By Serra Hakyemez
In response to Turkey’s constitutional referendum on April 16, 2017, which replaces the parliamentary system with an executive presidency, PoLAR and APLA commissioned a series of responses from scholars and activists working on democracy and human rights in the region. In this installment, Serra Hakyemez and Bilge Firat reflect on the ramifications of the referendum.
On April 16, 2017 at around 5pm, an hour before the voting for Turkey’s landmark constitutional referendum was completed, the eleven member Supreme Board of Elections (YSK) decided that ballot envelopes lacking YSK’s official stamp should be considered valid unless they were proven to be forged. Holding ultimate authority over elections, YSK thereby abandoned the utility of its own seal against forgery and asked election officials not to weed out unvalidated envelopes from the ballot box. After the count of approximately 1.5 million voting slips that came in unstamped envelopes, the number of votes in favor of constitutional amendments proposed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) turned out to outweigh those against it by 51.41 percent to 48.59. Although the margin is very tight (1.3 million votes), the referendum results grant the transition from a parliamentary system to presidential one, in which the next president may hold unprecedented power over legislative and judiciary bodies.
Enraged by the controversial win of the government’s “yes” campaign, “no” voters have taken to the streets to protest the referendum results. Protestors were aligned with two political fronts in the opposition camp: the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Although both CHP and HDP condemned the YSK’s decision, the lenses through which they see the controversy over the referendum’s legitimacy are fundamentally different. Is it the missing seal of YSK, as CHP argues, that overshadows the referendum results? Or, as HDP argues, must other “seals,” figured in terms of the political silencing of Kurds, be taken into account in contesting the referendum’s legitimacy? The fine line dividing these two fronts could help us better understand not only the controversial win of “yes” votes, but also the forms of action through which that win could be challenged.
Unsealed Ballot Envelopes versus Sealed off Towns
The day after the referendum, CHP submitted a dossier to the Council of State to appeal the YSK’s decision and demanded the renewal of the referendum. The CHP’s objection can be read as a move to expose and contest the AKP’s ubiquitous control over state institutions since the coup attempt in July 2016. CHP argues that by capitalizing on the failed coup to purge thousands of civil servants from state institutions, the AKP government brought the state away from the rule of law. The YSK’s critical decision was taken as another example of the transformation of the state into a “rogue” state. According to this argument, then, the unstamped envelopes found in ballot boxes are not so much a sign that voters tampered with the election as that the current state itself is fraudulent.
The CHP’s appeal might quickly reach a cul-de-sac since the YSK’s decisions are not open to judicial review. Unless the contours of its objection are expanded, this form of political opposition could die out with the exhaustion of the appeals process. More importantly, the political insistence on proper placement of the official seal valorizes the sovereign’s signature as the only safeguard of justice, while discarding the forms of violence folded into it. In order to discern the kind of repressive force the sovereign’s seal bears, we need to turn to the pro-Kurdish camp of the opposition.
The HDP’s “no” campaign stretches back to 2014 when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ran for the presidency with the ambition to expand the executive power of the presidential office. Around that time, the presidential candidate of HDP, Selahattin Demirtaş, had become a popular figure among Kurds, leftists, feminists, ecologists, millennials, and so on. Called by his followers “Selo” and often compared to Alexis Tsipras, the charismatic leader of Syriza in Greece, Demirtaş—as a young and witty lawmaker—stood in stark contrast to what Erdoğan symbolized: a patrimonial leader reminiscent of Ottoman sultans.
Although Erdoğan ultimately won the competition, HDP succeeded in creating a vibrant and creative political opposition. Following the 2014 presidential election, a parliamentary election was held in June 2015; HDP obtained an unprecedented level of success, and became the second largest opposition party in Parliament. In the immediate aftermath of this victory, however, the AKP government began to seal decrees against the HDP through both militarized and juridical-political means.
