Simon Waldman is visiting research fellow at King’s College in London. He is the co-author of The New Turkey and Its Discontents
One rule of thumb in a healthy referendum is that the voting public should be asked a clear and concise question with a simple yes or no answer.
On Sunday, when 55 million eligible Turkish voters went to the polls in a nationwide referendum about constitutional changes that would effectively transform Turkey’s parliamentary system to an executive presidency, there was no question on the ballot. There was just a paper slip with the option Yes or No.
The Yes camp of current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared victory – albeit a very narrow one.
The lack of a question on the ballot is just one example of the deficiencies, irregularities and misconduct during the whole process. Meanwhile, the manner in which the election took place was grossly unfair.
Since the failed military coup of July last year, Turkey remains under an extended state of emergency. Not only did this allow Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party government to purge hundreds of thousands of civil servants from the state bureaucracy, but it also hurt the No campaign. It allowed the government to ban public rallies at a whim and make an emergency decree to allow private broadcasters to disproportionately air Yes campaign material without penalty.
The naysayers had no chance; they were playing with loaded dice. That they managed to garner a close vote was an achievement, let alone win in the major cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. The subdued print and broadcast media aired pro-government propaganda incessantly, not to mention hours upon hours of speeches by Mr. Erdogan and AKP officials. Only minutes were set aside for the No campaign. And even this was limited to the Republican People’s Party, as leading members of the liberal and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party were effectively silenced. Many of its leaders remain jailed under trumped up politically motivated terrorism charges. Hundreds of thousands of Turkish Kurds have been displaced in the Southeast of the country, and, consequently, were unable to cast their votes.
Despite criticism from international bodies, Turkey’s government and President used their offices and state finances for the Yes campaign. In every Turkish city, banners, billboards and posters exclaiming Yes dominated the landscape. The No campaign was limited to secular neighbourhoods and in less spectacular style.
Since becoming President in 2014, Mr. Erdogan transformed the largely ceremonial role into an executive position, contravening the constitution. Regardless of his narrow victory, Mr. Erdogan will now claim legitimacy to the power he has already seized and enjoy the additional perk of appointing government ministers without parliamentary consultation. He will be able to lead a political party, giving him sway over the legislative process. Mr. Erdogan will be able to dismiss parliament, call new elections and declare a state of emergency. He will be allowed to veto parliamentary legislation and issue his own decrees (unless they are deemed unconstitutional). He will directly appoint six of the 13 members of the Higher Council of Judges and Prosecution, in effect the new high court and the body that will appoint judges.
In other words, the President can rule without checks or balances for at least another 12 years, and, with a third-term loophole, maybe even longer. Do not expect him to engage in conciliatory politics for the nearly half of voters who chose no.
Mr. Erdogan has been waging a cultural war to transform Turkey into a technologically modern but socially conservative society. Those who oppose his vision and conception of Turkish identity are, as far as he is concerned, treasonous. It is his supporters who constitute the Turkish nation; his opponents side, coup plotters and terrorists.
And he will continue his purge against the opponents. There will be more EU bashing and he might even stick to his campaign promise to reinstate capital punishment. Expect the expansion of Islamic schools and socially conservative legislation mixed together with grandiose public/private partnership projects. With no political need for reconciliation with the Kurds, displays of Kurdish national sentiment, whether violent or peaceful, will be dealt an iron fist. So will anyone who protests against the referendum’s result. Opposition parties and critical media outlets will continue to be persecuted.
Mr. Erdogan has won his greater powers, at a great cost to Turkey’s future.Report Typo/Error
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