How Erdogan Lost the Referendum by Winning

By narrowly supporting Tayyip Erdogan’s presidential power referendum, Turks this month voted away their own democracy: that was the consensus of opinion on April 16. But International Boulevard’s Baris Altintas finds paradoxical hope in how excruciatingly close was Erdogan’s victory, in the many violent and authoritarian measures he took to achieve even that, and in the hypothesis that accounting for widespread fraud, Erdogan actually lost the referendum.

Inside Turkey and abroad, many are describing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s slim referendum victory on April 16, 2017 as a “Pyrrhic victory,” because the slim majority has shown that public support for the constitutional changes that will give him absolute power is very low. While these assertions indeed highlight the damage the referendum has caused the Turkish strongman, they fall short of being true because the result is hardly a win for Erdoğan, indeed not even close to real victory.

The reasons behind the huge loss are multi-faceted. Although “yes” votes came out ahead of “no” votes (%51 to %49), in the end, the vote count has been openly questioned by local and international monitors, opening its legitimacy to major discussion. However, the real fraud occurred not during the counting, but before the referendum and very much out in the open.

The OSCE election monitors described the pre-referendum process as an “unlevel playing field”, and this was a massive understatement. The agency stated in its report that ”the referendum took place in a political environment in which fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed under the state of emergency, and the two sides did not have equal opportunities to make their case to the voters.”

The reality for the “no” campaign was much harsher. In the run-up to the referendum, the most important political figures to campaign for “no” votes in the Kurdish provinces were imprisoned; “no” campaigners were physically assaulted. (On the day of the referendum, three people were killed in Diyarbakır for voting no.) The “yes” camp was backed by Turkey’s taxpayers’ money; all the billboards in the country’s 81 provinces were covered with posters backing “yes”.

The “no” camp on the other hand was occasionally able to hang its poster of a little girl (with the slogan “No for my future”) on lampposts in some areas; but these were usually ripped apart. In other cases, “No” placards were taken down by authorities.

In addition to the enormous public funds used to support the yes campaign, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had all the power of television and the media, which have mostly turned into government mouthpieces in the past decade. Any alternative media is not allowed in the country: At least 170 media outlets were shut down under Cabinet decrees issued in Turkey’s State of Emergency that has been in place since July 20. More than 150 journalists remain behind bars, most of them having been arrested after the coup attempt of July 15 under State of Emergency.

Did he steal votes?

International observers have expressed misgivings that the result might have been manipulated. Turkey’s local independent election monitor has also shared similar data. These were taken to the High Election Board (YSK), which announced in the midst of the vote count that it will accept votes cast on ballots that don’t carry a YSK stamp; violating the election law and disowning its own seal. Whether this was done in panic by the government — which has taken over the YSK – or was a more or less planned action, taken when the no votes seemed to be ahead, is a matter of speculation.

If there really has been “intervention” from the government in the counting process, could it be so huge a difference to change the result? In the end, the “yes” vote was officially only 1,330,776 votes ahead; a marginal number in a Turkey where 46,600,000 people voted. This indicates that if only half of that difference (about 660,000) voted “no”, the result would have been different. The local monitor Oy ve Ötesi (Vote and Beyond) — a clear winner of the referendum, working very efficiently to ensure secure vote counting before and on April 16 with thousands of volunteers — has been able to check 94 percent of the ballots cast and has found massive irregularities. For example the number of votes cast in 960 ballot boxes didn’t contain a single “no” vote, amounting to about 90,000 votes. In 2,397 ballot boxes, the number of votes cast exceeded the number of registered voters. Six percent of the votes cast in the so-called referendum still await verification; that’s nearly another 3 million votes.

With the added controversy about the non-stamped votes being accepted as valid; it is hard to say that the “yes” camp actually won, but of course, we will never know. The YSK has rejected all appeals regarding irregularities and there will never be a thorough examination.

All in all, all the roads were going to lead to Rome and there wasn’t a chance for the “no” to win, officially.

What happens next?

Although the result is encouraging under the circumstances, the one man who has power over the country’s police, judiciary, state institutions and public funds and who has won the hearts of half of the population is still in power. What can the unofficial “no” win really change?

Although trying to make any prediction on Turkey’s possible future in the short-term is an exercise in futility; it can still be argued that the referendum marks the beginning of the end for the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which equals Erdoğan.

For the first time since coming into power in 2002, Erdoğan lost the support of Turkey’s large cities (17 of the 30 largest cities voted “no”, including Istanbul). This is not good news for the president, as Turkey’s voting patterns have always shown that losing big cities, especially Istanbul, has never ended well for those in power.

Insiders say that most of the AKP camp feels that they have won by fraud. The opposition — possibly including the AKP’s inner-party opposition — will likely see many changes. Some hope that there might be new center-right parties that might finally divide the AKP’s consolidated votes in 2019, when Turkey will vote for its first executive president in the new system.

Tough times still ahead, but not far into the future

Under these circumstances however, the outlook seems to be rather positive for a long-term aspect. Perhaps the most important indicator of the April 16 vote was that 60 percent of first time voters (people who have turned 18 recently) voted “no”. This is in keeping with a trend that’s been place for the past several elections; the AKP has consistently been the “second party” among first-time voters .

Compare this to Russia, where, the as of January this year, 91 percent of the people aged 18-24 approved of President Vladimir Putin’s policies (85 percent for the general population). Both presidents have been strong-men for more than a decade (although Russia chose executive presidency much earlier, in 1993) and have relied on policies and rhetoric of similar conservative populism and used similar methods of repression.

Although both countries come from proud empires which have long had their day of glory, and which have produced a similar “leader worshipping” culture, the “no’s” unofficial win has shown that Turkish society and opposition remains vibrant; something very rare in other autocracies.

Everything must one day come to an end. The so-called referendum has shown the light at the end of the tunnel, and its outcome will be the key to defining the country’s future come the 2019 election.

E. Barış Altıntaş