and its anti-AKP stance needs no comment. However, in my estimation, both the ‘not sufficient, but yes’ factions and those supporting a boycott failed to put forward a clear programme for democracy in order to utilise the heightened political perceptions of large sections of working people. By failing to do so they rendered their campaigns futile.

The Kurdish BDP ran a better campaign, calling for “democratic autonomy” with one eye on the general election due in late May or early June next year. The boycott was intended as a bargaining chip, since all the polls suggested strong support for the constitutional amendments in Kurdish towns and villages. The BDP was hoping for a promise, or at least an indication, that the AKP would meet some of its demands, in return for which a ‘yes’ vote would be switched on. Even the jailed PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, waited until the last possible moment before endorsing the boycott.

However, the government believed it already had sufficient support to win the referendum, and opted not to alienate its core supporters by flirting with the Kurds. Therefore, while keeping open the possibility of a deal until the last moment, in the end it declined to take the bait.

The referendum produced a 58% ‘yes’ majority. However, closer inspection indicates that the turnout was 77%, which means that 11 million out of 49 million registered electors declined to take part and only 44% of those entitled to vote supported the government. This is the result that The Guardian hailed a “stunning political triumph”.

Kurdistan displayed very strong support for the BDP boycott call. The turnout was less than 40% in the core provinces and in Hakkari it was as low as 8%. Those who ignored the boycott call overwhelmingly voted ‘yes’. All this led some to conclude that in Kurdistan there were only two parties: the AKP and BDP. The rest have evaporated in the heat of armed conflict, the only exception being in Tunceli province (formerly Dersim), where the Alevi Kurds (Zaza) have a substantial presence. Here participation was 66%, and there was an overwhelming ‘no’ vote.

The constitutional amendments were not ground-breaking nor did they extend Turkey’s limited democracy. The old provisions for electing high court judges were not democratic, but the new provisions are not democratic either. None of the amendments make life easier for the working class. So for The Guardian to beat the drum for amendments that “would drastically curtail the judiciary and make the armed forces subservient to civilian rule” is nothing but grand deception.

The only important outcome of the referendum is that the classical alignment of forces has changed dramatically, affecting the military and civilian tutelage over politics and the conservative bourgeoisie’s roots in political Islam. And the Kurdish freedom movement has definitely proved its capabilities in the ballot box. That combination might open up some new opportunities for the working class and Kurdish movements.