The opposition, too, is hopeful despite its defeat. It was long divided between Kemalists, nationalist, Kurds and socialists, “but April 16 has shown us that we can beat Erdogan if we work together,” says Sezgin Tanrikulu, a member of parliament with the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP).
On the Wednesday following the referendum, Tanrikulu is sitting in the Istanbul tea garden from which leftist students launched the fight against the military dictatorship 40 years ago and which still serves as a meeting point for critics of the regime. It takes him fully 30 minutes to recite the irregularities that marred the referendum. In several polling stations, he says, police forced people to vote “yes,” and the state-run news agency Ajansi announced the results before all the votes were counted. There are likewise videos in circulation showing election volunteers replacing significant numbers of “no” votes with “yes” ones.
A Simple Calculation
But Tanrikulu is particularly bothered by the electoral commission’s decision to recognize unstamped ballots. In 2014, AKP ordered a regional election to be repeated for precisely this reason.
Members of the electoral commission are unable — or unwilling — to say where the ballots came from or how many of them there were, and they have neither confirmed nor denied the 2.5 million number that election observers have cited. Without additional investigation, it will likely never be possible to say for sure whether the questionable votes affected the outcome of the referendum.
Tanrikulu makes a simple calculation: The “yes”-camp won the referendum by around 1.2 million votes. Should it emerge that only half of the unofficial ballots were manipulated, the result would have been different. “You can’t change the constitution on that basis,” he says.
On Wednesday, the complaint lodged by CHP with the electoral commission was dismissed and the party has now announced it plans to go to the Constitutional Court, Turkey’s highest legal body. It has also threatened to pull out of parliament. Tanrikulu, though, doesn’t think that the effort will ultimately be successful. In Turkey, he says, the rule of law has long since been suspended.
Opposing Erdogan is risky, as the persecution of thousands of opposition activists as alleged terrorists in recent months has shown. And Tanrikulu isn’t immune. Pro-government media outlets have called for his arrest, with the newspaper Yeni Akitwriting: “Why is this man still free?”
The referendum has triggered yet more uneasiness in a country that has seemed recently to be on the verge of disintegration. The mass arrests that followed the July 15 failed coup attempt have paralyzed elements of the state administration and the Turkish military is involved in conflicts in both Iraq and Syria. Even worse, tourists are staying away and the economy is struggling, with the country’s statistical office announcing one day after the referendum that unemployment has risen to a record high of 13 percent. The lira is weaker against the dollar than it has been since 1981.
Frustration with the government could explode into violence at any time, particularly in southeastern Turkey, where people have been suffering under massive state repression for months. Thousands have lost their lives in battles between Turkish soldiers and PKK rebels while hundreds of thousands more have been forced to leave their hometowns.
Kazim Örmek, 63, clearly remembers celebrating on the streets of his hometown Diyarbakir in June 2015 after the Kurdish party HDP won seats in Turkish parliament. He hoped that lasting peace would be the result, but was quickly disappointed. Shortly after the election, Erdogan reversed course and returned to the bellicose policies of the 1990s. The military began bombarding Diyarbakir and Örmek’s house was destroyed. He now lives with his family in a rental on the outskirts of the city. Through the window, one can hear the roaring of the warplanes as they take off from the Diyarbakir on their way to bomb PKK positions in northern Iraq. “We have nothing left,” he says.
Desperation can be seen on every corner of Diyarbakir. The historic city center lies in ruins following months of fighting and the shops are empty. Furthermore, the military has set up myriad roadblocks, where cars are searched and papers are checked. Tanks frequently roll through the city streets.
In the months leading up to the referendum, the government essentially outlawed the HDP, arresting 13 parliamentarians, including the two heads of the party, along with 84 mayors and several thousand functionaries. Party rallies were also banned.
People in the Kurdish areas of the country essentially had little choice but to vote on the constitutional referendum in a state of siege. Soldiers patrolled in front of the polling stations and election observers were arrested. But despite the intimidation efforts, eight out of 10 eligible voters in Turkey’s southwest cast their ballots last Sunday.
The government has pointed out that several HDP voters in Kurdish provinces defected to the “yes” camp and has interpreted that as a sign that its anti-terrorism policies are working. But accusations of electoral fraud were particularly numerous in the southwest, with one election observation organization reporting that in almost 1,000 Kurdish polling places, not a single “no” vote was recorded. In addition, tens of thousands of internally displaced people were not allowed to take part in the vote because they do not have a permanent place of residence. Nevertheless, a particularly substantial number of people in Kurdish areas voted “no.”
Into the Abyss
They now feel, similar to Örmek, that they have yet again been betrayed. Rumors of electoral manipulation have confirmed the suspicions of many Kurds that the Turkish government cannot be trusted. Young people in particular are now turning to the PKK or other militant groups.
The country needs a conciliator, a leader who can reduce the current tensions and reconcile antagonistic elements of society. It needs the opposite of Erdogan.
The Turkish president has based his entire career on polarization and on dividing his friends from his foes. He relies heavily on Islamist, nationalist rhetoric. Had he enjoyed a large margin of victory in the referendum, he may very well have made concessions to his opponents, but now he will attempt to consolidate his power by way of intimidation and violence.
On Monday evening, Erdogan gave a speech from the balcony of the presidential palace in Ankara, his voice hoarse and his eyes squinted. “The crusader mentality in the West and its servants at home have attacked us,” he cried. “But we as a nation were unshaken.” As he did during the campaign leading up to the referendum, Erdogan once again promised to hold a referendum on the reintroduction of the death penalty. “We aren’t interested in what Georg, Hans or Helga think. We only care what Ayse, Fatma, Ahmet and Mehmet have to say.”
The government has extended the state of emergency, which has been in place since last summer’s failed coup, by three months. Erdogan no longer sees himself as the representative of all citizens of Turkey, he is only interested in being the patron of the 51.4 percent that voted “yes” last Sunday. He considers everyone else to be terrorists and coup supporters. Since the failed coup, more than 100,000 civil servants have been suspended and almost 50,000 people have been arrested. Now, the next wave of arrests is likely to be on the horizon.
It looks as though there is nobody left in the government who could mollify the president. Long-time Erdogan confidants, such as former president Abdullah Gül, have withdrawn from politics and internal party critics would likely only have risked sticking their necks out had a majority voted against the constitutional reform.
In this entire process, the European Union has been relegated to the sidelines, looking on with no input whatsoever. The EU failed to deepen ties with Turkey at time several years ago when the country was more open to the West. Now, it can do nothing but watch as the Turkish drama unfolds.
Erdogan may ultimately stumble over his own hubris. But for the time being, the president seems determined to pull the country into the abyss along with him.