Westminster Debate ‘Referendum in Turkey’

27 March 2017

House of Commons

This Westminster Debate was kindly hosted by Tom Brake Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington and chaired by Sara Whyatt, a researcher and campaigner on freedom of expression, formally of PEN International and Amnesty International and former English-language editor of Gezi Resistance Magazine.

The keynote speaker was Erdogan Aydin, Human Rights Association National Delegate, Coordination Board Member of the Union for Democracy, author, journalist and political commentator.

Tom Brake MP opened the event discussing the importance of providing voters in referendums both for Turkey and the previous Brexit referendum in the UK with adequate, non-biased information in order for them to make their decisions. Specifically referring to Turkey he expressed concern about the state of freedom of expression.

Sara Whyatt began by introducing the topic, elaborating on Turkey’s upcoming referendum which will occur on the 16th of April and commenting on the executive Presidential system that would be established by a Yes vote on proposed changes to the Turkish Constitution. She outlined arguments from both sides of the referendum, stating that Yes voters supported these changes based on the view that they would bring stability to the country and economy and that No voters were concerned about these changes placing too much power in the hands of one person.

Mr Aydin opened his speech by stating that the consequences of the referendum could bring about two different Turkey’s based on the result. He argued that one outcome would effectively re-establish an Ottoman-style monarchy in the country, whereas the other result would bring Turkey into a more democratic condition.

He commented on the current conditions faced by No campaigners who are campaigning under a state of emergency. He argued that this has seen many journalists such as the German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel arrested on charges of sedition and terrorism. He also added that 12 MPs from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) including the party’s co-chairs had been imprisoned and that 90 mayors had been removed from office and replaced by state appointed trustees. He argued that in the time since the 21st of March, the pro-Yes governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) received 300 hours of coverage in the media, compared to the pro-No Republican People’s Party (CHP) who received 45 hours and the HDP which has received none. Mr Aydin added that pro-No supporters are being labelled terrorists by pro-Yes pundits, and stated that the pro-Yes campaigners were presenting their own campaign as a War of Independence, and using religious symbols including crosses and crescents in order to portray themselves as fighting against crusaders.

He argued that as a result of this, the AKP which in the early 2000s had used secular pro-EU accession language, has changed its discourse to an Islamist one. Mr Aydin referred to the campaign as anti-democratic in nature, and argued that this reflected the future changes to the Government system that a Yes vote would create. He commented that under this system, the executive would be able to legislate by itself, concentrating too much power in the hands of one person.

He also argued that this would be a serious problem for a country like Turkey which has significant ethnic and religious minorities, being roughly ethnically 25% Kurdish and religiously 25% Alevi. He expressed concern that Turkish and Sunni identity could be forced on these groups under an executive presidency. He added that while some Presidential systems could be democratic such as the American system, the system proposed for Turkey lacked a separation of powers with effective checks and balances on the President. After this, Mr Aydin argued that for this reason, a Yes vote would not address the problems facing Turkey.

He also commented that these concerns were raised by the Venice Commission, which is an official EU commission that analyses the democratic credentials of prospective EU member-states. Mr Aydincontinued, stating that the President would be able to appoint and dismiss high ranking officials including in the judiciary, allowing them to appoint 12 out of 15 Constitutional Court Judges, arbitrarily annul the parliament and effectively legislate by decree. He also commented that the Venice Commission declared this system to be “autocratic”.

He concluded by stating that he and others were deeply concerned about the effect this system would have on Turkish Democracy, and how it could undermine secularism, equal and human rights, Turkey-EU relations and stability in the Middle East and particularly Syria. He summarised his case by arguing that the constitutional changes were a great disappointment, and dismissed them as backsliding beyond what he saw as the shortcomings of Turkey’s 1980 Constitution. Finally, he argued that a No vote could help steer Turkey onto a more democratic path.

The speech was followed by a question and answer session.

Speaker Biography

Erdoğan Aydın is an eminent writer of Turkey who focuses on alternative historiography.  He wrote his first book ‘The Truth of Islam’ and won The Turan Dursun Best Research Award 1992. Also, he has written columns in national Turkish newspapers. Currently he writes political analysis related to foreign relations and domestic issues of Turkey on T24 internet news site and he is also a well known TV commentator.  Also he teaches history, Middle Eastern studies and domestic politics of Turkey at Özgür University that is an independent, alternative education platform. Besides, Erdoğan Aydın is a  national delegate of Human Rights Association of Turkey and  Coordination Board Member of Union for Democracy (DİB: Demokrasi İçin Birlik)in Turkey that is established by intellectuals who are struggling for democratization of Turkey.