Turkey Referendum Shakes, if Not Shatters, Turks' Trust in Their Democracy

Erdogan claims a win in a Turkey that is split down the middle ■ Surprising pro-Erdogan results in country's Kurdish regions raise questions

People protest against the results of the referendum in Istanbul, Turkey April 16, 2017.
People protest against the results of the referendum in Istanbul, Turkey April 16, 2017. STRINGER/REUTERS

ISTANBUL - Until Sunday night, it was generally accepted within Turkey that with all the faults of its democratic system, at least the elections themselves and the vote-counting could be relied upon to deliver a fair result. That hope had endured during the referendum campaign, despite it taking place during a state of emergency imposed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan following last year’s failed coup, and with 50,000 people, including journalists and opposition politicians, still in jail. On referendum day, an election monitor representing CHP said at a polling station in an Istanbul school that "I believe in the democratic process here, but to be on the safe side we should always make sure." That trust has been shaken, if not shattered last night. But it doesn’t seem to be bothering the president.

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UPDATE: Erdogan's opposition urges electoral board to throw out results

At 10 P.M., the quiet in Cihangir on Istanbul’s European side was broken by loud banging on pots and pans and cries of “thief” from apartment windows and balconies. "We are protesting the stolen referendum" shouted Hakkan, an engineer, from his window. "We must fight for our democracy because what happened today wasn’t democratic." That was the sum of the protests in the middle class neighborhood. No-one took to the streets and in the restaurants and coffee shops, people continued eating peacefully. Meanwhile, on the Asian side of the city, Erdogan made his victory speech in front of thousand cheering supporters who shouted his name and kissed his pictures they held aloft. Fireworks streaked in to the sky as the Justice as Erdogan’s Development Party (AKP) claimed it had won the referendum on Turkey’s transformation in to a presidential state with a slim majority of 51.4 percent.

But even Erdogan and his colleagues admitted that these were "unofficial results," which had at that point only been reported by the government’s Anadolu news agency. The Supreme Election Commission had stopped reporting the results before the vote-counting had ended and the opposition parties, which had campaigned against the proposed changes to the constitution, announced that they believed it was they who had won. In a statement to the media, the leader of the main opposition party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu said that “over fifty percent of Turkey voted ‘no’” and accused the election commission of breaking the law. Former Interior Minister Meral Aksener, who had led the members of the far-right MHP in opposition of their party’s decision to support the referendum proposal, claimed that “52 percent voted ‘no.’” The Kurdish party HDP also announced that it would formally challenge the results. 

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, accompanied by his wife Emine Erdogan, addresses his supporters in Istanbul, Turkey, late April 16, 2017.
HANDOUT/REUTERS

The challenges will be based on a series of irregularities, the main one being the sudden decision of the election commission as the polling station were closing to also count ballot papers that had not been sealed and stamped. The opposition claims that there are at least a million and a half such papers, and that many of them were marked “Yes.” They also claim that the election commission suspiciously stopped reporting the results during the counting and when it resumed, hundreds of ballots had been wiped off the tally. Further question marks arose over the results from the Kurdish areas in south-eastern Turkey where a third of voters – a surprisingly high number – voted “Yes.” Pundits on government-aligned news channels explained this as an expression of the hope of Kurdish voters that after his victory, Erdogan would renew the peace process with the Kurdish underground movement PKK. But HDP politicians pointed at this a source of possible fraud, noting that half a million Kurds, displaced by the fighting, were unable to vote. The opposition’s anger grew as the government news agency and AKP leaders called the referendum for “Yes” while vote-counting was still ongoing and the gap was closing. In some vote-counting centers, fights between representatives of the different parties were reported.

The apparent Kurdish turnout in favor of the proposed changes in the constitution was in marked contrast to the results in Turkey’s largest cities, including the capital Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir, where there was a majority for “No.” This was a surprise especially in Istanbul, a city long considered an AKP stronghold and where Erdogan was once mayor. The reported nationwide result of 51.4 percent in favor is much lower than the total support that the two parties supporting it – AKP and MHP – garnered in the 2015 parliamentary election: 65 percent of the national vote. It is even lower than the vote in favor of Erdogan himself in the 2014 presidential election, which stood at 51.8 percent. Hardly a resounding mandate for such major constitutional change.

The full official results will only be published in ten days, once the challenges are heard and adjudicated, though late on Sunday the Supreme Election Commission announced a provisional victory for “Yes.” That didn’t stop Erdogan from demanding in his victory speech that the world recognize his victory, “especially Turkey’s allies.” This puts pressure mainly on Turkey’s NATO allies, members of the European Union and the United States, who already have tense relations with the Erdogan government. The Europeans will wait for the report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has been monitoring the elections, before they decide. The OSCE report could be crucial to the future of Europe-Turkey relations, but even before it has been delivered, a major shade of doubt has been cast on Turkey’s electoral process. 

Erdogan won. He now begins a long process which is scheduled to lead in two and a half years to presidential and parliamentary elections in which he believes he will be reelected, with much greater powers and a weaker parliament. But it is a contested victory, a victory by a margin of less than three percent, won in a campaign in which he controlled most of the media and the police which limited the opposition’s campaign. A victory which nearly half of Turkey, perhaps more than half, does not recognize and disputes its validity. Today, more than ever, Erdogan is a controversial leader heading a nation split down the middle.