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Opinion: Turkey's crucial referendum on the horizon

January 22, 2017

The Turkish parliament has approved constitutional amendments to strengthen President Erdogan. The next step is a referendum - and many factors will influence the outcome, writes DW's Seda Serdar.

Türkei Parlament
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Ozbilici

While the world was focused on the United States and the new president taking office, on the other side of the Atlantic, big changes were underway in an allied country. The Turkish parliament managed to pass controversial constitutional amendments. The two-round voting on the changes agreed to by the ruling AKP and nationalist MHP parties earned enough votes to carry the decision to the final stage: a vote by the people.

The second round of voting lasted until after midnight and into the early hours of the morning. Even though the government refuses to say this vote will change Turkey, it will. The amendments give all the power to one person, with almost no accountability. The Turkish-style presidency, as the AKP likes to market it, would be a malfunctioning structure that is going to remove whatever is left of the instruments of democracy.

Hiding in plain sight

The two-round voting took less than two weeks. The extremely technical and radical changes were barely mentioned in public. Besides some populist statements, citizens had little insight into what was being discussed in parliament and how this would influence their lives in the long run.

The fact that the constitutional change has been brought before parliament during a state of emergency also raises questions as to why the government is so eager to make such quick changes. Should it not focus all its energy and attention on lifting the state of emergency and eliminating the instability and terror in the country? Instead, the AKP and MHP are busy changing structures that require thorough discussion and examination.

Trouble at the ballot box

Now, the people will have the final say. But there are three important factors that are going to influence what comes out of the box.

First, will the people have enough information to make an informed decision? Pro-government media outlets continue to feed biased news and populism continues to be on the rise. Opposition voices have already started campaigning against state propaganda. In order to succeed, their performance will have to be better than any election campaign they've ever put together and they will also have to unite. They did not manage this after the June 2015 elections, which carried AKP to the place it currently enjoys.

Second, what will happen about the security situation in the country? Continuing terror attacks, involvement in Syria and the feeling of insecurity among citizens continue to be important issues. When the AKP regained a majority in November 2015, it promised to end terrorist attacks and bring back stability. More than one year later, this is obviously not the case. But will the people hold Erdogan accountable?

The last factor that could influence the referendum, and strengthen the AKP's position, would be some sort of success on the international stage. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes to extradite Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom he accuses of being the mastermind behind a failed coup in July, from the US. The cabinet of President Donald Trump has given positive signals in this regard. If there were to be some kind of a step towards weakening Gulen ahead of the referendum, this would immensely empower Erdogan.

Of course, there are other factors that would influence the outcome of the referendum. But at the end of the day, the most important element that remains is access to information so that the people can decide with their free will, for their future and the next generations to come.