Onur Burçak Belli and Maximilian Popp–Nothing can hold them back. Not the rain, not the wind and not the well-armed anti-terrorism police. On Tuesday evening, several thousand demonstrators marched through Istanbul, a diverse group including students, pensioners, women in headscarves and punks, and many of them held up signs as they walked: “No to the presidency!” They also chanted: “Thief! Murderer! Erdogan!” And: “This is just the beginning. Our fight goes on!”
The protests began on Sunday, just a few hours after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed victory in the referendum that grants him significantly expanded powers and the demonstrations have become larger on each successive day since then, spreading to more than three dozen cities. People in Ankara and Izmir, in Adana and Mersin, in Edirne and Canakkale have taken to the streets in opposition to Erdogan, accusing him of having manipulated the vote on the constitutional referendum.
According to media reports, the country’s electoral commission accepted up to 2.5 million ballots despite their not having been stamped in accordance with the rules. Election observers from the OSCE found significant shortcomings with the vote, outlined in a 14-page preliminary report that also noted the unfairness of the campaign leading up to the referendum. The vote itself, the organization found, also violated some aspects of Turkish law. The opposition has refused to recognize the results.
“Erdogan robbed us of victory,” says Istanbul-based businessman Koray Türkay, who is one of the organizers of the protests in Istanbul.
For the time being, only a small portion of the Turkish population is rising up against the government, with a total of 20,000 people thought to have participated in the nationwide protests. Türkay, though, is nevertheless drawing parallels to the Gezi Park protests in summer 2013, which were ultimately crushed by the police.
More Repressive Measures
Immediately after the vote, Erdogan denied that any manipulation had taken place and claimed that the referendum had been “the most democratic election ever seen in any Western country.” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim added that the protests were “unacceptable.” On Wednesday, dozens of protesters were detained and the police presence at the protests was boosted.
Türkay believes that more repressive measures are coming. “But we are not afraid. We will continue protesting until the referendum is repeated,” he says. Turkey, in other words, could be facing the kind of escalation that took place during the Gezi Park protests.
The vote last Sunday was the most far-reaching political decision made in Turkey’s recent history. The constitutional amendments approved in the referendum essentially sweep away what was left of democracy in Turkey, completing Turkey’s transformation from the republic of Atatürk into the republic of Erdogan.
Once the constitutional reforms come into force following the next election in 2019, the president will be able to pass laws by decree and dissolve the parliament whenever he sees fit — and the office of prime minister will also be eliminated. It will mark the end of the separation of powers in Turkey. The president alone will make decisions regarding war and peace and he will have almost complete control over the judiciary.
Some of the 18 new articles come into force immediately. The High Council of Judges and Prosecutors, for example, which supervises the judiciary, will be reduced from 22 to 13 members, four of whom can be directly appointed by Erdogan. But should he go on to win re-election, Erdogan will become practically omnipotent.
The country that he rules, though, is deeply divided and the referendum has only exacerbated those divisions, with one half of the population venerating Erdogan practically as a cult leader and the other half not even recognizing his legal right to hold the presidency.
‘A Victory, But Not a Triumph’
Indeed, Erdogan emerges from the April 16 referendum as both the victor and as the loser, with the vote having laid bare his weaknesses. Europeans are turning away from him, the debate over putting a halt to Turkish-EU accession negotiations has flared up again and the Turkish president is more isolated than ever before. He received congratulations on his referendum victory from only two Western heads of government: Donald Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
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Erdogan has presented the referendum result as a success, even if the margin of victory — 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent — was extremely thin. But even among his supporters, there is nothing approaching a feeling of euphoria. “Erdogan has achieved a victory, but not a triumph,” writes the columnist Abdulkadier Selvi.
Indeed, given the extreme effort the government put into the referendum campaign, the result for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) can almost be seen as a humiliation. Together, the AKP and the right-wing extremist MHP party received more than 60 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections and they joined forces ahead of this referendum, assuming they would receive an equal level of support. Now, though, Erdogan’s advantage has shrunk to a paltry 2.8 percentage points.
And this despite the fact that Erdogan leaned heavily on the state authorities prior to the vote — on the police, on the administration and on imams in the mosques. Most media outlets paid no attention whatsoever to opponents of the constitutional amendments, opposition protests were prohibited and “no”-camp activists were arrested.
Erdogan’s edge is so thin that it isn’t even clear that he will be re-elected in 2019 so that he can exercise the unlimited powers that the referendum was designed to give him. AKP politicians are thus expecting that Erdogan won’t wait that long and will call snap elections much earlier. But such a move also seems risky. Erdogan suddenly seems vulnerable.
The Turkish president is falling victim to the demographic shift that he himself promoted. In the last two decades, millions of Turks have moved from the countryside to the cities, they have profited from the country’s now stalling economic boom and improved their lots in life. The number of universities in Turkey has doubled.
Paradoxically, a young, urban middle class has developed under the leadership of the AKP, one that is religious, but which is also oriented towards Europe and isn’t interested in living in an autocracy. The result is that Erdogan lost in three of the country’s largest cities. Even in Üsküdar, the conservative-leaning quarter of Istanbul where Erdogan lives, a slim majority voted against the constitutional referendum.
Erdogan is likely to follow up his narrow referendum victory with an attempt to reassert his strength. The constitutional reform includes a provision that releases the president from political neutrality requirements, which means Erdogan can once again become the head of his party — and he will no doubt seek to use that position to unify the AKP, which has recently shown signs of division. Prime Minister Yildirim announced on Wednesday that the cabinet will soon be reshuffled and AKP officials are likely to soon find themselves being monitored even more closely by the presidential palace.
The move, though, isn’t likely to solve the fundamental problem facing the AKP: The connection between party leaders and the grassroots has frayed in many places, with the conflict between Erdogan and the Islamist movement led by the cleric Fethullah Gülen having alienated a huge number of supporters. Erdogan’s coalition partner, the MHP, has also emerged weakened from the referendum. According to one survey, two-thirds of MHP supporters voted “no,” defying the recommendation of party leaders. Prominent dissidents like former Turkish Interior Minister Meral Aksener could even take the step of forming their own party, which would leave Erdogan facing a serious challenge from the center-right political camp for the first time.
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.