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Turkey, After the Referendum

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Photo by Rasande Tyskar | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Rasande Tyskar | CC BY 2.0

Turkey is a fundamentally divided society. The vote this weekend over a referendum to give the President additional powers and a longer term, showed the extent of Turkey’s divisions. The “Yes” vote, a victory for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was won with 25 million votes, while the “No” campaign fetched almost 24 million votes. But given the nature of electoral democracy, a fractured verdict will nonetheless mean an expansion of the powers of Mr. Erdoğan and of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The referendum amends the 1982 Constitution with some significant provisions, such as making the President both the head of state and the head of government, weakening Parliament, the judiciary and the military. Mr. Erdoğan could remain in power — virtually unchallenged — till 2029. Society’s divisions will not be reflected in the political sphere.

The AKP, and its far-right ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), had hoped to commandeer close to two-thirds of the vote in order to make these changes legitimate. They were not able to get near this margin. Turkey’s three largest cities — Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir — voted decisively against the changes. It was rural and small-town Turkey that delivered the votes for the “Yes” campaign. These areas, located in remote parts of Anatolia, have long been neglected by the Istanbul elite and have for the past two decades seen the AKP as their champion. Personal piety is not their only link to the agenda of the AKP, which has pushed against the barriers of Turkey’s official secularism. A great deal of pent-up resentment against urban affluence is wrapped up in the support for Mr. Erdoğan, who speaks in the idiom of the small town.

Unleashing repression

But this support base was insufficient during two parliamentary elections in 2015, when Mr. Erdoğan hoped to push these changes through a friendly Parliament. Since the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) — a Kurdish and Left alliance — won over 10% of the vote, it was able to stymie Mr. Erdoğan’s plans. What followed after that defeat set the terms for significant political repression. Mr. Erdoğan’s government declared that the HDP was linked to terrorism, opened up a war against the largely Kurdish southeast of Turkey with the displacement of over 200,000 people and imposed endless curfews on major towns. Visitors to the Turkish city of Diyarbakir might be tempted to make comparisons with the flattened cities of Syria’s Aleppo and Iraq’s Fallujah. HDP politicians have been imprisoned, with both their leaders, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, facing hundreds of years in prison.

A failed coup on July 15, 2016 deepened the repression by the state. It was blamed on the U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen. Almost 100,000 people have been arrested since that coup, and over 100,000 state employees fired from their posts. The purges (tasfiye) have not only denuded Turkish society of trained and capable people but have also chilled the atmosphere in the country. Gloom is the mood amongst large parts of the urban population, which has not experienced this kind of open harassment since the coups d’etat of 1971 and 1980. It was as if this failed coup had an aftermath as anti-democratic as the successful coups of Turkey’s past.

Curbing democratic processes

It was apparent during the campaign over this referendum that Mr. Erdoğan would prevail. Society is not united behind him, but the state apparatus came into great use. Opposition leaders were arrested — 122 HDP leaders by their count. Campaigners for the “No” vote were accused of being part of the Gülen plot. In the largely Kurdish province of Sirnak, the provincial governor banned the HDP’s song “Say No” on the pretext that it would incite “public hate”. The popular cartoonist, Musa Kart, spent a hundred days in jail, while Turkey’s most respected constitutional law expert, Ibrahim Kaboğlu, lost his job. With 150 media outlets shut down and almost 200 journalists arrested, press scrutiny of these manoeuvres was minimal. Democracy was already curtailed before the referendum. Critics of Mr. Erdoğan warn that Turkey is under “tek adam” rule — one-man rule.

Turkey’s High Electoral Board chief Sadi Güven announced that the referendum had passed despite the numerous complaints of fraud. The Opposition moved the board to reconsider the 1.5 million ballots that raised eyebrows. The margin of victory was only 1.1 million. Intimidation of voters was general. Even supporters of Mr. Erdoğan who had decided to vote “No” — such as editor, Yeni Şafak, and columnist Ali Bayramoğlu — were beaten on polling day. The government dominated the media and prevented the Opposition from making its case against the referendum.

#HayirDahaBitmedi is the new hashtag on social media. “It is not over yet”. There is great expectation from half of those who voted that the President must not be allowed to rule as if he has a mandate. No wonder that Mr. Erdoğan’s victory speech was uncharacteristically subdued. His Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, said of the result: “We are one body. We are one nation.” But it did not feel like that. Turkey feels more and more socially divided. Mr. Erdoğan will not govern to unify. That is not his style. His policies — like that of other Strong Men in the Age of Anger — will more ferociously tear at the social fabric of this fine country.

This article originally appeared The Hindu (India).

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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