Turkish Referendum: Any Reasons To Remain Optimistic?
23 April, 2017

As a result of a recent referendum, Turkey has voted to switch from a parliamentary form of government to a presidential system, granting the president executive power. The decision to make this change passed by the narrow margin of 51.5% in favour.

Hromadske’s Nataliya Gumenyuk spoke to Sercan Celebi, Turkish activist and founder of 'Vote And Beyond' about what this means for Turkey’s political future and why there is still reason for Turkish people to remain optimist.

Photo credit: Tolga Bozoglu / EPA

Sercan Celebi: When you pass something like this that has such a big impact, directly on people’s lives, id 51% really enough? Is 55% enough? When we are talking about constitutions which are basically common bases for society to live together, I would expect a very qualified majority to be deciding these things. Maybe even 60% would question the legitimacy of the outcome of these elections. That respect, what percentage would actually be sufficient for the population to say, ‘this is how I would like to be governed’.

Now, in this election there was even more than that. Even if we were to accept the 51%, the way we came to the 51% actually raises a lot of questions with respect to legitimacy. On the one hand, we had the president, who, by the constitution, is supposed to be independent and equidistant to all parties, and he was campaigning for ‘yes’, and he was campaigning with state resources.

The Prime Minister was campaigning for ‘yes’, all the municipalities were campaigning for ‘yes’. On the one hand, you has this huge campaign with a huge budget, versus the ‘no’ part, where there was no organised opposition. There was basically a bunch of organic, randomly created independent movements campaigning, completely at a grassroots level, with a very limited budget.

Photo credit: DENIZ TOPRAK / EPA

There was no media coverage whatsoever, there was a lot of censorship in the press with respect to the campaign. After this whole process, on the day of the election, there comes the Supreme Council that was clearly against the Turkish electoral law, which put the legitimacy of the outcome into a lot of doubt. These two things combined, don’t necessarily give me a lot of confidence.

At the same time, the comments especially from abroad, in the western media, and in Ukrainian media, are along the lines of: ‘Goodbye to the republic’, ‘Goodbye Turkey’. The Turkish people have voted to follow a more authoritarian path, so what is your opinion on this? It seems very pessimistic.

Sercan Celebi: I don’t think that Turkey is going anywhere, so there are no goodbyes.There are several reasons why I am optimistic for the next couple of years. They are going to be tricky years, it’s not going to be easy, but there are a couple of facts that make me optimistic. One of the facts being, despite everything, despite the campaign being so disproportionate, despite threats and the fact that the ‘yes’ campaign used nationalistic rhetoric and religious rhetoric to push people towards the ‘yes’ side, half of my country, half of the population said, ‘no, I’m not going to play ball with you’. And that’s very encouraging. Half of the people, despite everything else, said, ‘I’m not fine with this, I’m going to stick to my democratic values, and I’m going to make sure that this country at  least remains, irrespective of the regime, and maintains a certain amount of checks and balances. And, we’re not fine with this system’.

Photo credit: TOLGA BOZOGLU / EPA

So, I trust that from this 50%, from this side of the country, new opinions, new visions and new political movements will come. This really makes me optimistic. The second bit is, when I look at people who worked for the ‘no’ campaign, these are people that were not affiliated with politics before; businessmen, people from the arts, all these people that were very distant from politics, up until this day, they are finally realising that, if they don’t take part in political process, they won’t have any power to influence the outcome. Now that they’ve worked on the ‘no’ campaign, there’s no going back for them. They’re going to be very active in Turkish politics in the future.

They will be active citizens in one way, shape or form, be it through the NGOs, through the civil society, through politics, but they will not become part of the process that they were not part of before. That gives me a lot of courage for the future as well. It gives me a lot of courage that, despite the long-term risks of this outcome, I think going forward, this will add to the strength of the Turkish democracy.

This results highlight the fact that this seems like a very divided country, and this is something that is also picked up on in the western media. What could be done about this?

Sercan Celebi: We have to acknowledge one fact, which is that the president has done a lot of good things for a huge number of people. People appreciate this, Turkish society from its traditions and culture, is a very appreciative society, we don’t forget and he has done a lot of good things for a lot of good people.

That doesn’t mean that he has done a good job with respect to doing away with these divisions in the society. He hasn’t done a good job in keeping us together, as a society, and really trying to work out the problems. Unfortunately, over the last couple of years, and I think the rhetoric of the opposition helped that as well, the entire political arguments, the discussions were always about ‘us’ and ‘them’ and ‘you’, and that hasn’t helped anyone. It did help strengthen the camps, but it certainly didn’t help strengthen the country.

How do we go forward from this? For the past three years we have worked in this election monitoring organisation that is called ‘Vote and Beyond’, and we did something different from the polling parties. We told people to come together, solve this one thing about the transparency of Turkish elections, but what we wanted them to do was completely forget about their political preferences and identities. We don’t care who you are, we just want you to come and solve this thing with us.

Photo credit: Tumay Berkin / EPA

What we’ve observed is two things; on the one hand, we did solve the transparency issue of the elections, on the other hand, we brought these people together, that wouldn’t have traditionally come together. As they were working on this project together, they started communicating, and then they recognised that the differences between them are not as big as the political parties suggested When all we know about the other side is through the words of politicians. You think that they are evil people who are completely different from you, whereas, if you start working with them, you start working towards the same aim, and if you forget for a moment about these identities and difference, you realise that you are one and the same people. That’s the only way that we can bridge these social divisions. That’s the only way that we can bring people together. If you put them together in social environments, and strengthen the communication, then this will of course lead through to the civil society.

Civil society is keeping the door open for people to come together, for people to work on solutions together, irrespective of their identities. Once these organic relationships are there, if I know you as a person, I don’t care what the president or the head of the opposition party says about you, I know you as a person. So they’re not going to be able to divide us once we establish those organic relationships.