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The referendum’s lack of legitimacy expected to intensify Erdogan’s problems

By Abraham Thicke

On Sunday, Turks voted on a series of constitutional changes that will hand President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unprecedented powers. According to the unofficial results, just over 51% of voters approved the changes. The opposition disputes the figures.

It is clear that the election was deeply flawed. One tenet of democracy is that electoral conditions should be free and fair. This was not the case in the run up to the referendum. The vote was held under a state of emergency. States resources were mobilized to support the ‘yes’ campaign. Opponents of the changes were denied both resources and a platform to make their case. Politicians such as the president Erdoğan and his servile Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım routinely denounced ‘no’ campaigners, and those thinking of voting against the proposed changes as terrorists, traitors and terrorists and lackeys of foreign powers. Scores of critical journalists and opposition politicians were imprisoned. In sum, referendum campaigning was carried out amid an atmosphere that was, by itself, was sufficient to delegitimize the result.

Who do you think you’re kidding, Mr Erdoğan?

Given the circumstances it is remarkable that almost 49% of voters mustered the courage to oppose the changes. In reality, the figure may have been over 50%. Numerous irregularities in the vote count have been noted. Perhaps the most significant was the decision by the YSK (The Supreme Election Council) to allow ballots lacking validating stamps from polling clerks to be counted. The issue affects several million of approaching 68 million votes tabulated. In the run up to the vote, the YSK published information on its own website indicating unstamped votes are invalid. Further, the decision, which clearly contravenes electoral regulations, was made only after the vote count had commenced. It does not take much imagination to understand how the YSK’s self-contradicting decision could facilitate vote rigging.

The main opposition CHP has said it will demand a recount of more than a third of the votes cast. They should not hold their breaths. Even if more than half of voters opposed the changes, nothing is likely to change. Turkey is not democracy and has not been one for some time. No independent institutions exist capable of assessing whether fraud has taken place. Consequently, the actual ratio of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes is unlikely ever to be established.

Moving forwards, Turkey will now face even more difficult times than those it has recently endured. During the election campaign, those supporting the constitutional changes presented them as some kind of universal panacea that would solve all of Turkey’s problems; the economy was supposed to pick-up again, terror would be vanquished and so on. Such wishful thinking will now be exposed for what it is. Turkey’s fortunes will continue to decline. As the problems intensify Erdoğan will no doubt confront them in his habitual manner — blaming them on an increasingly exotic array of external enemies, assisted by a fifth column, engaged in a futile attempt to stymie Turkey’s apparently predestined rise to greatness. As the pain intensifies, we may expect more crackdowns on critics and opponents, bluster about the night being darkest just before dawn and propaganda eulogising peoples’ willingness to endure hardship for the country’s sake.

The referendum’s lack of legitimacy and the manner in which the campaign was conducted will also intensify many of the problems Turkey faces. Confronted with a less than ringing endorsement from the electorate, Erdoğan’s paranoia will increase, fuelled by the international community’s inevitably sceptical assessment of the referendum’s legitimacy. Furthermore, during the campaign, Erdoğan and his allies pursued a policy of stirring up trouble with European countries as a means of mobilizing the vote. Moving forwards, it will be difficult to return even to the facade of normalcy that characterized earlier relations with the EU. Turkey’s international isolation will probably intensify. It will also be increasingly difficult to maintain the facade that Turkey is even vaguely democratic.

Inside Turkey, the referendum and the process surrounding it have deepened the already acute societal polarization. It was easy enough for the likes of Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to call for national unity in the wake of the election and to claim that the result represents a victory for everyone in Turkey. But people will not forget how hollow such sentiments have rung in the past. Nor will they forget poisonous rhetoric deployed by Erdoğan and his acolytes during the election campaign.

So whilst the result may have gone the way Erdoğan wanted, this is a Pyrrhic victory. Erdoğan has dug himself into a hole and in endeavouring to escape his only instinct will be to keep digging, hoping finally to reach the light of day. Many commentators have wondered whether Erdoğan will bring the country down with him as he burrows in search of the sky. The result of the referendum has made it easier for him to do just that.

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