Erdogan offers stability, result makes it dubious

The result in Turkey’s referendum on expanding presidential powers was not what President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expected. The outcome is very close and the opposition is crying foul, contesting the tally.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) clearly underperformed, with supporters openly disappointed the result was not a resounding and decisive victory.
The last referendum in 2010 on reforms had 58 per cent support, but this time it was about 51.
“This was a big blow for the AKP. They won by a hairline,” says Elmira Bayrasli, a professor at Bard College in New York.
“You still have half a country that voted no. I don’t think Erdogan can ignore the fact he lost Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir,” she adds, referring to the largest cities in Turkey.
“People are afraid. There is an atmosphere of fear,” says Bayrasli, noting purges of the civil service, which saw more than 100,000 people lose their jobs.
Some 50,000 people are in jail, accused of either being sympathetic to the coup plotters or Kurdish militants. Among them are journalists and opposition members of parliament.
“The narrowness of the victory is quite surprising,” says Howard Eissenstat, an Associate Professor of History at St Lawrence University in New York.
“I think it is clear, given the pressure we saw during the campaign and the outcome, that in a freer environment, this referendum would have lost handily. But the whole point is that the referendum is aimed at consolidating power, not broadening participation,” he adds.
The opposition warned that the expansion of presidential powers would severely degrade checks and balances and diminish the role of parliament while harming the independence of the judiciary. Erdogan focused on a pledge of stability and prosperity.
“I think this result will increase polarisation in Turkey,” says Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, the Ankara Office Director of the German Marshall Fund.
He points out two main negative aspects of the campaign: Erdogan, he says, used state resources extensively to organise massive rallies for his camp; and his rallies were broadcast in full on state and commercial television, meaning hours of speeches almost daily.
The opposition, which was largely denied any space in the media, even found itself sometimes being denied the right to hold meetings by local authorities loyal to Erdogan.
“If people cannot hold meetings, the election is not really free,” he notes.
The result itself is being strongly contested in opposition quarters. Meral Aksener, a nationalist who campaigned defiantly against Erdogan during the campaign, blatantly said the election commission “committed a crime”.
The election body allowed votes to be counted even if they lacked proper stamps showing they were not tampered with. The head of the centre-left People’s Republican Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, likened it to changing the rules of the game in the middle of play.
The big question is how Erdogan himself will decide to interpret the result. He could decide to follow the advice of Talha Y, a staunch AKP supporter, who saw the result as a warning sign.
“The party must work harder to win the hearts and minds of the people,” Talha said at an AKP victory rally.
At the same time, the result is being seen as throwing cold water on Erdogan’s anti-European sentiment repeatedly expressed during the campaign, including dubbing the Germans and Dutch as Nazis.
Eissenstat, the professor, doubts there will be reconciliation at home or abroad. “There’s too much political benefit from keeping tensions high,” he says.
The first signs of this were apparent right away. After declaring victory, Erdogan promised to bring back capital punishment. Such a move would likely end Ankara’s bid to join the European Union. — dpa

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