Clash of Communities: Turkey’s Dormant Domestic Cold War

By Dr. H. Akin Unver | 10 December 2010


Turkey’s September 12, 2010 Constitutional Amendment referendum was perhaps one of the most socially polarizing episodes in its modern history. A slightly higher-profile voting than a general election, this referendum carved Turkey into two sharply divided trenches, a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the proposed amendment package to the Turkish Constitution.

Supporters of the Constitutional amendment package argued that the proposed changes would bring Turkish legal and political system closer to European standards through a number of rectifications regarding economic – social rights, individual and judicial reform and enabling the trial of the 1980 coup generals. The ‘no’ position on the other hand had focused extensively on the judicial reform part of the amendment package, arguing that the proposed reform would do nothing but render the Constitutional Court (the highest judicial organ) subservient to the demands of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), meaning the AKP’s effective control over the entire judiciary.

Although the amendment package was voted in favor by the 58% of the Turkish electorate on September 12 and that the ruling AKP has declared the result ‘a victory’, the vote and its aftermath has exposed Turkey’s long dormant ‘domestic Cold War’. Turkey emerged from its deeply polarizing referendum even more entrenched – in the words of the prominent Turkish columnist Hakkı Devrim: ‘like a freestone peach; which serves as an analogy of Turkish political nature in every incident’. However more interesting than the referendum were the public-political discourses and narratives adopted by both sides of the political continuum in order to increase support and snatch indecisive voters by creating an atmosphere of ‘life and death’. Turkey’s run-up to referendum was marked by Hitler moustaches, ‘asylum-grade’ conspiracy theories and well-known warnings from both sides that if people don’t vote their way, then ‘all will be lost for Turkey’. Such scenes are not unfamiliar in polarized electoral politics of course and unfortunately make up a considerable portion of electoral symbolism and discourse.
“More importantly than ever, Turks need to realize that their compatriots who vote for the rival party are also Turks and not some extraterrestrial entity that popped up suddenly to ‘take over’ Turkey.” 
However, this time Turkey did not experience its usual ‘partisan polarization’, which identifies a strong separation in socio-politics along political party lines. This was something relatively new; a case of ‘popular polarization’, which defines a situation where the society is pushed towards two extremes that are independent of party politics and relate to issues and topics about which the electorate feels more strongly about. Such determinants are always policy areas and issues that elicit an existential threat within a society, so sufficiently ‘real’ and ‘possible’ that it becomes impossible even to reason with, let alone convince those immersed in such narratives. Competing narratives and ‘realities’ clash with each other so intensely, that the resultant effect is one of alienation and ‘other-ness’ within the society. These clashes intensify of course, as other forms of polarization such as wide ideological discrepancy and acute class struggle weigh in.
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* Published in the Fourth Issue of Political Reflection Magazine (PR).

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