While at the outset of his career Erdogan struck a balance between religious and non-religious voters, promising religious freedom to the former and economic growth to the latter, in more recent years, he has demonized and cracked down on demographics that oppose him, Cagaptay explained. Following the Gezi protests of 2013 and the renewed fighting with Kurdish separatists in 2015, the coup attempt, and post-coup purges, Erdogan has vilified groups ranging from secularists to Kurds, Alevis, liberals, and social democrats, all for political gain. But now that these factions “make up nearly 50 percent [of the electorate] … the strategy has run its course.”
For this reason, Cagaptay believes, Erdogan has brought the fight to Europe, where he has repeatedly called Dutch and German officials “Nazis” and proponents of modern-day “fascism.” After AKP officials were banned from campaigning for “Yes” in several European cities, Erdogan monopolized on the situation to rally nationalist voters around his platform. The use of insults and name-calling frayed Turkey-EU relations, but allowed Erdogan to assert his place on the world stage as a leader with backbone. More importantly, demonizing EU governments did minimal damage to his electorate at home.
“The Netherlands is Turkey’s number one source of direct investment,” Cagaptay said. “It’s also, sadly, the country with which Turkey has had the longest, permanent relations among European nations. … The fact that [Turkish-Dutch] relations have had their first crisis under Erdogan suggest to me that foreign policy now serves Erdogan’s electoral gains and nothing is sacred.”
In Ankara, such electoral strategies come as no surprise. About a mile east of the Turkish parliament building is the headquarters of the HDP, the socialist party that focuses on minority rights. HDP received about 6 million votes in the June 2015 elections, but if one follows only the state media, it would appear more like a criminal organization serving as the mouthpiece for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Inside, HDP spokesperson Osman Baydemir sat in the vacant office of Figen Yuksekdag, an HDP co-chair currently in jail along with 12 other party members. Most have been charged with spreading terrorist propaganda or working for a terrorist organization. Collectively, these elected officials face hundreds of years of imprisonment. Night raids and surprise arrests continue to target party members, and Baydemir was well aware of the risks he faced.
“In one month, if you happen to have an interview with the spokesperson of HDP, I’m not sure if it’s going to be me,” he said in mid-March. “I am a deputy today, but tomorrow I might be arrested.”
Baydemir, who is also the MP for the southern Turkish city of Sanilurfa, said two-thirds of his district’s officers are currently in jail and have been replaced with state-appointed trustees. From his perspective, the Kurdish opposition has long lived under state of emergency rule and the approval of the presidential system would legalize such practices in the rest of the country. While the outcome of Sunday’s referendum remains too close to call, Baydemir said remains hopeful that democracy will prevail in Turkey.
“In my opinion, AKP will lose eventually,” he said. “Erdogan is repeating the practices of dictators from world history. Pinochet lost eventually. Franco as well. Hitler also lost. But until these figures lost, they made their societies lose, made their societies suffer under their rule.”