On Sunday, Turks will turn out for yet another election after a nearly 18 month reprieve to vote in a referendum that will overhaul Turkey’s constitution if passed. The culmination of a decade and a half of AKP rule and President Erdoğan’s burning ambition to be the most consequential leader in Turkish history, the constitutional amendments that the government would like Turks to approve will replace Turkey’s parliamentary democracy with a presidential system and create a presidency that controls the other two branches of government, effectively destroying any real semblance of checks and balances. Turkey will still lay claim to being a democracy that holds regular elections, but to call the proposed system democratic stretches the bounds of credulity. Yet, there is something else taking place on Sunday that is in some ways even worse than the proposed constitutional amendments themselves because it represents a truly unprecedented step in Turkey’s political development.
One of the reasons that Sunday’s vote is being given so much attention is because it is, in fact, a vote. While a win for the Yes camp will be the latest derailment of the Turkish democracy train, the government is pointing to the fact that the constitutional overhaul’s fate will be determined by voters and is thus an affirmation of Turkish democracy rather than a blow to it. Like the government’s rhetoric surrounding the substance of the amendments themselves, this rhetoric about the process is Orwellian doublespeak. The vote on Sunday is not going to be a democratic one, but a thoroughly authoritarian one whose outcome has been largely predetermined. The standard for a democratic vote is one that is free and fair, and this one will be neither. In fact, it is quite possible that this will be the least free and fair vote ever conducted in Turkey under the auspices of a civilian government, which is what makes the vote on the referendum as bad as the content of the referendum.
Free and fair elections are what distinguish electoral democracies from competitive authoritarian regimes. Under competitive authoritarianism, elections are contested but they are not free and fair. According to Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond, who is the preeminent expert on elections and democracy, elections are free when supporters of different sides are free to campaign and solicit votes and voters are not subject to coercion in the voting process; elections are fair when they are neutrally administered, ballot secrecy is respected, police and courts treat all sides impartially, independent monitoring is allowed at all voting locations, one side is not given an advantage over the other in terms of public media access, and there are no questions over the legitimacy and fairness of the vote count. With the possible exception of the last variable, the Turkish referendum violates every other one of these elements on both parts of the equation. The idea that a vote to ratify the new constitution will be a democratic one is an offense to anyone with sentient consciousness who has been paying even a smidgen of attention during the run-up to the referendum.
For starters, supporters of the No campaign have been subject to intimidation, harassment, and arrest. They have been shot at, beaten up, and prohibited from carrying signs or publicly rallying for No. They have been tear gassed by police, arrested, and both Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım have said that a vote for No is akin to supporting terrorism and the PKK. There is no plausible argument to be made that Turks have been free to campaign for the No side, and given the widespread intimidation and use of violence, no plausible argument to be made that this will not unduly influence the way people actually vote. After all, if No wins and you are suspected to have voted No, why should you assume that you will not be a target of the state and the roaming groups of thugs that it has empowered?
On the fair aspect, things have been just as bad. Despite the fact that the vote in the Grand National Assembly to amend the constitution and thereby trigger a referendum is mandated by law to be secret, AKP parliamentarians cast their affirmative votes publicly in an effort to intimidate others into doing the same and voting for the package of amendments. Supporters of Yes have been given hundreds of hours on television stations, while supporters of No have gotten almost none, and the government has stripped the election board’s power to sanction stations that do not devote equal time to both sides. Hundreds of media organizations have been shut down and journalists jailed, ostensibly for supporting terrorism or the failed coup last July but almost all of whom coincidentally just happen to oppose the constitutional amendments. Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, the two leaders of the HDP, which is the third largest party in the parliament and the one most vociferously opposed to the amendments, are both in jail along with other HDP members. Independent election monitors will not be at every polling station, and the only news organization with access to report the official results as they come in will be the state news agency. Even if people do feel free to vote their conscience, there has been an unprecedented advantage conferred upon the Yes side by the government and its supporters in a way that will be nearly impossible to overcome.
The fact of the matter is that whether the outcome is Yes or No, Turkey already has a presidential system, rendering the outcome a sideshow. Since being elected president, Erdoğan has done everything possible to neuter the office of the prime minister and assume that office’s powers for himself. He has chaired cabinet meetings, overhauled the cabinet itself, selected party lists, and acted as the head of government in every conceivable way. If Yes wins – and I fully expect that it will – this will only formalize a process that has been well underway since 2014. That Turkey will have a presidential system will not be unprecedented, because the precedent has been set. What will be unprecedented is the degree to which the vote will be unfree and unfair after Turks have been subjected to months of authoritarian coercion. When Turks voted for their current constitution, they did so while living under military rule following the 1980 coup and voted on a document drafted by the army. It came after hundreds of thousands of arrests and purges, tens of thousands of citizenship revocations, and thousands of suspicious deaths and disappearances. It passed with over 90% of the vote, and the surprise is that the tally wasn’t higher given the environment that the military created. The nine months since the failed July 15 coup attempt have been nothing like what Turks went through in the early 1980s, but it is also nothing like Turks have been through under civilian rule before. Just because there will be a vote involved on Sunday does not make this a milestone to be celebrated or lauded.
Erdoğan and the AKP are about to eviscerate any balance that the political system has had and create a presidency that is among the least democratic of any country that holds contested elections. That they will do so in a completely undemocratic manner should surprise no one. Far too many are focusing on the substance while giving the government a free pass on the process. But as Turks go to vote on Sunday, let’s all take a moment to recognize that this is not a free and fair vote, that the legitimacy of elections has not been respected, and that no matter the outcome, this will in no way be a triumph for democracy.