Erdogan Wins Turkey's Referendum—But His Problems Are Far from Over

Recep Tayyip Erdogan in March 2017. Wikimedia Commons/

He may have won the referendum, but his domestic and external problems can be expected to increase.

President Erdoğan has achieved his long-cherished ambition to be acknowledged as the uncrowned sultan of Turkey. However, his goal has been attained at great cost to the country. Turkey is divided down the middle regarding the wisdom of this course. A referendum, changing the constitution to a presidential system with almost unbridled powers for the chief executive, passed on Sunday with the barest majority—51 to 49 percent. Moreover, the CHP, the leading opposition party, is demanding a recount of up to 60 percent of the ballots cast, saying that unstamped voting papers were considered valid.

Additionally, international monitors from the OSCE and the Council of Europe have delivered a scathing report, casting serious doubts about the integrity of the referendum. They have declared that the referendum was held on an “unlevel playing field,” with disproportionate media coverage going to the “Yes” campaign.

The outcome of the referendum shows a glaring regional divide. The most developed parts of the country, the entire Aegean coast and much of the Mediterranean coastline voted against the constitutional amendment. So did the Kurdish-majority provinces in the southeast of the country. Equally important, if not more, the three largest cities—Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir—also voted against changing the constitution.

While Izmir has always been a holdout against the AKP’s domination, the “No” votes in Istanbul and Ankara were astounding, amounting to a political slap to Erdoğan’s face. Istanbul is Erdoğan’s home turf, where he cut his political teeth and gained the sobriquet “the bully of Kasimpaşa” for his no-holds-barred style of politicking. As the mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, he gained a reputation as an efficient administrator, which stood him in good stead during his later career. It was during those years that he also made his reputation as a courageous fighter against the Kemalist elite, for which he was briefly jailed.

Ankara is the bastion of state power presided over by Erdoğan and his AKP colleagues. Notwithstanding its reputation as “Atatürk’s city,” it has repeatedly elected the AKP in local elections in recent years. Losing Ankara despite all the state’s pomp and show at his command should force Erdoğan to rethink the wisdom of his stance on constitutional change.

So should the slim majority—now being challenged in court by the opposition parties, for electoral irregularities—by which the measure was won. The margin of victory should in fact be interpreted as a sign of Erdoğan’s defeat, in light of the fact that the referendum was held under the most inauspicious conditions for opponents of the change.

Erdoğan and his government used the excuse of rooting out the proponents of the failed July coup to purge the media, academia and judiciary of all dissenting voices. The media was cowed into submission, and consequently the opponents of the amendment were mostly unable to put across their point of view to the voters.

It was an uneven playing field if ever there was one. Only a small percentage of coverage on electronic media was available to the opposition. With opposition media, both print and electronic, mostly closed down or taken over by the government, opponents of change were severely hobbled during the campaign. Pro-AKP private TV stations effectively shut out the opposition from their coverage. The state-run media, which was supposed to give equal time to the two sides, refused to cover opposition rallies except perfunctorily. That the opposition still managed to garner approximately half the votes is an astonishing rejection of Erdoğan’s claim of victory in a free and fair referendum.

What does the referendum bode for the future? It is obvious that the outcome allows Erdoğan to consolidate power and act as the sole decisionmaking authority in the country. He was launched on such a course in any case, but the constitutional amendment now gives his actions legal cover. Given his vindictive nature, this means that his opponents will be in for a rougher time than before.

It also means that any stirrings of opposition within his own party will be nipped in the bud. He has already sidelined the cofounder of the AKP—former president Abdullah Gül, who has been sent into political hibernation. So has his former handpicked prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who served as the fall guy for the president’s errors. President Erdoğan has surrounded himself by advisors who are more sycophants than counselors, because he does not like to hear dissenting views. This means he will be cut off further from learning the real state of affairs in the country.