Polls on the Turkish presidential referendum suggest a close race. ORC, a polling company loyal to the government, has placed the yes vote at 55.4%, while Gezici, a company associated with the opposition, has predicted that 51 to 53% of eligible voters will cast their ballot for the initiative. Neither poll suggests that the ruling AKP party will achieve the 60% yes vote that it has predicted. The AKP, together with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is proposing changes to the constitution, which would introduce a presidential system of government that could keep Erdogan in office until 2029.
With such slim margins, Erdogan is turning to the Kurds to rally support for the referendum. There are 15 million Kurds in Turkey, making up 19% of the population.
On March 31, Erdogan visited Diyarbakir, the unofficial Kurdish capital in southeastern Turkey and a stronghold of the HDP, the leading Kurdish party. There, Erdogan gave a speech to a crowd of 10,000 people, promising $80 million for eighty-five projects in the region.
“Just as we cannot imagine Turkey without Istanbul, Izmir, Trabzon, Antalya and Erzurum, we cannot imagine Turkey without Diyarbakir,” Erdogan said.
Erdogan’s appeal for Kurdish support comes at a time when twelve of the HDP’s parliamentarians are in prison, including party leader Selahattin Demirtas. The HDP entered parliament, after the June 2015 elections, in which it broke the 10% threshold necessary to enter parliament, gaining eighty seats, and upending the AKP’s longstanding parliamentary super majority.
According to some observers, Erdogan’s attempt to court the Kurdish vote is unlikely to succeed. Because of the HDP MP arrests, as well as the Turkish military’s campaign of destruction in Kurdish areas throughout the southeast, Kurdish voters will decisively vote no in the referendum, according to HDP spokesperson Osman Baydemir.
But, not everyone is as sure Kurds will definitively vote no because of Erdogan’s recent anti-Kurdish policies. While a survey organized in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir by the Center for Political and Social Studies (SAMER) shows that 57.4% of Kurds will likely vote no, SAMER chairman, Yuksel Genc, believes Kurds will ultimately make their decision based on their feelings about Erdogan, rather than other criteria.
Opposition parties MHP and CHP have also been trying to court the Kurdish vote on the referendum. Both parties have been campaigning against the presidential system. They are, however, unlikely to capture the Kurdish vote, as their efforts heavily rely on Kemalist nationalist rhetoric. In a recent speech Husnu Bozkurt, a CHP MP for Konya, compared the referendum to the Greco-Turkish War of 1919 to 1922, painting the AKP and supporters of the referendum as enemies of the Turkish state poised to tear the country apart. That these parties would use this rhetoric to win over the Kurds is ironic given that a constant fear in Turkey is that the Kurdish provinces will break away to form an independent state.
Overall, neither Erdogan nor the CHP and the MHP are hitting the mark in trying to reel in Kurdish votes. The consequences for the referendum are unclear, but it is unlikely to swing the vote one way or another.