That doesn’t mean their chances are equal. While the April vote is likely to be free, whether it will be fair — given rising repression of political dissent and the ongoing state of emergency — is another question.
Take the case of İrfan Değirmenci, a well-known news anchor for Kanal D, who explained his opposition to the proposed changes in a series of tweets earlier this month. “No to the one who views scientists, artists, writers, cartoonists, students, workers, farmers, miners, journalists and all who do not obey as the enemy,” he wrote.
He was promptly fired.
Değirmenci’s dismissal has heightened fears among No campaigners that those who oppose the new constitution will be subject to threats and intimidation ahead of the referendum on April 16.
“A lot of people are risking their careers and their future by openly and publicly campaigning for No,” said İlhan Tanir, a Turkish columnist and analyst based in Washington. “There is nothing fair about this.”
Government supporters face no such risk: While Kanal D claimed Değirmenci had been let go for violating the media group’s neutrality rule, Yes supporters have been free to air their views in the pages of Hürriyet, which belongs to the same group.
Hurriyet itself — a newspaper that positions itself as neutral — has muted critical voices: Its editors last week scrapped an interview with Orhan Pamuk, in which the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish novelist explained his reasons for voting No.
As state pressure on critical outlets mounts, the No camp fears its voice will be drowned out once Erdoğan and his allies begin to campaign in earnest. Speaking to journalists in Ankara, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, the leader of the largest opposition party CHP, estimated that the government’s influence extended to 90 percent of the Turkish media.
“This is definitely not going to be a fair referendum. We know that the pro-Erdoğan media will have a broadcasting policy that completely ignores the opposition,” Kiliçdaroğlu said. “It will be presented as if we are running against the state.”
Shrinking space for debate
Turkey’s media landscape is heavily skewed in the government’s favor. Most critical news organizations have been shut down, leaving only a handful of small to medium-sized outlets; the rest are largely owned by government-friendly conglomerates.
“It is very difficult to find any family of a Turkish media tycoon in which President Erdoğan has not attended a wedding or served as a marriage witness,” the press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders noted last year.
Media pluralism was further diminished in the aftermath of last summer’s failed coup. As the government purged the state and civil society — first of supposed coup supporters and later of critics of all stripes — hundreds of journalists disappeared behind bars. More than 150 media outlets were shuttered.
Earlier this month, Erdoğan issued a decree stripping the Supreme Election Board of its power to fine broadcasters who do not give equal airtime to different parties and views ahead of elections. Criticizing the order, Kiliçdaroğlu accused the government of tipping the scales further in their favor: “Only their voices will be heard until the referendum.”
Emine Nur Günay, a member of parliament for Erdoğan’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and a representative at the Council of Europe, described the opposition’s fears as unfounded. “Whenever I turn on the TV or look at the program, there are so many opposition MPs on television,” she said.
Outside the world of newspapers and television, the space for debate appears to be shrinking as well. Cases of outspoken government opponents being attacked or arrested — or both — are mounting. In Ankara, an assailant fired shots at an outspoken union head shortly after he had publicly called on citizens to vote No last weekend. In the western province of Izmir, two women were physically attacked and accused of “undermining the state” while handing out No flyers, Turkish media reported.
Politicians are not immune. When prominent nationalist politician Meral Akşener addressed a No rally in a hotel earlier this month, the electricity was unexpectedly cut, forcing her to hold the meeting in darkness. She believed the power cut was deliberate; the hotel’s owners are considered close to Erdoğan.
Meanwhile, Sera Kadigil, an outspoken No campaigner and CHP MP, was detained for four “blasphemous” tweets from 2010. A dozen MPs of the pro-Kurdish opposition party HDP — firmly opposed to the president — already languish in prison, charged with terror offenses.
A history of free elections
Turkey has enjoyed 15 years of free elections under AKP rule, but the Council of Europe has expressed “serious doubt” about the upcoming referendum vote’s fairness amid rising repression.
The concern appears to be shared by Turkey’s European partners. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Ankara earlier this month, she suggested that observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe should monitor the referendum, “so that what the people want is guaranteed.”
The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner Nils Muiznieks noted last week that the political atmosphere had significantly deteriorated during the continuing state of emergency. “Legitimate dissent and criticism of government policy are vilified and repressed,” he said, criticizing Turkey’s overly broad terror laws in particular.
Labeling opponents as terror supporters is a tried-and-tested method of the Turkish government. In 2015, in the run-up to parliamentary elections, Erdoğan painted the HDP as such, giving voters a stark choice — me or the terrorists. It worked. The HDP lost several percentage points from the previous poll and Erdoğan’s AKP won a majority of seats in the parliament.
The rhetoric is eerily similar this time around. In a recent speech, Erdoğan compared No voters to the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state from their base in northern Iraq’s Qandil mountains.
“Who says no? The PKK says no. Who says no? Qandil says no. Who says no? Those who want to divide this country say no. Those who are against our flag say no,” Erdoğan said.
His prime minister, Binali Yildirim, has claimed that terror groups support the No vote.
A popular picture making the rounds on Turkish social media neatly summarizes the president’s argument: Under the heading “the choice is yours,” the image shows Erdoğan and his allies, along with a stock image of a suffering child, under the word “yes” — contrasted with a photo montage of opposition leaders, the supposed coup mastermind Fethullah Gülen, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and an American flag under the word “no”.
Günay, the AKP parliamentarian, insisted the government’s referendum campaign would have none of the polarizing rhetoric that marked the previous elections. The ruling party’s approach would be “friendly and inclusive.”
At its official campaign launch this weekend, the AKP did opt for a softer approach, ditching the divisive rhetoric. The party instead sought to promote a positive vision of stability and economic growth.
“This is not a presidential election, it will shape our future. So we will be there as citizens, not just as MPs from the AKP,” Günay said. “Some people may vote Yes, some people may vote No. The important thing is to be in touch with people and discuss.”
Still, the No camp fears it may have little opportunity to reach out to voters. “It will be free to say No in the referendum as well as Yes,” Hürriyet columnist Murat Yetkin noted last week. “But while there will be no ban on saying No during the campaign, getting that voice heard is another matter.”
Author: Zia Weise