Tough days coming: Erdogan won the referendum, but Turkey's cities still say 'hayir'

Published April 18th, 2017 - 06:20 GMT
Supporters of the "No voters" and members of Turkey's main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), hold a flag of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey as they gather at the Caglayan courthourse to submit their petition to object alleged irregularities in Turkish vote on April 18, 2017 in Istanbul. (AFP/Ozan Kose)
Supporters of the "No voters" and members of Turkey's main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), hold a flag of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey as they gather at the Caglayan courthourse to submit their petition to object alleged irregularities in Turkish vote on April 18, 2017 in Istanbul. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

While Erdogan and his fans are claiming victory and the opposition vows to contest the results, the constitutional referendum has made one thing abundantly clear: Turkey is more divided than ever about its future.

Much as democratic voters in the United States awoke in shock to realize the rural “flyover” states had carried Trump to victory, all of Turkey’s major cities – Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir – voted hayir ("no") in the referendum. But the rural, poorer, and more conservative areas in Turkey’s east carried Erdogan to a slim victory.

Some referendum supporters heading out to celebrate as results came in reported feeling disappointed and surprised that the measure hadn’t passed with 65 or 70 percent of the vote.

Speaking to German TV network Deutsche Welle, Can Dundar, former editor-in-chief of Turkish newspaper Cumhurriyet said, “Erdogan has a legitimacy problem.”

“This whole campaign was under the oppression of the government,” he said. “The third-biggest party’s leaders were in jail with 150 journalists.”

Dundar has lived in self-imposed exile in Germany after being jailed in Turkey for his newspaper’s reporting on video footage that showed the Turkish government supplying weapons to extremist fighters in Syria.

Conflict with EU

While Turkey once looked to be taking concrete steps toward joining the EU, it now seems bent on poisoning the relationship as much as possible.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the result showed “how deeply split the Turkish society is,” while other European leaders said the outcome was likely to further complicate the already tense relationship between Turkey and the European Union.

Dundar also said he viewed Turkey’s referendum as similar to Brexit, in that both were, in a sense, about breaking away from Europe.

A major issue is Erdogan’s intention to bring back the death penalty in Turkey, which would preclude it from joining the EU.

Narrow victory

The outcome of the referendum shows that a full 49 percent of Turks disagree with the direction Erdogan wants to take the country, for various reasons: his overt religiosity, the mass arrests of civil servants, academics, and journalists, and the Turkish Lira which has steadily lost value while he blames outside forces.

In the November 2015 general elections, the AKP and nationalist MHP (Nationalist Action Party) together took 61 percent of votes. In April 2017, the referendum took 51 percent – meaning a loss of support by 10 percent.

The AKP and MHP – the fourth party in parliament – have hardly been allies historically. The far-right MHP totally lost its parliamentary representation when the newly-formed AKP was swept to power in a landslide 2002 election. But recently, it has shifted its stance from staunch secularism to pro-Islamism. And most importantly, its background as a party promoting ethnic nationalism helped drum up enough anti-Kurd sentiment for the AKP to wrest back power from the leftist, pro-Kurdish HDP (People’s Democratic Party) between May and November 2015.

While AKP supporters stressed the need for Erdogan and other party members to connect with the “no” voters to make them feel included, President Erdogan had already overstepped boundaries of any other president, and with the new constitution in place, there will be fewer checks and balances to reign in his power.

What the changes mean

The referendum approved 18 constitutional amendments, including replacing Turkey's parliamentary system of governance with a presidential one. That allows the president to appoint and sack ministers, senior government officials and hold sway over judges appointed to top courts. Erdogan will also be able to unilaterally issue decrees and declare states of emergency.

Timeline for transition

Most changes won’t go into effect until the next general elections, set for November 3, 2019. However, three amendments will immediately take effect: the repeal of military courts, a restructuring of Turkey’s board of judges and prosecutors, as well as the law that required the president to sever ties with political parties.

Lindsey Leger

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