North Africa, West Asia

A hollow referendum

Instead of articulating a brand-new direction for the country, the referendum simply served to legitimize and solidify the powers that President Erdogan has held since July 2016.

Melissa DeOrio
20 April 2017

A man casts his vote at a polling station in Istambul, Turkey, 16 April 2017. Picture by Michael Kappeler/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Turkey’s presidential referendum this past Sunday fundamentally changed the constitution for the first time since the country’s founding in 1923. For months, polls have monitored the fluctuations in popular support for the proposed presidential system and experts have offered a range of perspectives on the referendum's implications.

Although the referendum represents a fundamentally novel articulation of the country’s constitution, unlike many other experts I would argue that this referendum was ultimately, hollow. Instead of articulating a brand-new direction for the country, it simply served to legitimize and solidify the powers that President Erdogan has held since July 2016.

A deep state of intolerance

Erdogan’s repeated articulation of the ambiguous “deep state” and its fundamental threat to Turkey’s self-determination has helped the leader to legitimize crack-downs against the opposition since the Ergenekon investigations in 2007. The case was originally seen by many as a monumental step toward civilian control over the military for a country plagued by a history of military coups. However, this accomplishment was clouded by an unfair trial and circumstantial evidence of a supposed coup plot in 2004.

Following the Ergenekon investigations, it is this idea of the “deep state” which continued to justify the leading party’s crackdown on journalists, civilian officials and the military. The Gezi Park protests in 2013 showcased Erdogan's intolerance towards the opposition. The peaceful protests quickly became violent following the heavy-handed actions of police that ultimately resulted in the injury of 8,000 and the death of eight. The subsequent dismissal of journalists for their coverage of the protests served as a clear warning against coverage which made Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time, look bad. All this seems like a light-hearted reaction in comparison to the shutdown of 15 independent media outlets in October 2016.

Additionally, the party has also lead several constitutional changes since, which have slowly chipped away at the country’s more-democratic constitution. For example, a security bill introduced in December 2015 substantially increased the power of the police in place of the military, and also considerably limited civilian rights to protest. Fundamentally, the bill allowed police to use deadly force during violent protests, detain demonstrators and to conduct warrantless searches on individuals, representing a fundamental blow to the right to protest and another key step towards removing the voice of the opposition.

A presidential vision

The seed for Erdogan’s new Turkish constitution is not recent, but instead became the foundation of the leading party’s campaign ahead of the 2015 general election. The AKP’s subsequent loss of the majority in parliament represented the first obstacle to achieving his presidential vision. The historic election of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) represented the greatest challenge to the AKP’s power since its first election in 2002.

Losing the majority required that AKP lawmakers work with an opposition party to pass any meaningful legislation, let alone attempt to sell their vision of a presidential system. But when this proved difficult, July’s coup against President Erdogan proved to be a more powerful tool.

Assassination of the opposition

It was under the state of emergency that Erdogan carefully worked to gag the opposition and mobilize support for the presidential referendum. Increasing destabilization within the country due to a spillover of violence from Syria, ISIS terror attacks, and a renewed fight with PKK militants also helped Erdogan make the case for a consolidation of power. In the absence of meaningful criticism from the west, the systematic de-legitimization of any opposition since July 2016 was surely the writing on the wall.

Supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the supposed orchestrator of July’s coup, were silenced through the mass-detentions and dismissals of known and merely suspected supporters, sometimes with ties so insignificant as merely holding a bank account with Bank Asya, a bank with ties to the Gulen movement.

The HDP was silenced through the systematic detention of leaders and local MPs due to largely unsubstantiated claims of these officials' collusion with the PKK. In the southeast, the AKP replacements of the HDP officials have effectively left the majortity-Kurdish population with no elected representation and arguably helps to intimidate the population into submission for fear that they will otherwise be targeted as ‘terrorist’ supporters.

The number of dismissals and suspensions of individuals across all public sectors now amasses a number somewhere near 100,000. The sheer number of those affected by either the suspensions or the arrests has effectively instituted a wide-spread fear among locals of speaking out against the government for fear of being targeted themselves. Then, just in case the political war was not effective enough on its own, Erdogan further quieted the Kurdish majority population in the southeast by ramping up security operations, rendering some villages like Sirnak literally flattened to the ground leaving the locals with nothing more than rubble and tree stumps to identify their homes.

In order to quiet the effect of the CHP and the MHP, the president has used a different tactic. MHP leader Bahceli - whose popularity as the representative of his own party has waned so significantly that contenders tried to replace him in May of last year - is colloquially said to have made a ‘presidency-for-presidency’ deal with Erdogan for maintained power, which would explain his pro-AKP rhetoric.

The CHP, a more vocal opponent to the government and some of its more recent un-democratic decrees, though not targeted to the extent of the HDP, has also experienced the hard hand of the government. At the end of last year, Erdogan launched a criminal complaint against its leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu for insulting the President and has made recent allegations that the leader ‘ran away’ on the night of the coup in order to delegitimize the party in the eyes of the population. Though it is unclear whether these attacks are enough to intimidate the CHP leader into submission like Bahceli, it is safe to say that the President has made it clear that opposition comes at a price.

Brazen manipulation

Though the outcome of the referendum will simply allow the president to maintain the same powers as he had under a state of emergency, it does seem to have officially ushered in the end of Turkey’s democracy.

Though the country has always been made-up of a more conservative population than the west tends to acknowledge, (the country’s Anatolian region is starkly different from its peripheral cities) it had never before experienced unfair or unfree elections. However, the undemocratic manipulation of approximately 2,500,000 ‘yes’ ballots demonstrates the final nail in the coffin of what was Turkish democracy.

An election observer noted that as many as 2,500,000 ballots, accepted without official stamps, were added to the official count. If the allegations are true, these ballots would have nearly doubled Erdogan’s margin of victory in the official reports. The government’s subsequent 90-day renewal of a state of emergency and the dismissal of criticism are telling signs. These allegations, coupled with the state of emergency under which the referendum was held, the incredible degree of political pressure on the opposition, along with other concerns over access to polling stations throughout the country, make it hard to imagine how this referendum could ever be perceived as fair.


The referendum merely solidified the powers Erdogan has enjoyed as president under the state of emergency since July 2016. When looking to the country’s future, the past nine months will act as a good indicator of the kind of leader Erdogan will be and fundamentally, the president’s power will remain the same.

However, Erdogan’s incredibly narrow margin of victory (51.2%), even with 2,500,000 possibly fraudulent ballots speaks volumes of the president’s declining command over the diverse Turkish population and a fundamental shift in their approval of him. The sheer declaration of the opposition, even amidst the fear of widespread arrests and government retaliation is truly remarkable. In the coming months it will be critical to observe how Erdogan and his party rule over an increasingly divided society, which will undoubtedly present enduring challenges to his rule.

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