Turkey’s controversial referendum, in which people voted by a small margin to replace the parliamentary system with a powerful executive presidency, left the country more divided, tense and internationally isolated.
In a vote largely seen as a plebiscite on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 51.4% of the citizens voted in support of constitutional changes that expand the powers of the president– which, supporters say, will render the state stronger and more efficient – while 48.7% opposed it. In a blow to his prestige, Erdogan lost former strongholds of Istanbul and Ankara.
With allegations of irregularities, international concerns on the fairness of the referendum, countrywide protests and the opposition demanding recounts, hopes that Turkey would finally find some calm and stability after the referendum seem to be far-fetched.
“The referendum further polarised an already-divided country,” said political scientist Dr Bilge Azgin.
“There already were stark political contrasts between the conservative central Anatolia, secular coastal regions and the predominantly Kurdish south-east. Now, the country has further been divided between a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ camp,” he added.
“A country can be divided and polarised only to a certain extent. At a certain point, it becomes unmanageable. Erdogan will try to rule cities like Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir with the ‘yes’ vote he got from conservative regions.
he predictable consequence is that he will face significant resistance. This will further increase tension and destabilise Turkey. Serious challenges lie ahead.”
Independent election observers from OSCE and PACE said the referendum was contested on “an un-level playing field” and fell short of international standards.
The ‘yes’ referendum campaign was carried out by the government during a state of emergency with leaders of the Kurdish movement and opposition journalists jailed.
A last-minute decision by the Higher Election Board to consider valid ballots without an official stamp increased concerns. The European Commission called for an investigation into the irregularity allegations, while the US State Department said it took note of concerns and called on Turkey to protect fundamental rights and freedoms.
Under the changes approved in the referendum, the Turkish president will be able to appoint top public officials, including ministers, dissolve parliament and call for early elections, appoint judges, draft state budget and declare a state of emergency without cabinet’s approval. Opponents argue that the changes will lead to an autocratic one-man rule.
Most of the changes will only come into effect after the next elections due in 2019 and it is unclear if Erdogan will seek to reconcile society until then or continue with the confrontational and divisive rhetoric that dominated the pre-referendum period.
Many political analysts expect Erdogan to try and prove his legitimacy – hurt by the lower-than-expected support – through continued aggressive discourse, tightfisted rule and disputes with perceived enemies at the expense of not only increasing tension internally but also further straining its relations with the EU and the wider international community.
In fact, Ankara extended the state of emergency – already in place for nine months – for another three months the day after the referendum, while Erdogan renewed suggestions that the country could hold referendums on its bid to join the EU and on reinstating the death penalty.
“Erdogan is about to change the regime,” said Mete Hatay, senior researcher at PRIO Cyprus Centre.
“But for this, he needs to continue to spread fear, create enemies and gather people around for another one-and-a-half years. Therefore, we can predict that he will want this whole period to pass under the state of emergency, while he leads his people, who are under ‘threat’ to ultimate victory.
“Therefore, I expect tension to increase in Turkey in the coming days.”