Research “Democratic challenges in post-referendum Turkey 2017”. International delegation to Istanbul, April 21-25, 2017.


Research of IPSD was timely supplemented by international delegation visit organized by our partner network EGAM. The international delegation has gathered in Istanbul on April, 21-25, 2017. Discussions and analysis were centered around the political context of post-referendum Turkey, current democratic challenges. Ukraine was represented by Daria Mustafina, expert of  Institute of Partnership and Sustainable Development.

“Turkey exists in a very difficult region. Its neighbors are Syria, Iraq, Iran, Russia. Turkey is a sharply polarized country. Turkish society is now split into political and ideological ghettoes. The culture of coexistence has been eroded. The crux of this is Erdoğan. With his antagonistic rhetoric he has become the most divisive politician in Turkey’s modern political history. People either revere him or find him intolerable. There is no middle ground anymore.

Once, as a nation, we saw ourselves as part of Europe. As Turkish writers, our literary journeys were enhanced by reading French, English, Italian and Russian literature alongside Turkish novels and poems. Arab and Persian literature were rather late to be translated into Turkish — a mistake, no doubt, but one that shows how the country’s literati did not see themselves as part of the Middle East. Now the mood is different. Euroscepticism has become the dominant narrative. Politicians and pro-government newspapers tell young people that Europe is against their country. It is better to abandon any prospect of joining the EU and enter the Shanghai Pact with Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Russia and China. It’s true that this would be the right place for any country with a depressing human rights record.

What Turkey is going through is more than just political turbulence. It is an existential crisis. Fear, anger, anxiety and paranoia have become normal. Nobody trusts anyone anymore. Nobody feels secure. People, including journalists, try to prove their loyalty to the government by snitching on colleagues and neighbors. Party politics has shattered friendships.

The bloody coup attempt in July made everything worse. Since then we have been in a state of emergency. The sense of solidarity that followed the coup attempt did not last long. A widespread purge was initiated, lumping anyone who opposed the government into the same basket. Today more than 150 journalists are in jail. Nearly 5,000 academics have lost their jobs. There are close to a million victims of the purge.

This is the context for the referendum. The two sides of the argument have not been given equal representation. TV channels and newspapers are predominantly pro-government. Those who have dared to say no have been stigmatised, sacked, intimidated, and accused of siding with “terrorists”. Binali Yildirim, the prime minister, claimed the no campaign was supported by terror organisations: “My citizens will not be on the same side as terrorists.” Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner said: “Legitimate dissent and criticism of government policy are vilified and repressed”, - Elif Shafak.

Shortly about referendum: “A constitutional referendum was held throughout Turkey on 16 April 2017 on whether to approve 18 proposed amendments to the Turkish constitution that were brought forward by the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). If approved, the office of the Prime Minister would be abolished and the existing parliamentary system of government would be replaced with an executive presidency and a presidential system. The number of seats in Parliament was proposed to be raised from 550 to 600 while the president was proposed to be given more control over appointments to the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK). The referendum was held under a state of emergency that was declared following a failed military coup attempt in July 2016. Early results indicated a 51–49% lead for the "Yes" vote. In an unprecedented move, the Supreme Electoral Council allowed non-stamped ballots to be accepted as valid. The main opposition parties decried this move to be illegal, claiming that as many as 1.5 million ballots were unstamped, and refused to recognize the results. Large-scale pro-democracy protests erupted following the results in order to protest the YSK's decision. In subsequent reports, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) both criticized unfairness during the campaign and declared the YSK's decision to be illegal.

