In a little more than three weeks, Turkey goes to the polls to vote on the government’s package of constitutional amendments. Disagreement over the implications of the proposed changes remains visceral. But as the long campaign has worn on, it has become as much about establishing the party-political terms on which next year’s general election campaign will be fought as about changes to the rights of children or the composition of the judiciary. That being so, what can we expect in political terms once the results are in?
There’s no doubt that whichever of the governing AKP and opposition CHP ends up on the winning side will gain a valuable fillip from the referendum. But the political stakes aren’t the same for the two parties. The gap between victory and defeat is significantly wider for the CHP, a party that’s trying to rebuild itself under a new leader after a decade in which it failed to respond effectively to the electoral rise of the AKP. Put simply, Mr Kılıçdaroğlu has more to gain from a victory and much more to lose from a defeat than Mr Erdoğan does. One way of thinking about this is to consider the speeches that the two men might make once the referendum’s result has been declared.
A Kılıçdaroğlu victory
If Mr Kılıçdaroğlu wins, then of the four possible post-result speeches by the two main leaders, he gets to make the one with the greatest capacity to nudge the political balance in his party’s favour. Paradoxically, though, he’d be best advised to avoid dwelling too long on his victory. No-one would need reminding that he would just have inflicted the first meaningful electoral defeat on the AKP; he would already have banked a transformative jump in his political status before opening his mouth. To gloat over a successful ‘no’ vote would only play to the inevitable AKP charges of CHP inertia and obstructionism.
Instead, the challenge for Mr Kılıçdaroğlu would be to pre-empt those charges, and to begin immediately the transition from a largely negative referendum campaign to a general election campaign that would need to be much more positive. One way of doing this would be for Mr Kılıçdaroğlu to commit his party to its own agenda of constitutional reform: “I was against this change, sought in this way, by this prime minister. But be in no doubt: if you elect the CHP next year, you will get a reforming prime minister, a democratising government and the new constitution that Turkey deserves rather than the one that the AKP desires.” And so on.
This would cut off the AKP’s line of attack while also – crucially – reaching out directly to many of those who voted ‘yes’ in the referendum. This is just the kind of vote-grabbing foray that the CHP will need to make repeatedly in the months ahead if it aspires to forming a stable government after the next election.
An Erdoğan victory
Although much can still happen between now and September 12th, it is unlikely that Mr Kılıçdaroğlu will get to make this speech. If the polls are to be believed, it is prime minister Erdoğan who will step up to the microphone as victor. What would he say? To a large extent his speech would write itself. The AKP would once again have confirmed itself as the driving force in Turkish politics. And in the process Mr Erdoğan’s main rival would have been handed his first defeat, leaving him dangerously weakened as the country’s thoughts begin to turn to the general election.
However, one significant respect in which Mr Erdoğan would have less room for manoeuvre than Mr Kılıçdaroğlu in framing a victory speech would be in terms of reaching out to those who voted the other way. This is because much of the ‘no’ vote in the referendum will have been viscerally anti-AKP whereas the ‘yes’ vote won’t have been anti-CHP to anything like the same degree. Does this matter? Does the government need to reach out to the other side’s voters when it already has enough votes of its own to win elections? Well, the reality is that the government’s majority in parliament is more vulnerable than it looks.
Until relatively recently, one of the AKP’s biggest electoral assets was the sense it had created of being above the kind of squabbling that hobbled the coalition governments that preceded it. Now, however, Mr Erdoğan appears more and more to be the country’s squabbler-in-chief. In that sense, and for all his electoral dominance, he is allowing himself to be painted into a corner by his opponents. The image of him as a boorish authoritarian is less of a caricature now than it was during his first term. So a degree of magnanimity from Mr Erdoğan would make for smart politics if he should win: a tacit acknowledgement of the concerns of those who voted ‘no’, and a commitment to prove unfounded the CHP’s distrust of the AKP’s motives for changing the constitution.
An Erdoğan defeat
What of the responses that we might expect from the two men should they end up on the losing side? If there is a ‘no’ vote on September 12th, then the challenge for Mr Erdoğan would be to present it as a bump in the road rather than the wheels beginning to fall off the AKP’s electoral juggernaut. But he would clearly take a hit – the electorate’s rejection of the proposed amendments would be a significant setback both for the AKP and for the prime minister personally. How best to spin it when responding to the result? By treading a fine line between respecting the will of the people and lambasting the CHP both for having misrepresented the proposed amendments and for having reverted to type by obstructing democratic reform.
