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Obscurities of a Referendum Foretold: The 2017 Constitutional Amendments in Turkey

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 May 2018

Hasret Dikici Bilgin
İstanbul Bilgi University
Emre Erdoğan
İstanbul Bilgi University


The 2017 referendum marked a transition from an already incongruous parliamentary system to rampant presidentialism and created more conflicts rather than defusing them. Given the extraordinary conditions under which the referendum was held, and the limited time allowed for discussion of its possible ramifications, any effort to analyze the eve and aftermath of the referendum provoked more questions than answers. Why was the referendum held in 2017, although the governing party had advocated for a new constitution and transition to a presidential system since it came to power in 2002? What was the attitude of the voters towards the presidential system? How did popular support change or did it in fact change during the referendum campaign? The analysis of these questions presented here relies on extant research to inventory what we really know and do not know about the most recent Turkish referendum and why these unanswered questions might have critical consequences.

Special Focus on Turkey: The Evolution of a Referendum
Copyright © Middle East Studies Association of North America, Inc. 2018 

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1 Qvortrup, Matt, “Two Hundred Years of Referendums,” in Referendums Around the World, ed. Qvortrup, Matt (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 264CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Canovan, Margaret, “Taking Politics to the People: Populism as the Ideology of Democracy,” in Democracies and the Populist Challenge, eds. Meny, Yves and Surel, Yves (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 26Google Scholar.

3 AKP's election manifestos in this period are as follows: Everything is for Turkey (2002); Go on with Trust and Stability (2007); Turkey is Ready: Target 2023 (2011); Towards the New Turkey, Always Justice Always Development (2015).

4 The full content of the 2007 amendment package is available online at the TBMM Web site in Turkish. “5678 sayılı Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Anayasası'nın Bazı Maddelerinde Değişiklik Yapılması Hakkında Kanun,”, accessed 25 October 2017. The full content of the 2010 amendment package is available online at the TBMM website in Turkish. “5982 sayılı Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Anayasası'nın Bazı Maddelerinde Değişiklik Yapılması Hakkında Kanun,”, accessed 25 October 2017.

5 The campaign booklet of AKP was titled Questions and Answers about the Constitutional Amendment Package 2010.

6 Seçimlerinden Sonra, “Erdoğan: Yeni Anayasa 2011,” Bianet, last modified 17 August 2010,

7 For a summary of these court cases and the debates please see Tisdall, Simon, “Turkey's Sledgehammer Coup Verdict: Justice or Soviet-style Show Trial?,” The Guardian, 25 September 2012Google Scholar,, accessed 6 February 2018.

8 Jenkins, Gareth, “The Balyoz Retrial and the Changing Politics of Turkish Justice,” Turkey Analyst, 24 June 2014Google Scholar,

9 Saatçioğlu, Beken, “AKP's ‘Europeanization’ in Civilianization, Rule of Law and Fundamental Freedoms: The Primacy of Domestic Politics,” Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies 16, no. 1 (January 2014): 9193CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Metropoll Araştırma Şirketi, “Başkanlık Sistemi Hakkında Halk Ne Düşünüyor?” Son Seçim Anketi, 3 February 2015,; “16 Nisan Halkoylaması Sandık ve Seçmen Analiz Raporu,” KONDA, May 2017,

11 Türkiye Araştırmaları Merkezi, “Türkiye Sosyal-Siyasal Eğilimler Araştırması,” Kadir Has University, accessed 25 October 2017,

12 KONDA, “16 Nisan.”

13 Turkey - Opinion on the Amendments to the Constitution Adopted by the Grand National Assembly on 21 January 2017 and to be Submitted to a National Referendum on 16 April 2017, adopted by the Venice Commission at its 110th Plenary Session (Venice, 10–11 March 2017), accessed 25 October 2017.

14 Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, “Turkey, Constitutional Referendum, 16 April 2017: Final Report,” 22 June 2017, 7.

15 Ibid., 15.

16 Ibid., 8.

17 Ibid., 9–10.

18 Cumhuriyet, 18 April 2017.

20 Ibid., 6.

21 Klimek, Peter et al., “Election Forensic Analysis of the Turkish Constitutional Referendum 2017,” ArXiv:1706.09839 [Physics, Stat], 29 June 2017Google Scholar,

22 Meyersen's research questions if there are statistically conclusive enough patterns to declare the referendum was fraudulent; while identifying unconventional patterns, he concludes that such irregularities are limited in scope and geography. Erik Myersson, “The Curious Case of the Vanishing Never-AKPers in Southeastern Turkey,” last modified 17 April 2017,

23 IPSOS -Turkey, “Anayasa Değişikliği Referandumu Sandık Sonrası Araştırması,” last modified April 19, 2017,; KONDA, “16 Nisan.”

24 As both reports present detailed information about determinants of voters’ choices by using bivariate analyses, the reader needs to be careful about the statistical significance of these relationships. As party identification of voters are affected by presented variables (education, work status, religiosity etc.), the effects of these variables are probably mediated by the party identification. Hence multivariate analyses present a much more realistic picture.

25 S. Erdem Aytaç, Ali Çarkoğlu and Kerem Yıldırım, “Taking Sides: Determinants of Support for a Presidential System in Turkey,” South European Society and Politics 22, no. 1 (January 2017): 1–20.

26 Ibid., 17.

27 LeDuc, Lawrence, Niemi, Richard G., and Norris, Pippa, Comparing Democracies 4: Elections and Voting in a Changing World (New York: Sage, 2014), 714CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 LeDuc, Niemi, and Norris, Comparing Democracies 4, 718.

29 See the attached Appendix for descriptives of these variables and the models themselves.

30 Based on the combined model.

31 AKP's campaign booklet on the 2017 referendum was titled Our Decision is Yes: Presidential Governmental System.

32 “Sacred cause” (kutlu dava) refers to the AKP's rhetoric of eliminating obstacles in front of the devout Muslims.

33 Esen, Berk and Gümüşçü, Şebnem, “A Small Yes for Presidentialism: The Turkish Constitutional Referendum of April 2017,” South European Society and Politics 22, no. 3 (2017): 56CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 The campaign's intensity is also clear in the mutual engagement amongst opposition parties and in their efforts to preempt the constitutional reforms of the AKP. The pro-government research center SETA ackowledged the shift in the CHP campaign and the strategy to avoid further polarization.

35 Another AKP booklet on the 2017 referendum was titled What the Constitutional Amendment Will Bring: 30 Questions 30 Answers.

36 HDP's Referendum 2017 booklet.