Voters in Turkey Don’t Think Erdogan's Referendum Is Fixed

Despite their fondness for conspiracy theories, Turks believe that the results of elections and referendums are hard to fake. For the most part, anyway

A woman waits at a polling station in the referendum on presidential powers, Ankara, April 16, 2017.
AP / Burhan Ozbilici

ISTANBUL – The referendum on changes to Turkey’s constitution opened Sunday morning with a report that two people were killed in an altercation at a polling station in the war-torn Kurdish region in the southeast. Aside from that, there were no major reports of violence or irregularities in the voting process.

The voting hours are relatively short, ending at 5 P.M., and from early morning long lines were reported at many polling stations. At a school on the Asian side of Istanbul, between the Uskudar and Umraniye neighborhoods, dozens of people waited outside the classrooms to vote.

The atmosphere was friendly as the voting process was quick and efficient. Each voter was handed a ballot with a white (Yes) and brown (No) box, and went behind a curtain to ink in the choice. The school’s location, between upper-middle-class villas and workers’ tenements, draws a very mixed electorate most noticeable in the women’s clothes, which range from full black chadors to tight jeans and sleeveless tops.

One woman laughed when asked how she voted – “you can see how I’m dressed and work it out for yourself.” The assumption is that more conservative and religious Turks will vote “Yes” and approve the constitutional changes giving President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sweeping powers, and the more secular ones will vote “No.”

Surprisingly perhaps, very few voices are criticizing the voting process itself. Turkish democracy is in a particularly febrile state with dozens of opposition legislators and mayors under arrest and around 140 journalists. But when asked, even staunch supporters of the opposition usually express their faith in the vote-counting and reporting.

It’s surprising, in part because historically, Turks have a fondness for conspiracy theories. Foreign hands are always meddling in local affairs, and of course the feared “deep state” runs the country. These theories are propagated not only by word of mouth or obscure websites, but from as high as the president’s office. Erdogan is known to blame mysterious elements such as “the international interest rate lobby” for Turkey’s troubles.

Voters at a school in Istanbul's Uskudar neighborhood for the Turkish referendum, April 16, 2017.
Retuers / Alkis Konstantinidis

The faith most Turks seem to have in their elections is backed by reports by international monitoring organizations that criticize the violence and police harassment during campaigns but praise the voting process itself. When it comes to the latter, the general assumption is that the game isn’t fixed. Groups of monitors are patrolling the school in Uskudar, representing different parties.

Elif, a student volunteering here for the main opposition party, the CHP, says “I trust the election system. I’m here because we have to be on the safe side and make sure.” In recent elections, opposition parties have improved scrutiny via cameras and online streaming of the vote tallying.

Trust in the process is also based on the fact that for all its faults, Turkish democracy has withstood the test of replacing governments through the voters’ verdict (even if in some cases it was also the army’s verdict).

The ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, has held power for 15 years but has suffered electoral setbacks during this time, when Erdogan failed to secure large-enough majorities to push through constitutional changes. In the two elections held in 2015, the AKP failed in the first to win a majority large enough to rule without coalition partners. In both elections, the Kurdish opposition HDP party won enough votes to cross the high electoral threshold and make it into parliament.

Opposition politicians are therefore wary about voicing doubts about the system. They believe they have a fighting chance of beating Erdogan in the referendum, so why cast doubt on the result in advance?

“The voting in large cities is usually quite orderly, with representatives of all parties required to sign off on each polling station’s results,” says a senior member of one of the opposition parties. “The problems are in rural areas, where you can’t always trust the monitors, and local AKP bosses threaten small villages that if there’s one vote against them, the whole community will suffer.”

As he puts it, “In the southeast, where hundreds of thousands of Kurds have recently been displaced by the fighting, there’s a bigger problem as the government hasn’t provided polling stations for them outside the big cities. Despite it all, the process is relatively good and I think that the problems only give the AKP 1 or 2 percent more in the total result.”