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Narratives and facts about Turkey’s referendum

On April 16, 2017, Turks will head to the ballot box in a major referendum on replacing the current parliamentary system with an executive presidency. People will vote on 18 proposed constitutional changes.

In the current system, the prime minister heads the government, and the head of state has limited political powers. But with the amendments, Turkey will no longer have a prime minister or Cabinet, and the president will be both the head of government and state.

Among the key changes are increasing the number of MPs from 550 to 600, and enabling the president to dissolve Parliament, declare a state of emergency, call for elections, issue decrees and appoint ministers, top state officials and much of the judiciary.

Constitutional change has been intensely discussed since Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected president in August 2014. Turkey is heading toward a crucial referendum in a challenging context, so it is important to highlight this context. The referendum will take place under a state of emergency declared after the failed coup attempt in July 2016, and extended three times.

It will take place as developments in Syria and Iraq are shifting regional balances. Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield in Syria in August 2016 to eliminate the terror threat along the Turkish border and support coalition forces.

The operation ended on March 29, but Erdogan this week said the next stage would include Iraq, where things are getting even more complicated after the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) called for an independence referendum. Ankara opposes this and has raised its concerns.

The referendum will take place while Ankara has troubled relations with the EU due to European countries’ attitude to the referendum. Some European countries banned Turkish ministers from addressing rallies of expatriate Turks. Ankara said it will review its ties with the EU regardless of the referendum’s outcome, and Turkey and the EU are reportedly not planning to hold any meetings at a political level until the start of summer.

Besides all these developments, Turks are heading toward the referendum after the trauma of several terrorist attacks in the country in the past few years and a bloody coup attempt. Whatever the referendum’s outcome, it seems Turkey will face disquieting regional challenges.

Constitutional change has been intensely discussed since Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected president in August 2014. Regardless of the outcome, Turkey will turn a new page in its political history.

Sinem Cengiz

“Yes” campaigners, including the ruling AK Party and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), say the presidential system will make Turkey stronger and enable it to defend itself against all kinds of threats such as terrorism, internal chaos and coup plots. They say the current system and its bureaucracy are holding Turkey back, and the change will bring true democracy.

The “yes” camp uses two narratives. The first is the “anti-West” narrative. The stance of European leaders has helped Ankara galvanize people to vote “yes,” thus playing into the hands of anti-West sentiment among Turkish nationalists. German media support of the “no” vote has also turned the referendum into a historical and political issue with the West.

The second narrative is that Ankara is fighting foreign forces that are against a strong Turkey and are behind all terrorist attacks in the country. This narrative is based on the belief that stability in the face of all these threats is the only priority, and stability is only possible with a change in the country’s system.

According to naysayers, the new system gives too much power to the president and lacks effective checks and balances. Led by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), they use the narrative of “one-man rule,” which Erdogan dismisses. Under the new system, he will be able to stay in power until 2029. Given that he first became prime minister in 2003, this would mean him leading Turkey for 26 years. Supporters of the “no” camp also call for Turkey to reset its relations with neighbors and the West.

Facts and narratives are simple, but the referendum’s outcome is still unclear. According to opinion polls, the campaigns are neck and neck. It seems floating votes will determine the result. Regardless of the outcome, Turkey will turn a new page in its political history.

Political parties and figures win and lose, and come and go, but society remains. A society that tolerates diverse political views and respects opposing sides is what counts. It is crucial for Turkish society to be united; division does not promise hope for future generations.

• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz.