On April 16 of last year, the people of Turkey voted in favor of a constitutional referendum approving a series of amendments which significantly expanded the powers of the presidency, held by Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The referendum resulted in an extremely narrow victory at 51% for and 49% against, which was sustained despite claims of irregularities in the voting process and calls by the opposition to annul the results. Since then, political violence has risen in Turkey considerably relative to demonstrations (see graph below), suggesting a move away from allowing dissenting opinions to be heard and towards increased stability through pursuit of greater security.

Both in the days before and after the April referendum, the number of demonstrations in Turkey spiked, resulting in the month of the vote being the most active month in Turkey last year, in terms of reported demonstrations (see graph below). Reported demonstrations by the ‘Yes’ campaign — largely carried out by those supporting of President Erdogan’s government — were more numerous prior to the election. ‘No’ campaigners — led by opposition groups such as the Republican People’s Party (CHP) — remained active after the referendum as they disputed the results (Washington Post, April 17, 2017).

Since the referendum, a clear shift can be seen in event trends in Turkey, which can be traced back to the referendum’s focus on ensuring stability in the country over consensus-building. Most notably, the number of political violence events in Turkey has risen dramatically relative to riots and protests in the country. This trend starts in May 2017 (after International Labour Day on May 1), and is only interrupted over the next few months by demonstrations focused on issues that do not threaten the government, such as those related to Palestine. These issues — including restrictions placed on Palestinians attempting to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in July, and the announcement by the US that it would move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem — were also condemned by President Erdogan (Anadolu Agency, July 22, 2017; CNN, December 21, 2017) and did not target the Turkish government. They were therefore were not viewed as ‘dissent’ and saw no interventions by the government. This is in contrast to more recent demonstrations in April by laid off public sector workers, which were almost universally reported to have been dispersed by police.

This broad trend towards a relative rise in political violence and a relative decrease in demonstrations can be seen as a result of the Turkish government’s crackdown on dissenting opinions following the referendum (The Guardian, July 14, 2017) and pursuit of greater stability through use of the military (Centre for Security Studies, February 2018). This is further illustrated through Turkey’s interventions in both Syria (for more, see this recent ACLED piece) and Iraq (for more, see this recent ACLED piece) following the referendum. These initiatives have allowed the Turkish government and President Erdogan to double down on showing strength through military action (Foreign Policy, February 7, 2018), particularly in terms of their ongoing conflicts with Kurdish militant groups and the Islamic State.

Looking forward, it seems likely that President Erdogan’s government will continue to prioritize stability while cracking down on dissent (Amnesty International, April 26, 2018), resulting in low numbers of demonstrations and high-levels of political violence as Turkish security forces engage with militants groups both inside and outside of Turkey. Demonstrations that align with the government’s worldview — such as those against the move of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem witnessed over the past week (see this link for more on this) — can be expected to continue, while demonstrations by opposition groups, civil society activists, and journalists will likely continue to face repression.

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The Effect on Political Violence of the
Turkish Constitutional Referendum
Matt Batten-Carew
Matt Batten-Carew
Middle East Research Manager
Matthew Batten-Carew is a Middle East Research Manager with ACLED. He leads the Afghanistan, Iraq and Turkey projects, and was formerly Associate Manager with ACLED's Asia project. Mr. Batten-Carew holds an M.A. in Geopolitics & Grand Strategy and a second M.A. in Eurasian Studies, with research focusing on regional governance and conflict management. He has worked for the Canadian government's Departments of Global Affairs and National Defence, and for consulting firms in policy development and political risk analysis. He is fluent in English and French, and is based in Ottawa, Canada.
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