The amendments reinforce individual and collective spheres of freedom, introducing effective remedies, contracting the military’s jurisdiction, shaping the high judiciary according to the national will and eliminating, albeit partially, the lack of democratic legitimacy at these institutions.
Implementation of these amendments will be accompanied by a number of radical changes in politics. First of all, the bureaucratic tutelage over politics will be lessened, giving a real boost to the country’s democratic progress. As the legal curtain covering the inhuman crimes of the Sept. 12 era is torn down, it will be possible to settle accounts with the past. The increased motivation in the general public stemming from the ability to amend the Constitution will be translated into social demands for the drafting of a new and democratic constitution.
These three elements -- the strengthening of democracy, the emerging possibility to settle accounts with the past and the paving of the way for a new constitution -- are closely related to the Kurdish issue. Almost everyone -- except those who took a biased view of the Kurdish issue -- agrees that the issue can only be solved by expanding democratic measures, ensuring that the society can confront its past in a bold manner and drafting a new democratic rights-oriented constitution.
Given this, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) would have been expected to lend support to the package as these amendments will give an upper hand to civilian actors over the bureaucratic power -- which will create a suitable political environment where the settlement of the Kurdish issue can be freely negotiated. However, instead of contributing to the strengthening of the civilian politics, the BDP decided to “boycott” the referendum.
As its excuse, the BDP said the package did not confront issues directly related to the Kurdish issue and that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) had refrained from cooperating with them during the package-drafting process. However, the main reason behind the boycott was the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan. This boycott decision garnered considerable public support, particularly in the cities where municipal services are provided by mayors from the BDP. For instance, the rate of participation in the referendum was 7 percent in Hakkari, 22 percent in Şırnak, 35 percent in Diyarbakır, 40 percent in Batman, 52 percent in Siirt, 45 percent in Van and 55 percent in Iğdır.
Actually, the rate of participation in referendums is generally low. The rate of participation in the referendum held in 2007 was as follows: 53 percent in Diyarbakır, 63 percent in Batman, 74 percent in Hakkari, 72 percent in Şırnak, 71 percent in Siirt, 65 percent in Van, and 57 percent in Iğdır. Comparing the two rates, there is a kenspeckle difference: 18 percent in Diyarbakır, 23 percent in Batman, 67 percent in Hakkari, 40 percent in Şırnak, 19 percent in Siirt and 20 percent in Van. This difference shows the BDP’s boycott call was successful. There are several reasons for such a successful and effective rate of boycott.
First, the BDP can command its voter base to a great extent, as it has a hardcore voter base that accepts the BDP management’s decisions unquestioningly. The rate of such voters for the BDP is much higher compared to other parties. The majority of the BDP’s voters are young people who are considerably loyal to the party and have a militant spirit. Accordingly, they implement the decisions that the party’s management makes -- without questioning them at length or discussing their relevance. This was what happened during this referendum. Many BDP voters who would have voted “yes” -- if they had been allowed to go freely to the polls -- complied with the party’s decision, even though they might not have liked it very much.
Second, a number of mostly provocative incidents broke out recently, one after another. Despite the fact that the PKK announced its decision to de-escalate, nine PKK militants were killed in Hakkari -- which triggered a number of clashes in Hakkari, Şırnak and Van. Moreover, the attack on Diyarbakır Deputy Akın Birdal during the BDP’s rally in Bursa further urged the BDP voters to stick to the party management’s boycott decision, and this increased the success of the boycott. Indeed, the participation rates in Hakkari and Şırnak in particular confirm this.
Third, Öcalan made clear a definite decision to boycott the referendum during the last meeting with his lawyer. Until then, however, he would say that Kurds should discuss the matter among themselves in order to make a decision. “The meaning of the boycott is this: ‘We want a democratic, pluralistic constitution that appeals to everyone.’ We are against both the neo-nationalist/nationalist fascism and Islamist/nationalist fascism. We stand behind the boycott decision in order to urge the Turkish Republic, state and government to uphold a democratic solution and draft a democratic constitution,” he said.
Fourth, the ruling party failed to give assurance to, or win the hearts of, the Kurdish voters who typically support the BDP. Indeed, the ruling AK Party could not develop sound relations with the BDP during the parliamentary negotiations stage of the package, and when it lost the support of nationalist groups, it refrained from giving the impression of cooperating with the BDP, which disappointed the BDP’s voters. The BDP made various proposals to the AK Party during this process. It declared that even a serious promise concerning the legal and constitutional amendments would make them change their boycott decision. However, the AK Party turned a deaf ear to these calls from the BDP, affording to it a treatment that suggested, “You are obliged to support this package.” In response to the ruling party’s careful avoidance of them, the BDP management started to assert that they would “not become their compulsory supporters” and this assertion was well received by their voters. This further boosted the boycott rate.
The loyalty of its voters to the BDP makes it a winner in the referendum, which plays into its hands. However, there are two points that the BDP should be wary of: first, while many voters in the Southeast did not go to the polls, those who went to the polls voted “yes,” favoring change. Thus, if the BDP wants to grow and win a wider electorate, then it is responsible for adopting a peaceful political language that appeals to the Kurds who demand change. Thus, labeling the civil society organizations that declared their support for the package as “immoral” or “political guards” will not bring any political benefits to the BDP. Thus, the BDP should drop the language it used during this process.
Second, the BDP should not forget that this referendum ended in a “yes.” It should see the Turkish society’s demand for change and make its Kurdish voters part of this change.
*Vahap Coşkun is an instructor at Dicle University’s faculty of law.