In an article ahead of the recent Turkish referendum I asked this question: “Is it possible there will be a repeat of the David and Goliath story on April 16?” David vs. Goliath is a good way to think about the environment in which this vote was held.
All the reputable polls carried out before the referendum indicated that the vote was close, but based on the power held by one side over the other, this was comparable to the fight between David and Goliath.
The “Yes” front had a strong and decisive leader who had been in power for 15 years, and also possessed a massive voter relations network, unlimited financial resources and media support, and distribution that dominated the entire media universe. Of the 24 national TV channels, 22 were rallying for “Yes”. State institutions, governmental banks, ministries, a vast majority of municipalities, and the organized power of the state (at the expense of violating laws and democratic precedents) were all supplying the “Yes” front with logistical support. In brief, the “Yes” side was imposing and fearsome.
On the other hand, the “No” campaign, standing up against changes to the constitution which it perceived as “institutionalizing one-person rule,” aside from not having a powerful leader, did not even possess a strong campaign machinery. They had no budget, no media, no skills to manage voter relations and were far from being ready. They did not have the same access to public resources as those supporting a “Yes” vote. Moreover, as the groups making up the front came from very different political factions, they could not have been expected to act harmoniously under a single political agenda. Only by doing something unexpected or by changing the rules of the game would it have been able to score a win.
A Useful Weakness
On one side, a massive propaganda machine was wielding its power recklessly—even able to present issues that are far from reality as truth. On the other side, there were small groups making clumsy initiatives. It was an inadequate opposition, but it was armed with confidence that it could defeat the giant.
The “No” front succeeded in transforming its multi-headed and disharmonious structure from a weakness into an advantage. There were hundreds of civilian groups—some women voters, some young voters, some lawyers. They were all amateurs, but they had beliefs and convictions. There were hundreds of civic initiatives with the hope of winning and an appetite for civic participation. These were the most effective weapons of the “No” side.
Traditional versus Digital
The monolithic, centralized structure of the “Yes” campaign fit well with the patterns of traditional media and politics. However, the decentralized structure of the “No” campaign was quite compatible with the environment of the digital world.
Almost every single day, the “No” front produced a new visual, a new video, a new hashtag, or a new slogan, and shared it on social media. The drawbacks to the new system that would be created by the proposed changes to the constitution were explained from a variety of angles and perspectives.
As these efforts weren’t hamstrung by a more central campaign, creativity flourished. The social media effort was such an improvised process that most videos from the “No” front, shared millions of times, didn’t even supply information as to the origins of its message, so no one knew which organization or initiative it came from, and no one really cared. The drive for “No” was being perceived as the campaign of everybody who would vote against the changes, and not the efforts of a specific unit.
While the lack of clarity that came from many voices talking at once added power to the No campaign. But a similar situation would have been a serious weakness for those advocating for “Yes”. The “No” campaign offered supporters an active opportunity to participate, while the “Yes” campaign promised them little more than becoming one of the millions of cogs in the machinery of propaganda.
Nevertheless, the “Yes” front published videos and ads through civil society organizations. There weren’t many, but some of these were created outside of the ruling party’s campaign structure. However, it wasn’t easy to distinguish these from the main operation conducted by the ruling party. They appeared to have the same viewpoints, the same organization, and the same budget.
It was clear that the drive for “Yes” was traditional, whereas that for “No” was shaped by the spirit of digital media. In fact, research conducted after the referendum revealed that “No” votes were especially prevalent among the young and educated.
One Shade of Yes Against 50 Shades of No...
At the outset, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) called the proposed state structure the “Presidential system.” However, as the very wide gaps between what was proposed and a real presidential system became visible, they gave up on this idea and tried to package the constitutional changes as the “Turkish-style presidential system.” After this didn’t work either, the AKP dubbed the system it invented the “Presidential government system.” Its most basic feature was to completely eradicate the separation of powers and the checks and balances from the existing system. We can call it anything but democratic.
Indeed, this change effectively means redesigning the state according to the powers President Erdogan wields and his aspirations. Besides, those who voted “yes” perceived the referendum as basically voting to confirm President Erdogan’s position. However, it was not very easy to rationally explain why a party that has been ruling for 15 years, and its very powerful leader, was asking for even more power. For that reason, the “Yes” campaign depended on slogans reminding the public of the AKP’s and President Erdogan’s past successes, and were devoid of any other ideas: “Our past is a success, our vote is yes,” read one slogan. “Yes for Turkey with all my heart,” was another. “The nation we address, our decision is yes.”
Due to the patchwork nature of the “No” campaign, it’s hard to point to one strategic approach that made a mark on the movement. While “Yes” had a single hue, “No” had 50 shades, and every single one represented a hope for the future and a stand for democracy against a one-man regime.
As a consequence of the decision of the Supreme Election Council to ratify the validity of unstamped ballots, Turkey has left behind a referendum bearing widespread questions as to its results. The “Yes” side, comprised of two parties, received 51 percent of the votes whereas in the previous election, the votes of both had added up to 62 percent. On the evening of the referendum, President Erdogan and his staff faced the cameras with disappointment written all over their faces, expressions they were unable to hide. No matter what the official results proclaimed, no one really thought David had lost, and every one was in agreement that Goliath had not won.
Necati Ozkan is the president of OYKU / Dialogue International, and a past president of the European Association of Political Consultants.