Turks vote “yes” to a constitutional overhaul by a narrow margin
EVEN before all the votes had been tallied, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, claimed victory. “My nation stood upright and undivided,” he said of the referendum on a new constitution giving the presidency immense new powers. “April 16th was a victory for all of Turkey.”
Many Turks would dispute that; and it was not even a convincing win for the president. The Yes camp, which Mr Erdogan headed, limped away with just over 51.4% of the vote. Outside observers accused the government of stacking the odds in its favor. The No camp accused it of foul play. The country is more divided than ever.
The constitutional changes that will now be implemented will bring about the most radical overhaul of the state Turkey has witnessed in over nine decades. After fresh elections in 2019, when most of the changes come into effect, Mr Erdogan will rule uncontested, appointing senior officials, judges and members of his own cabinet, with little oversight by an expanded but weakened parliament. The office of prime minister will cease to exist. Presidential elections will take place at the same time as parliamentary ones. The president will be limited to two terms, unless parliament cuts short the second, in which case he can run for a third. That will allow Mr Erdogan to rule until 2029, and possibly up to 2034.
The outcome came under immediate scrutiny. Turkey’s main opposition, the Republican People’s party, announced that it would contest at least a third of the votes, following a last-minute decision by the country’s electoral board to accept ballot papers that did not bear the official seal. The head of the board, Sadi Guven, defended the move by saying it had been made before the results started to come in. Official results are not expected for at least another ten days, but Mr Guven signalled that the outcome would not change, as the Yes side was ahead by over 1m votes, with all but 600,000 ballots counted. In a statement, observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) said the electoral board's decision “undermined an important safeguard and contradicted the law.”
Opponents of the new constitution say it will transform the government, already dominated by one man, into a regime. Supporters argue that it will improve decision-making by concentrating executive power in the president’s hands. “We are rooting out the tutelage of the army and the bureaucracy. From now on, it’s the people who are going to rule Turkey,” says Ufuk, a young waiter, outside a polling station in Kasimpasha, the part of town where Mr Erdogan grew up. A retired pharmacist, Nurettin, said he viewed the referendum as a vote of confidence in Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) party: “They’ve transformed the country. They’ve build bridges, tunnels, and roads. We expect great things from them.”
In fact, it was one of Mr Erdogan’s worst electoral showings in years. The two blocs that backed the president’s project, the ruling AK and the main nationalist opposition, had received a combined 61.4% in the last parliamentary elections. On Sunday they performed well below expectations. The No side prevailed in Turkey’s three largest cities, Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara, in most of the country’s industrial and tourist areas, and even in the Istanbul neighborhood where Mr Erdogan resides. The Yes camp fared much better in the AK’s strongholds in the country’s conservative heartland. It also made inroads in the Kurdish southeast, ravaged over the past couple of years by attacks by separatist militants and a brutal counterinsurgency by Turkish security forces. A strong showing there might give Mr Erdogan some pause for thought. “It may push him to act more moderately towards the Kurds,” says Emre Erdogan (no relation), an academic at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.
The referendum campaign had been the most lopsided in decades. The main state broadcaster awarded the president, government officials and the ruling AK more than ten times as much airtime than all the opposition parties combined. A pro-Kurdish party whose leaders were thrown behind bars last autumn was virtually banished from television. Under a state of emergency imposed shortly after last July’s coup attempt, accompanied by nearly 50,000 arrests plus a climate of intimidation and nationalist hysteria, many critics of the new changes, from celebrities to some AK politicians, were too afraid to speak up. "Voters were not provided with impartial information about key aspects of the reform," the OSCE statement said, "and limitations on fundamental freedoms had a negative effect."
Experience, as well as his initial comments on Sunday, suggests that Mr Erdogan will disregard the slim margin of victory and portray the referendum as a sign of support for his crackdown. The day after the vote, Turkey’s national security council extended emergency rule until July 20th. “He will be able to implement whatever project he has in mind without any obstacles,” says Fehmi Koru, a veteran commentator. The markets took the result as a sign of stability. The lira rose against the dollar hours after the vote, while Turkish stocks rallied by about 1%.
Western partners took a dimmer view of the outcome. By the afternoon of April 17th, the day after the vote, no major world leader had congratulated the Turkish leader. The EU and America's State Department announced they would not weigh in on the vote before an assessment by international observers. Mr Erdogan himself does not appear eager to rebuild bridges with allies: on the day of the vote, he pledged once again to do his part to reinstate the death penalty, a move that would damage his country’s relations with the EU. Mr Erdogan has the constitution he has long coveted. It may come at the cost of tensions at home and isolation abroad.
Follow the link to see the original piece published by The Economist April 17, 2017.