Turkey’s Vote Results Lays Bare Country’s Schisms

Erdogan’s victory, if it withstands the opposition’s objections, will have serious consequences not only for Turkey, but the region as well

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, accompanied by his wife Emine, addresses supporters. — REUTERS
Apr 17, 2017 at 6:38 AM ET

Turkish voters were on the streets into early Monday morning, with supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan honking car horns and shooting into the air in some parts of Istanbul, while thousands marched in other parts of the city to protest the results of the country’s historic referendum.

Turkey’s three largest cities – Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir – all voted against the amendments to create a Presidential style government, one that critics say will leave Erdogan with vast executive powers and little checks and balances.

The voting results, which are still unofficial, laid bare a sharp schism in Turkey’s social fabric: the amendments passed with around 1.5 million votes, and were rejected by a majority of voters in 17 of the country’s largest cities, as well as the majority Kurdish southeast, but from the largely rural and conservative Anatolian heartland, some 25 million voters approved Erdogan’s new presidential system.

Erdogan appeared before supporters late last night in Istanbul to congratulate them, saying “today is a victory for all Yes and No supporters,” but the expression on his face belied an obvious disappointment the career politician had with the results.  Uskudar, the district Erdogan resides in, a mostly conservative, economically well off part of Istanbul, usually yields a strong victory for Istanbul’s former mayor, but on Sunday 53.3 percent of the votes were against the amendments.

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Erdogan’s victory, if it stands the opposition’s objections, will have serious consequences not only for Turkey, but the region as well. U.S. President Donald Trump has reportedly held off on plans to launch an offensive on the ISIS capital of Raqqa in Syria, waiting on the results of the referendum. Erdogan has vehemently called for Kurdish militias – currently Washington’s top ally in Syria – to be excluded from any offensive because they are connected to the Kurdish PKK. Turkey, home of the Incirlik Airbase, is the lynchpin for U.S. and NATO forces fighting ISIS today, and Erdogan, fresh from the referendum victory and poised to become the strongest leader in Turkey in nearly a century, will likely push for sidelining the Kurds in favor of a Turkish-led offensive.

Erdogan has also repeatedly demanded Washington hand over the cleric accused of being behind the July 15 coup attempt, and saying no to him now, would likely risk destroying an already fragile alliance between the U.S. and Turkey. The Trump administration has so far insisted following procedures for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania, but now Erdogan may be able to persuade Washington to change its tone and give up the geriatric cleric, even though there is no definitive evidence he played a role in the July 15 coup attempt.

It is unclear how and when the amendments will actually be implemented. Erdogan could, ostensibly at any moment, declare Parliament is dissolved and trigger fresh elections, but under the new system he too would have to be re-elected, and given the close results of the referendum, it is unlikely he could muster a majority at this moment.

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Erdogan will also need to appoint a new cabinet, a process that could offer an opening to bring in opposition figures. But the political divide may be too wide for that to happen, and Turkey will likely soon have a state apparatus entirely subservient to the president.

“The new system not only makes the president the head of the executive, which would be fine, but also makes the parliament and judiciary subservient to the president,” says Mustafa Akyol, a columnist for The New York Times, and author of several books on Islamist movements in Turkey. “Therefore it opens the way to an authoritarian “one-man rule.”

On Sunday night, Erdogan said the next step would be reinstating the death penalty in Turkey, which could spell disaster for the 40,000 people under arrest facing terrorism charges, among them hundreds of journalists, judges, prosecutors, and 13 Kurdish Parliament members. The judiciary could presumably look to shaky legal cases against those prisoners, but under the new system Erdogan can now fill that institution with his own supporters. Erdogan can directly appoint 12 of the 15 judges on the Constitutional Court, and 6 of the 13 members of the Supreme Judges and Prosecutors Authority, which appoints judges and prosecutors throughout Turkey.

Turkey has been under a state of emergency since a failed coup attempt last July, but Erdogan can now unilaterally extend those measures and issue executive decrees that could go largely unchallenged. Already, a steady stream of decrees issued since July has been purging Erdogan’s critics. At least 125,000 public workers have been fired, more than 1,500 civil society groups banned, along with 153 media outlets. Given that Erdogan campaigned for the amendments on the basis that he needed new powers to streamline this purge, it is unlikely he will change his tone in the near future.

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Inside Turkey, all eyes are now on the handful of leaders in a fractured opposition. Half of the country that is wary of Erdogan is hoping for legal challenges to the vote in the short run. If that fails, a united effort to unseat him in the next presidential elections, scheduled for 2019, seems likely.

In Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, thousands of protestors marched through neighborhoods shouting “No is not over yet,” as residents banged pots and pans to show support. Many of them gathered around the local offices of the Supreme Election Authority (YSK), which is tasked with ensuring free and fair polls, but is said to have left a glaring loophole for fraud.

Even as voting was going on Sunday afternoon, news emerged that millions of ballots were missing official stamps, yet the YSK said it would allow those ballots to be counted. Shortly after polls closed, state-run media outlets began reporting a “yes” victory, even though officials were still counting votes, and hadn’t agreed on what should be done about the unstamped ballots. Late into the night, videos on social media were shared showing electoral observers from Erdogan’s party opening envelopes containing already cast ballots to stamp them on the back, raising the possibility that in some cases, they may have decided to discard unstamped ballots, despite instructions from federal election officials. Other videos showed election officials stamping stacks of blank ballots “yes” and stuffing them into what should have been sealed envelopes.

More Allegations Of Voter Fraud Mar Turkey Referendum

The YSK’s head, Sadi Guven, defended the decision Sunday night, saying exceptions have regularly been made over the last few decades. “Stamping envelopes is the responsibility of ballot officers,” Guven said, “because of the officers’ mistake, we cannot invalid the people’s vote.”

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the head of the leftist secular Republic Peoples Party (CHP), said his party would challenge around 40 percent of the ballots. “Our citizens fulfilled their duty, they went to ballot box to cast their vote … Based on the objection of someone from the ruling party you [YSK] circumvented this rule. When you are playing a game you do not change the rules half way through the game.”

But a crowd of Kılıçdaroğlu’s own constituency went to his party headquarters on Sunday night to call for his resignation.

With most of the country’s governance now concentrated in the presidential office, those opposing Erdogan will now have to work for removing Erdogan in elections scheduled for 2019, says Akyol. “I think the opposition has no chance to un-do the concerning elements of this system.”

“Erdogan has tailored the system, secured it in the ballots, and now he will probably use it in full. The opposition’s best hope would be to defeat Erdogan in the next presidential elections, which is scheduled for 2019. The fact that Erdogan keeps winning by only a small margin suggests that this is not impossible.”