ISTANBUL - On the day after the Turkish referendum, the country’s citizen, including those opposed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed resigned to him winning. The challenges to the result and allegations of widespread fraud in the counting remain, but no one has any illusions that Erdogan will relinquish his victory, even if it was achieved by foul means.
At a small community radio station in Galata, on the European side of Istanbul, all of the employees say they voted “No” in Sunday's referendum, but they don’t seem particularly depressed by having lost by a margin of less than three percent, or by the fact that had the campaign been held under fair democratic conditions, they could have won.
“I feel stronger and more optimistic today” says Can Tunbil, anchor of one of the talk-shows at Radyo Acik which combines music and light-news. “Yes, the referendum was stolen but we’re not surprised and now it’s out in the open and all Turkey knows the situation”. “As far as I’m concerned, with all they tried to do, the fact we got 48.5 percent is a huge achievement” says Ilksen Mavituna, the cultural editor. “It shows citizens can still unite against their dictates”.
The Turkish opposition parties are challenging the results: demanding recounts of at least a million and a half ballot papers which were not stamped as required and to reopen ballot boxes from the Kurdish regions where the Erdogan camp registered surprisingly high levels of support. But most opposition supporters don’t believe there is a chance of changing the result, even if they prove the referendum was a sham.
“Now everyone knows the situation,” says Mavituna. “Even (CHP party leader Kemal) Klçdaroğlu finally said that they stole the referendum and that the people voted ‘No’. A pity he couldn’t summon any anger when he said it. He just wanted to go home safely.” The station’s young employees don’t see anyone among the opposition leaders who can motivate the Turkish public who voted against giving Erdogan more powers, but they’re optimistic about the day after Erdogan. “Those Turks who live in Germany and voted ‘Yes’ in the referendum make me laugh," says Tunbil. “They're great patriots from afar. If they think Turkey needs to be changed, they should come back. We’re staying here”.
The opposition parties almost succeeded in beating Erdogan's referendum, but most opponents of his government don’t believe there’s any chance of the opposition – currently fractured between ultra-nationalists, old-school Kemalists and the Kurd and Alevi minorities – presenting a united front against Erdogan, much less getting behind a candidate capable of beating him in the next presidential elections.
For now, it seems impossible to contain all these political and social contradictions. Four years ago, tens of thousands took to the streets in the Gezi Park protests, in Istanbul and other cities, but the demonstrations died down after a few weeks. There doesn't seem to be much appetite right now for similar protests. Erdogan’s regime has become more violent and repressive in the last few years, especially since the failed military coup last year. It will take something more drastic than a fraudulent referendum and a much more charismatic leader than the ones currently heading the opposition to get the masses back on to the street.
Some despair. “When I went to vote yesterday and saw all the conservative voters there voting to give up our democratic rights, I thought that there’s nothing left for me here” says Sabiha, a literature PhD student. “Last night, when the gap was closing I though Erdogan could still lose, but it was a false hope and I'm already planning to leave and continue my studies outside Turkey”.
“I don’t think it’s got anything to do with religion anymore,” says Tensay, a medical student. “I’m religious and I voted ‘No’. People say Erdogan has a Muslim Brotherhood ideology but he reminds me much more of the Egyptian president al-Sissi who is killing the Muslim Brotherhood. I once supported Erdogan because I though he was both a devout Muslim and a democrat. Now I know I was wrong.”
For Erdogan’s opponents, one source of optimism is that the “Yes” vote lost in all of Turkey’s large cities, including Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir. “What is dividing Turkey today isn’t Islam against secularism or right against left or Sunnis against the minorities,” says Prof. Soli Ozal who lectures on international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.
“Those voting ‘No’ in the referendum represented many different groups but what they have now in common is an openness to the world. The ‘Yes’ voters represent a nationalist nativism and in many this is just like the debates in the last election in the United States and Brexit in Britain. Turkey has its own special problems of course, but democracy around the world faces similar challenges,” he says.
The opposition's challenges were boosted Monday by the initial report of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) which monitored the referendum and found that the campaign had been run on an “uneven field” and did not conform to international standards. The government poured resources into the “Yes” campaign and at the same time used the police to harass “No” activists.
The European monitors also questioned the conduct of the Supreme Electoral Commission on vote-counting night. The report could further complicate the already tense relations between Erdogan and the West. So far, it doesn’t seem to be deterring him and on Monday his government announced an extension of the state of emergency in effect since last year’s failed coup. Another provocation, especially to the Council of Europe, in which Turkey is a member, are his speeches since the referendum in which he favors bringing back the death penalty.
Erdogan’s supporters are worried that the slim victory and international criticism could make it more difficult for him to rule as a president with wider powers. “We’re not celebrating yet” said Hakkan Durlum, an official in the municipal transport authority, living in the Fatih, an Istanbul stronghold of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). “We voted ‘Yes’ in the referendum because we believe Erdogan is a great man who has done great things for Istanbul and Turkey. But those who voted ‘No’ are encouraging the Europeans to pressure him.”
Erdogan may be about to become an all-powerful president in his own country, but he’s mired in bitter fighting with the Kurds, both in the country and across the border in Syria, and his interests there contradict both those of the U.S. and the EU on one side, and of Russian President Vladimir Putin on the other.
Ahmet Dogan, a mechanic who recently returned to Turkey after working for three years in Germany says he didn’t bother going to vote in the referendum. “I support Erdogan, but I knew he would win whatever happened. What will decide whether he succeeds in carrying out his policies isn’t what the Turkish people vote but what they will say in Berlin and Moscow."
Yasir Yakas, a retired senior diplomat and politician and a founding member of AKP who served as foreign minister says that “Erdogan understands that his alliance with nationalists has failed and only half the country support him now. If he makes mistakes, he will lose more supporters and be in a minority. He needs to use his powers as a benevolent dictator, like the former ruler of Singapore Lee Quan Yu and focus on the economy. Most Turks don’t care about civil rights, but they do care about having enough money in their pocket. That is where Erdogan will be tested now”.