Turkey’s referendum held in a climate of fear


Turkey’s President Erdogan is holding a constitutional referendum on 16 April 2017 in the midst of the most ferocious repression, in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation where anyone who dares to say ‘No’ to the proposed constitutional changes is branded a terrorist. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) want to change Turkey’s constitution from a parliamentary system into a system that removes all checks and balances on the president’s powers and allows Erdogan to rule until 2029. The vote takes place as Turkish state forces are fighting a war against the Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The referendum is conducted after the United Nations reported that on 1 December 2016 ‘the [Turkish] authorities has detained or imprisoned more than a third of all journalists imprisoned worldwide on that day’.

As the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Executive Council Member, Murat Karayilan, said: to vote ‘Yes’ to the constitutional changes would be to approve of the attacks and massacres being perpetrated by Erdogan throughout Kurdistan. If the vote goes against Erdogan it will hasten his and the AKP’s downfall.

In February 2017 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report on human rights in the predominantly Kurdish south-east Turkey between July 2015 and December 2016. What it reveals is a state that should be condemned as an international pariah. The report says some 2,000 people were killed in security operations, including 800 state forces. It details ‘enforced disappearances; torture; destruction of housing and cultural heritage; incitement to hatred; prevention of access to emergency medical aid, food, water and livelihoods; violence against women; and severe curtailment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression as well as political participation.’ There has been not a single investigation into unlawful killings of hundreds of people. ‘A series of laws … has created an atmosphere of “systematic immunity” for security forces.’ The number of displaced persons in south-east Turkey is put at 355,000 to half a million people. In towns and villages, state killings are followed by ‘mass displacement of the survivors and the destruction of their homes and local cultural monuments’. ‘The centres of towns and cities across south-east Turkey have been described as empty moonscapes and vast parking lots’ with much ‘damage due to the use of heavy weapons and, possibly, air-dropped munitions … systematically demolishing entire neighbourhoods.’

According to the UN report, lawyers are given restricted access to their clients and are put under state surveillance. Many lawyers are said to be too afraid to defend people arrested. Over 3,000 judges and prosecutors have been dismissed, some 6,300 academics sacked along with 10,000 teachers in south-east Turkey. From July 2015 to December 2016, 8,711 executives, members and supporters of the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) were detained; ten MPs and its co-chairs gaoled.

The Financial Times (16 March 2017) provides an extraordinary account of the atmosphere created by the Turkish government. Erdogan said ‘The position of those who say “No” is taking sides with 15 July,’ a reference to the 2016 attempted military coup. He called for ‘a volunteer army of informers’: ‘If there is someone you know, wherever they are, inform our security services immediately.’ The Financial Times reports: ‘On an almost weekly basis, stories emerge of friends, colleagues and even spouses reporting each other for a catalogue of offences.’ Academics are arrested after students record their lectures, taxi drivers inform on passengers, Facebook messages critical of Erdogan result in arrests. Erdogan justified the scale of arrests, running at well over 130,000 people: ‘There is no difference between a terrorist with a gun and a bomb in his hand and those who use their work and pen to support terror. The fact that an individual could be a deputy, an academic, an author, a journalist or the director of an NGO does not change the fact that that person is a terrorist.’

The government intends to prevent people campaigning against the proposed constitutional changes and to stop them voting ‘No’. On 14 February the HDP reported that the homes of a further 600 people, half of them members, were raided by security forces. Under the State of Emergency, imposed by Erdogan, people can be detained for 30 days without access to lawyers. In February and March, Turkish forces sealed off Kurdish villages, tortured and killed the residents and burned down their houses. Villages targeted are those that overwhelmingly voted for the HDP in previous elections.

When German and Dutch authorities refused to allow Erdogan’s ministers to hold campaign rallies for the referendum in their cities Erdogan raged at them, calling the Dutch ‘Nazi remnants’ and ‘fascists’ and saying that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was ‘no different from the Netherlands’. This is from a man who has banned scores of opposition rallies and marches. Merkel responded saying, ‘We will not allow the victims of the Nazis to be trivialised. These comparisons with the Nazis must stop.’ When Deniz Yucel, a Turkish-German correspondent for the newspaper Die Welt, was arrested in February, Erdogan said he was a German agent acting for the PKK. The journalist faces up to ten years imprisonment. Merkel has demanded his release. Erdogan is using anti-European rhetoric to strengthen the nationalist and racist base of his support ahead of the referendum.

On the proposed constitutional changes, the European Council expressed ‘serious concerns at the excessive concentration of powers in one office’. Merkel said ‘the presidential system [proposed] is more than a problem for the future of Turkey’. The question arises is whether the EU will recognise the outcome of the vote if it is a ‘Yes’. On 22 March 2017 questions put to the German Ministry of Economy revealed that Germany has refused to sell arms to Turkey 11 times since the start of 2016 on grounds that they are used to suppress the Kurdish issue and other problems. It is unusual for NATO members not to sell weapons to each other.

In January, when British Prime Minister Theresa May visited Erdogan, the British government agreed to sell £100m of fighter jets to Turkey. The British government wants British companies to become Turkey’s main arms supplier. This is what the government means when it says Britain must ‘go out into the world’. This must be stopped. The Kurdish and democratic struggle in Turkey and the Middle East must be supported.

Trevor Rayne

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 256 April/May 2017


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