P resident Recep Tayyip Erdoğan invoked Köroǧlu, a mythical horse-whisperer, when he claimed victory in a referendum that will make him the most powerful leader of the Turkish republic since Ataturk, its founding father. “There are people trying to undermine the conclusion,” he told acolytes outside the Huber Palace in Istanbul on Sunday. “Do not try in vain. The horse has passed Üsküdar [an ancient district in the city].” The message was clear: the horse has bolted; resistance is futile; I am supreme.
The reality is less straightforward, as Istanbul - which broke with tradition by voting against Mr. Erdoğan, its former mayor - showed. The constitutional changes will give him even greater control over the country he has ruled since 2003 but the result was narrow and disputed, despite a campaign in which open dissent was all but impossible. The referendum exposed the depth of Turkey’s geographical, cultural and ethnic divisions, confirmed its isolation from Western allies and awakened opposition of a kind not seen since the Gezi Park protests of 2013.
“We’re entering into a stage in Turkey that has never been tested before,” Bulent Gultekin, a former governor of the Central Bank of Turkey who also advised two prime ministers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, told The World Weekly. “I’m not sure even Erdoğan knows how he is going to use this power. I’m serious. It is too much power for one person.”
‘The people’s will’
Mr. Erdoğan has been waiting for this moment since 2014, when he stood down as prime minister to be elected president and in the eyes of many immediately overstepped the limits of the ceremonial role. Since the failed coup last July - in which rebel soldiers killed almost 200 civilians - he has ruled by decree under a state of emergency that was extended for another three months on Monday. By creating an executive presidency, the reforms will formalise this de facto arrangement.
Mr. Erdoğan told supporters that “April 16 was a victory for all of Turkey”. In fact, the ‘Yes’ campaign won by 51.4% to 48.6% - just 1.4 million votes from a total of almost 50 million. The three biggest cities - Istanbul, Ankara and İzmir - all rejected the reforms, as did the entire Western coastline and the predominantly Kurdish southeast, ravaged by two years of conflict. As expected, Mr. Erdoğan amassed most of his votes in the Anatolian heartlands and also did well among Turks living elsewhere in Europe.
“It was obvious from the expressions on the faces of Erdoğan and his close aides during the victory speech that they were not happy with the outcome,” wrote Murat Yetkin, a veteran columnist at Hürriyet, one of the few remaining liberal newspapers. Murat Gezici, a pollster who predicted the result, told Cumhuriyet, another embattled title, that around 10% of people who voted for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) at the last general election had defied the president by voting ‘No’ or abstaining.
The narrow margin left Mr. Erdoğan vulnerable to claims of fraud after the electoral commission allowed ballots which had not been stamped by officials to be counted. Turkey’s Bar Association claimed the last-minute decision - which broke with previous judgements - was illegal and two respected international observers said it had undermined the democratic process. For many voters, unverified videos showing ballot boxes being stuffed with fake votes added to the sense that they had been cheated.
“There is a very dark shadow on the legitimacy of the results,” said Professor Gultekin. “Although many of these claims on social media cannot be substantiated, I’ve been involved in Turkish politics for quite some time and I’ve never seen such accusations of fraud, not since 1946.”
The result will stand and even some vocal critics of the president, such as the journalist Asli Aydintaşbaş, think he would have won without vote rigging. The commission threw out an appeal by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition. “The people’s will has been reflected at the ballot box, and the debate is over,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told the Grand National Assembly.
Divide and rule
He will soon be out of a job. Following presidential and parliamentary elections in November 2019, the office of the prime minister will be abolished and the president will be able to make laws by decree as well as hire and fire ministers. Two changes - scrapping the rule that presidents must drop party political ties and handing Mr. Erdoğan more control over the body that oversees the judiciary - have already taken effect. He can now stand for two more terms, expiring in 2029.
