Criticism of Turkey’s upcoming referendum on constitutional changes is flawed

2017-04-11 10:40

This week, Turks will vote in a referendum to decide on a series of constitutional reforms that have been proposed by long-serving Turkish President Recep Erdogan. A number of criticisms have been leveled against the upcoming referendum and the referendum process. These are likely to be seized upon by opponents of the use of referendums in policy-making to highlight what is wrong with using referendums and other forms of direct public input to settle important policy debates.

Of these, it will be pointed out that Turkey is in a state of emergency and has been so since July last year (2016). Few are likely to subscribe to the view that this makes for ideal conditions under which to organise and run campaigns, either for or against the proposals under review, since campaigning depends on the freedom to organise and provide information on one’s stance to voters in a bid to sway popular opinion and secure their votes. It does not help that the Turkish government already enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists, dissidents and political opponents. Secondly, there is the matter of the number of issues upon which citizens are being asked to decide upon. The large number of reforms or changes which citizens are being asked to decide upon would appear to be better suited to being settled via means of a general election rather than a referendum, in which voters are typically asked to vote on a single issue rather than a range of issues. This grouping of issues unnecessarily complicates matters for voters and makes it difficult to ascertain exactly which issues drive results, which issues cause most consternation among voters etc. Yet perhaps the most damaging consequence of the complications introduced by asking citizens to decide on a series of proposed changes simultaneously is that, rather than the issue at hand, media coverage of this upcoming poll seems to have simplified this exercise by reducing it to a matter of personalities by portraying it as a test of the popular support which President Erdogan enjoys.

Under such circumstances, it will be difficult to ascertain whether voters have actually applied their minds to the issues at hand or whether results will be driven by their feelings about the president. Consequently, opinion makers (including political figures, sundry media commentators, academics etc.) could easily dismiss the outcomes of this referendum as results taken from an opinion poll and thus refuse to view it as a tool for determining whether the government is acting with a popular mandate in a particular area or as a valid means of informing policy making. Importantly, this could happen regardless of which side carries the referendum. Drawing a comparison with South Africa, this would be the equivalent of dismissing the call for a referendum on nuclear power on the basis that it will amount to nothing more than an opinion poll on the popularity of Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa and a keen supporter of nuclear power.

Though fully cognizant of the challenges that each of these issues present, it is nonetheless put to the reader that these dynamics point to problems in Turkey’s contemporary political environment rather than weaknesses associated with the use of referenda per se. Granted, this very assessment can be used to highlight a far deeper shortcoming of referendums: they can be susceptible to manipulation by powerful political figures, just like any other political process. If so, rather than provide grounds upon which to reject the use of referenda to inform decision-making in general, they point to the need to undertake much-needed political reform, in Turkey in this instance. Hopefully, reform would mitigate the effect of current, and hopefully fleeting, events on the outcomes of any referendum process. Note that reform, however extensive, is unlikely to eliminate all the effects of the influence of current affairs on voting behaviour. Nor should it aim to. All that it needs is to be sufficient to ensure that whatever bias that is introduced by current societal developments do not distort voters’ views so greatly that their voting patterns do not accurately represent their true feelings about the matter at hand or their views on the society they would like to live in. Based on this assessment, it is argued that calls for a referendum on nuclear power in South Africa remain legitimate despite any problems Turkey might currently be experiencing with the administration and oversight of its upcoming referendum on constitutional changes.

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