The Views of Alevis, Kurds and secularists on the eve of Turkey’s Referendum


This Sunday, more than 50 million people in Turkey will be casting their votes in a referendum on whether to amend the constitution in favour of changing from a parliamentarian to a presidential system.

On July 15th last year, Turkey witnessed another significant landmark in its history: the foiling of an attempted coup. How the coup attempt and its aftermath have been perceived by different groups in Turkey carries great significance for the result of the upcoming referendum on April 16. One need only to look at the differing arguments about July 15 in the discourse of Turkey’s main political actors to see this phenomenon.

What various social groups: Alevis, Kurds and the secular community, have experienced in the post-July 15 period and in the process leading to the April 16 referendum, is crucial to understanding the current political climate.

Based on this outlook, the Center for Public Policy and Democracy Studies (PODEM), an Istanbul-based independent think tank, carried out three small-scale studies* that sought to understand the changing perspectives on the constitutional amendment, expectations and hopes for Turkey’s future.


Sentiments in and after July 15th coup attempt 

The suppression of the coup attempt was largely welcomed among Turkey’s Alevi, secular and Kurdish demographics, all describing the night in terms of fear and anxiety during the interviews.

From the Alevis’ side, fear was particularly acute, and they reacted by closing themselves off, and acted with caution that night to avoid being targeted in any possible mass conflict.

With memories of the victimization they endured after the 1980 coup d’état, they felt they were likely to suffer from the consequences in the following period.

“For Alevis, July 15th was an uncertain, frightening, ‘I wonder what’s going to happen to us’ kind of night.” – An Alevi respondent 

More varied views came out from the secular community. In the post-July 15 period, three different trends were observed among the secular respondents. The first one was unification along the nationalist line. The second trend, without citing an issue with nationalism, was concerns about rising conservatism. The third trend was plain hopelessness for the future.

Based on their responses, the secular group also felt doubt and fear on the night itself, and mostly took the position of remaining inside. Some respondents suggested that they should have taken to the streets, while others report what happened that night was the outcome of the government’s wrong policy steps and the people should not have been called to the streets.

Of those opposing the coup attempt on the streets, the biggest share came from supporters of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and their religious-conservative base.

This pattern was repeated in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakır. The report from Diyarbakır indicates that the street protestors in the city were mainly the AKP supporters and supporters of the Free Cause Party (HÜDA PAR) – an Islamist party active in the Kurdish community.

Here, the Kurdish community’s critical approach to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) stands out. Respondents criticized the party’s “wait and see” response to the coup attempt, which missed the chance to take a clear position in the public eye.

The next finding from the Diyarbakir and Istanbul interviews concerned the background and aftermath of the coup attempt, with respondents pointing to unanswered questions, particularly the secular and Kurdish (mainly the HDP base) segments.

“I think that unless the coup attempt is brought fully to light, people will continue to whisper and suspect for another two generations.” – A secular respondent. 

The respondents in the secular community further put forward the view that “many parts of the story are still unclear and a clear picture has still not been provided.”

Significantly, all three surveys highlight a consensus that the aftermath of the coup attempt has been badly handled, despite the failure of the coup attempt providing a crucial chance for social unity.


Views on the state of emergency (OHAL) 

The findings from these three studies underscore the fact that the ongoing state of emergency following the failed coup has created uneasiness among Alevis, Kurds and the secular sections of society.

While Alevi respondents stated that arbitrary measures have been taken with a lack of transparency in arrests and detentions during this period, the secular segment perceived current politics as “the policy of taking revenge on everyone with different views,” although they strongly support the purge and punishment of Gülenists.

Criticising the state of emergency, many Kurdish respondents said that the coup attempt “is being used to extinguish opposition in the society,” which according to them, “destroys common ground and creates instability.” It is important to note that other Kurds responded differently, arguing that the process helps shatter the PKK’s influence in the region.

“Here people are happy with the OHAL. The hegemonic power of the organization [PKK] has been broken.” – A Kurdish respondent

According to the surveys, the period following the declaration of the state of emergency has also affected civil society. All three groups expressed growing concern over the noticeable drop in civil society activities.

The report from  Diyarbakır notes that “all NGOs are showing much less activity, and feel they must pay much more attention to what they do and say. A general fear has settled over everyone, and has led to an extraordinary degree of self-censorship.” Similarly, the Alevi respondents said that the Alevi institutions have remained silent in the post-July 15 period.

“People have shut themselves away in their homes. They are afraid of being attacked. Shutting themselves away, acting scared, and asking lots of questions. People refrain from coming. I think the image of July 15th is affecting this.” – An Alevi respondent.

Aside from the abovementioned issues, most respondents believed that the ongoing period has created hardship for Turkey’s economy. As the report on the secular community puts it:

“Some characterize the tumult as temporary and say a fast recovery is possible, while others point out that with global and regional issues as they are, economic recovery in Turkey will not be easy.”


Attitudes toward constitutional referendum 

The upcoming referendum does not appear to mean much for the Alevi community, who largely seem to be indifferent to the constitutional change. This is largely due to their belief that there will be no difference in their lives after the referendum. However, this should not be understood as apathy or ignorance. In their opinion, the new regime would open the way to “the erosion of secularism” and “the removal of independence in the judiciary.”