For Mr. Erdoğan and his supporters, the overhaul will stabilise a country at war with Kurdish separatists, under constant threat from Islamic State and home to three million Syrian refugees. They point out that the current constitution was written by an undemocratic military junta in the early 1980s, say now is no time to return to the shaky coalition governments of the 1990s and argue that the new system is simply a Turkish version of the French and American presidencies. “The referendum marked a victory for Turkish democracy and our country's long-term stability,” declared the editorial board of the Daily Sabah, a right-wing newspaper.
Opponents fear the reforms merge the three branches of government into one person, eliminating checks and balances, and note that Mr. Erdoğan is already ruling with an iron fist. Since last July more than 160 media outlets and publishing houses have been closed down, over 100,000 civil servants summarily dismissed or suspended and almost 50,000 people jailed on charges of terrorism or conspiring with Fethullah Gülen, a US-based cleric, to bring down the government. Thirteen members of Parliament from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish outfit, are behind bars, including its two co-leaders.
In a damning report, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, one of the international monitors, said this had created an “unlevel playing field” in which “fundamental freedoms” were curtailed. “You should know your place!” Mr. Erdoğan retorted. “We will not consider, see, or recognise your political report. We will go our own way.”
For many voters this was what the referendum was really about: should Turkey continue as a Western-facing, secular democracy, or turn to the East as a conservative, Islamist autocracy? Though any chance of joining the EU was lost a long time ago, the pretence is now threadbare. During the campaign, Mr. Erdoğan compared the Netherlands and Germany to the Nazis. Immediately after claiming victory, he mooted a referendum on bringing back the death penalty, a red line under the Copenhagen criteria for EU applicants. The European Commission merely “took note” of the result.
Western leverage is limited by Turkey’s strategic importance in the Middle East. Ankara can scrap a deal with the EU that stopped tens of thousands of Syrian refugees landing in Greece every month. US President Donald Trump congratulated Mr. Erdoğan, perhaps because Washington wants to defuse tensions over its collaboration with Kurdish fighters in Syria.
Mr. Erdoğan now has two options, says Sinan Ülgen, chairman of the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul. Either he can take stock of the “very thin margin” and “switch to a more consensus-driven leadership style”. Or he can continue to bulldoze opponents and minorities, “which incidentally has not failed him in the past”. The president’s rhetoric since the vote suggests he will continue to divide and rule, creating “more tension with Turkey’s partners in the West and a less predictable Turkish foreign policy”.
This tactic may serve Mr. Erdoğan well in elections but it also leaves him vulnerable. One potential Achilles heel is the economy. The AKP came to power in 2002, shortly after a financial crisis forced Turkey to receive a loan from the International Monetary Fund. Under its stewardship, the country transformed into one of the best-performing emerging markets in the world.
According to Tahir Abbas, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and author of ‘Contemporary Turkey in Conflict’, this explains much of Mr. Erdoğan’s support, which can verge on adulatory. “The economy has grown considerably, and there has been huge investment in physical infrastructure that has considerably benefited left-behind regions,” he told TWW. Many also credit Mr. Erdoğan with giving a voice to Turks who felt neglected or excluded by secular elites for the first 80 years of the republic.
Last year, however, growth fell to 2.9% as the Syrian war, multiple terror attacks and purge sapped confidence and kept tourists away. Though the lira rose after the referendum, it has fallen more than 20% against the dollar over the past year, pushing inflation up to 10%. If living standards slip, the 2019 presidential election could be more competitive than the one in 2014. Mr. Erdoğan is now personally responsible for the country’s fortunes.
Resistance already seems to be stirring. Every night since the referendum, hundreds or thousands of people have marched against the reforms, even after 38 activists were arrested in dawn raids on Wednesday. “Turks realise that it’s going to be a very long haul, and that now the country is turning away from the EU they are going to have to go it alone,” Professor Gultekin said. “It won’t be easy to organise because there is no obvious figurehead, but they know they have to do it.” The challenge for the divided opposition is to piece together a coalition that can muster 50% of the vote.
Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, leader of the CHP, turned the tale of Köroğlu back on Mr. Erdoğan: “The one who has long gone to Üsküdar was Köroğlu, who got back his stolen horse. History writes about Köroğlu, not the thieves who stole the horse.”