A key question would be how defeat would colour Mr Erdoğan’s stance on further political reform. Conflicting forces would push him in different directions on this. On the one hand, he might decide to proceed on a ‘once bitten, twice shy’ basis and steer clear of proposing further change. On the other hand, the referendum campaign suggests that there is a broad-based appetite in Turkey for political reform (even if there isn’t consensus as to what that reform should look like). The electoral danger to Mr Erdoğan of stepping back from further reform in the event of defeat is that he would cede potentially valuable political territory to his opponents. And he would do so at precisely the moment (as I’ve suggested above) that those opponents would have a strong incentive to bolster their reforming credentials.
One interesting move that would be open to Mr Erdoğan would be to retain a focus on reform but to limit its political risks by anchoring it in a cross-party framework. For example, by proposing a parliamentary commission like the one that preceded major constitutional changes in 2001. In the short term, an offer like this would sow confusion among his opponents. And with more campaigning looming next year, it would also give his public persona an electorally useful nudge, away from the ‘frustrated autocrat’ pole and towards the ‘thwarted democrat’ one.
A Kılıçdaroğlu defeat
Ultimately, though, it would be relatively easy for Mr Erdoğan to take defeat in his stride. Like any long-term incumbent, he would have the advantage of being able to play down the significance of this particular setback by placing it in the context of the endless ups and downs that make up the life of a leader. There would be no such undergrowth to hide in for the CHP’s Mr Kılıçdaroğlu. The referendum is the defining challenge of his leadership (how can it be otherwise – it’s the only serious challenge he’s had time to face in his few months as leader). As such, losing would be a profound setback and the scent of defeat would be difficult to shake off, not least within his own party where one senses there are vultures who would like an opportunity to begin to circle.
There would be no simple message for Mr Kılıçdaroğlu to turn to in defeat. And therein lies the problem he would face when stepping up to the microphone. Political messages tend to be effective in proportion to their simplicity and directness. But defeat would leave Mr Kılıçdaroğlu reaching for subordinate clauses with which to jimmy his way out of a political tight spot. Consider what would have happened. He would have bet the political farm on the proposition that a ‘yes’ vote risks plunging Turkey towards civil dictatorship. A majority of the country would have proceeded to ignore him. That in itself is bad enough, but it gets messier. The constitution would have been changed by this point. Does Mr Kılıçdaroğlu stick to his guns and assert that Turkey is therefore on the cusp of an AKP dictatorship? If so, he offers his savvy opponents a stick with which to beat him at the next election. Does he start to row back on his party’s assessment of the amendments? If so, his political judgement starts to look suspect.
In the end, Mr Kılıçdaroğlu’s best strategy in defeat might look quite similar to Mr Erdoğan’s in the same predicament: ie, to acknowledge the will of the people but then to try to pile as much pressure as possible onto his opponents. The aim would be to shift attention away from the amendments themselves and towards other factors that will determine their impact on the country, including, notably, the spirit in which the most contentious of them would be implemented by the AKP. It’s an approach that might just fudge the dilemma outlined in the previous paragraph. But there is no doubt that if defeated Mr Kılıçdaroğlu will have his work cut out to come up with a credible account of how he plans to put his party back on the front foot.
There is nothing unusual about an electorate using a constitutional referendum as a vote of confidence in its government. Nevertheless, it’s a pity to see Turkey’s referendum campaign become quite so bogged down in party-political considerations. One worry is that the proposed amendments aren’t getting the dispassionate attention and discussion that they ought to be (not that Turkish politics does dispassionate at the best of times, but the point still stands).
Another risk is that the over-politicisation of the referendum will ultimately be at the expense of the general election campaign next year. This would be a particular concern if a ‘yes’ vote were to badly weaken Mr Kılıçdaroğlu. This country has been waiting many years for the resumption of vigorous cut and thrust between a stable government and a credible opposition that we’ve seen since Mr Kılıçdaroğlu took the helm in his party. It is a pity that all this pent-up political energy is being expended neither in parliament nor in parliamentary elections, where relatively complex political positions can be staked out, but in a referendum campaign that must in the end boil down to one of just two words, yes or no.