An executive presidency has been a long-standing proposal of the governing AKP and its founder, the current President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In October 2016, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) announced its co-operation for producing draft proposals with the government, with the combined support of both AKP and MHP MPs being sufficient to put forward the proposals to a referendum following a parliamentary vote in January. Those in favour of a 'Yes' vote argued that the changes were necessary for a strong and stable Turkey, arguing that an executive presidency would bring about an end to unstable coalition governments that had dominated Turkish politics since the 1960s up until 2002. The 'No' campaign have argued that the proposals would concentrate too much power in the hands of the President, effectively dismantling the separation of powers and taking legislative authority away from Parliament. Critics argued that the proposed system would resemble an 'elected dictatorship' with no ability to hold the executive to account, leading effectively to a 'democratic suicide' and autocracy. Three days before the referendum, one of Erdoğan's aides called for a federal system should the 'Yes' vote prevail, causing a backlash from the pro-Yes MHP. Both sides of the campaign have been accused of using divisive and extreme rhetoric, with Erdoğan accusing all 'No' voters of being terrorists siding with the plotters of the failed 2016 coup. The campaign was marred by allegations of state suppression against 'No' campaigners, while the 'Yes' campaign were able to make use of state facilities and funding to organise rallies and campaign events. Leading members of the 'No' campaign, which included many high-profile former members of the MHP such as Meral Akşener, Ümit Özdağ, Sinan Oğan, and Yusuf Halaçoğlu were all subject to both violence and campaign restrictions”.


There are people, both inside and outside Turkey, who believe that a presidential system would bring “strength and speed” to policy implementation. Decisions will be taken more swiftly, they say, without wasting time with the nitty-gritty details of pluralistic democracy. Turks were being asked to choose between “stability” and “democracy”. But this is a false dichotomy. Those who believe in it have learned nothing from history. They have not understood that undemocratic nations are unhappy nations, and unhappy nations cannot possibly be stable.

International delegation’s visit to Istanbul, April 21-25, 2017, organized by IPSD’s partner network EGAM showed that for many years now, Turkish democracy has been declining. Turkey's democrats feel very lonely, and sometimes they feel very abandoned. Turkey is a very polarized and bitterly politicized country. The coup attempt last summer was horrific. Now people who have nothing to do with the coup are accused of being coup plotters. The crackdown, especially on journalists, writers, and intellectuals, is very sharp. We’ve met activists who have friends who are in prison right now.

Our program was officially started with the session “Post-referendum Turkey - what perspectives?”. Thanks to EGAM delegation had unique opportunity to discuss the topic with Murat Celikkan , Roni Margulies (Turkish poet, author, translator and political activist), Benjamin Abtan (President of EGAM), IHD members. Political context and consequences of the attempted Coup d'Etat were among the topics which provided to our delegation in-depth introduction into current developments in Turkey.

Visit of AGOS and Hrant Dink Foundation. Meeting with Pakrat Estukyan, Director of AGOS.

The delegation has also gathered in Istanbul on this dates in the scope of “Remember 24th April 1915!” campaign in order to commemorate the 102nd anniversary of the Armenian genocide and to support democracy in Turkey. Some representatives of delegation joined the Rally on Galatasaray Square with the Saturday Morhers of Turkey, commemorating the victims who were killed by the regime of 1980-90s.

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Еhe delegation discussed the political challenges and issues regarding minorities and genocide denial with Garo Paylan, Memeber of the Parliament of Turkey.

Second day of our program has started with the session “Crackdown of the Kurdish movement - what international and solidarity actions?”, discussing with HDP members about the situation in south-east of Turkey.

Meeting with journalists and lawyers dealing with their trials on the session “Threats, violence and intimidation - Acting for Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Media”.

Meeting with Academics for Peace.

Meeting with Public Servants fired after the Coup d'Etat

“Civil society in Turkey during the State of Emergency” NGO Forum

IPSD would like to thank the whole research team and to all colleagues who participated in meetings, shared personal stories and highlighted real situation in Turkey. We appreciate your openness, passionate by your courage and fortitude, inspired by your dedication and sacrifice for the future of Turkey. We will share all developments and advocate pressing issues on global level. We sincerely wish you to achieve Democracy, Peace and Freedom.