“The real problem is how to set up the separation of powers, how to ensure the independence of the courts. The lack of those kinds of details is a problem.” – An Alevi respondent 

Rather, this feeling of hopelessness for the future appears to have been reflected in their political party preferences:

“For one segment of Alevis, the fact that the HDP, which had begun to offer an alternative […] lost its effectiveness […] While most Alevis might continue to feel a compulsory sense of support for the CHP [Republican People’s Party], there is no expectation that this party will deliver on their hopes.”

A somewhat similar pessimism can be found in the secular community. From their side, “the results of the April 16th referendum and the policies in its aftermath will be decisive in determining whether or not social reconciliation in Turkey will be possible.”

Secular respondents doubted that, regardless of the result, the referendum would help Turkey avoid a leadership crisis, overcome the challenges that the Turkish economy faces, or aid the struggle against the terrorism.

For the secular demographic, the referendum would be better used to establish a consensus on reform, yet they believe this chance has been missed. Notably, a certain group of secular respondents still emphasized the need for an effective leader “as the only way out of the existing chaos.”

“Anger toward the MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli has always been high; the CHP does not inspire much hope; change is only possible through a split in the AK Party itself. We are only able to wait for that.” – A secular respondent

A more divergent picture emerged from the Kurds surveyed, who can be divided into three different groups: HDP supporters, the AKPs voters, and the undecided.

“The Kurdish people have enough to worry about just trying to get by. Society might respond by choosing not to go to the polls.” – A Kurdish respondent

The HDP base has a general tendency towards a ‘no’ vote, while AKP voters mostly support the constitutional change. However, the AKP’s partnership with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in the referendum has created bitterness among some Kurdish AKP supporters.


Turkey’s social groups voice challenges, future demands 

The perspectives voiced by all three groups show that there is still much to do to meet the demands of Kurds, Alevis and the secular groups at cultural, legal and constitutional levels.

For the Alevi community, sustaining social peace is currently their top priority accompanied by the pursuit of social justice.

“We’re past the issue of our beliefs, one way or another we’ll deal with that. But now basic security is the number one priority, after that equal citizenship. We need normalization and democratization.” – An Alevi respondent

Being wary of state institutions, Alevis report that the state of emergency and statutory decrees “have made it harder for them to receive fair treatment.”

The freedom of religion and belief is another priority topic in the Alevi agenda. The recognition of cemevis (religious and cultural houses of Alevis) as places of worship and the removal of compulsory religious courses from state education are the two main expectations, according to their responses in interview. Alevis also seem unlikely to give up on fighting for identity-based rights.

“In 2015, there were meetings for dialogue. I could discuss my identity comfortably. The Turkey I hope for is that kind of Turkey.” – An Alevi respondent

When it comes to the secular community, participants put emphasis on a robust legal system as they report that the present legal system has been weakened. The group believes unless concrete steps are taken to better implement the rule of law, there will be more rights violations and social conflict.

From the secularist standpoint, the feeling of exclusion that began after the Gezi Park protests of 2013 has grown. Praising the Gezi demonstrations as a period during which people voiced their demands for democratic rights, it was also the time that the secular community felt displaced and began to think that Turkey no longer had a place for them, pushing a majority in the secular community into hopelessness.

“We have no chance to ask or to see any kind of positive change at all.” – A secular respondent 

During the interviews, the secular participants argued that conservatism has grown more intense, reflecting itself on lifestyle and education.

“Religious-nationalist values are infecting all educational curricula […] is the strongest union. The secular community is too obsessed with the Imam Hatip topic, and the other block exploits this secular obsession.”- A secular respondent

Secular respondents claimed that they are open to reconcile with conservatives. But as the report argues, “It seems that living in a given system since the first years of the Republic, and not having felt any need to understand or come together with different social groups as a result, makes it difficult today to find even a starting point for reconciliation.”

Overall, the Kurdish respondents believe that the constitutional amendments do not include provisions that would facilitate a solution to the Kurdish issue.

The demands they voiced can be listed under five categories: a constitutional recognition of citizenship without ethnic implications, the use of their mother tongue in education and official procedures, robust decentralization, a legal framework that will make disarmament possible, and a law governing elections and party formation that will strengthen democratic politics.

Emphasizing the value of the reconciliation process between 2013 and 2015, Kurdish people think a new initiative is needed to solve the conflict. The end of violence, increasing democratic standards and living in unity in their homeland are three items on which a broad agreement exists.

“Stopping the conflict is right at the top of the points of commonality. The number of people who want the fighting to stop is increasing.” – A Kurdish respondent

The group is aware that Kurdish locals are suffering the most from the armed struggle. “The PKK under appropriate legal conditions, must end the armed struggle in Turkey,” the study findings suggest.

As the study findings suggest, the July 15th coup attempt and its aftermath have resulted in varied sentiments among Turkey’s different social groups. They approach the constitutional referendum with different views and diverging demands for the following periods.

Introducing multiple perspectives through observations, these reports hope to provide useful insight to the public opinion on Alevis, Kurds and the secular demographics ahead of the referendum.



*The three reports published by PODEM were carried out through in-depth interviews and workshop sessions from Nov. 2016 to March 2017 with the participation of representatives from the media, civil society organizations, academics and the business world.

Secularists in Turkey in the aftermath of July 15: Debates, Sentiments and Expectations” 2017, by Aybars Görgülü and Sabiha Senyücel Gündoğar

The Alevis’ Agenda from July 15 to the Present” 2017, by Ulaş Tol

From July 15 Coup Attempt to the Referendum: Impressions from Diyarbakır” 2017, by Vahap Çoşkun

The views in this piece belong to the authors and they may not necessarily concur and/or represent the viewpoints of Podem.

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