Armed with a set of decrees against HDP bearing the seal of President Erdoğan and the government, a full-force military operation was launched in Turkey’s Kurdistan in July 2015. Heavy artillery, tanks, and warplanes were deployed by special military and police forces to crack down on armed youth groups in urban settlements where HDP had gained landslide victory. The state declared round-the-clock curfews in these urban centers, and the siege lasted for at least 169 days in 10 cities and 39 districts. From July 2015 to December 2016, the operations claimed the lives of reportedly 1,200 civilians and displaced around 1.5 million. By the time the referendum took place, some curfew sites, which had already been leveled to the ground, were still sealed off to civilians, and the displaced could not even locate their ballots. Military operations were supplemented by police raids targeting the political activists, locally elected mayors, and lawmakers of HDP, including the public face of the “no” campaign, Selahattin Demirtaş. Through these mass incarcerations and collective punishments, the seals of the state ended up erasing any possibility of pursuing a “no” campaign in Turkey’s Kurdistan.
For the Kurds, the source of the illegitimacy of the referendum seems to be too grave to be contained within YSK’s envelopes. From this perspective, the AKP government was able to deploy the repressive force of the state not because it turned the state into a rogue one, but because the state has always been rogue in Turkey’s Kurdistan. Hence, Kurds associate the seal of the state not with justice but with death and refuse to accept what comes with it—incrimination, denial, and obedience. Despite the unlevel playing field on which the referendum campaign was conducted, voters of the besieged towns voted “no” by at least 70 percent. In the aftermath of the referendum, HDP therefore asserts the victory of “no” votes and claims the streets to pursue a new political struggle.
The implementation of the approved constitutional amendments depends on how the “no” camp, consisting of CHP and HDP, organizes itself and establishes alliances until the next election in 2019, when the newly-approved presidential system would become effective. Are the politics of the HDP and CHP incommensurable? There is a palpable potential for two parties to destabilize the AKP’s plan to elevate Erdoğan as the ultimate leader of Turkey. Yet, there is a lingering question as to the extent to the “no” parties are willing to carry on the struggle. Will CHP merely oppose the AKP’s power within the Turkish state, or join the HDP’s politics of refusal? We shall see this in the coming two years as the divergences between “no” voters take new turns both on the street and behind closed doors. What is obvious at this point is that the “no” campaign has not ended, but rather has been rekindled through new languages, objections, and inspirations.
Serra Hakyemez, Neubauer Junior Research Fellow in the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from The Johns Hopkins University. Based on her archival and ethnographic research on terror trials in Diyarbakır, Turkey (2008-2009, 2013-2015), her dissertation, Lives and Times of Militancy, examines what the “political” looks like within the space of law where Turkey resumes its war of terror against the Kurdish movement through myriad judicial and penitentiary technologies. Hakyemez is currently completing a book, Laws of Terror: Becoming Political in Criminal Courts, which approaches the political vulnerability of Kurds before the law as generative of a grammar of defense that is at once aspirational, corporal, and collective. Hakyemez’s research has been awarded by the American Council of Learned Societies, National Science Foundation, and Wenner-Gren Foundation. Her publications in peer-reviewed journals and opinion pieces draw on the literature on ordinary ethics, political community, and human rights to examine the imbrications of law and violence in Turkey’s war of terror. She will begin a assistant professorship position in the Global Studies and Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities in Fall 2017.
Contact: Hakyemez.firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
 The YSK’s controversial decision can be found on its official website: http://www.ysk.gov.tr/cs/groups/public/documents/document/ndq0/mdiz/~edisp/yskpwcn1_4444023124.pdf
 For international observers’ reports on Turkey’s referendum, see: http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/turkey/311726 & https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/turkey/311721?download=true
 For an overvıew of protests, see:
 See the United Nation (UN)’s report on human rights violations in Turkey’s Kurdistan during the curfews: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/TR/OHCHR_South-East_TurkeyReport_10March2017.pdf#sthash.c6fifoZ6.dpuf