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What now for Turkey after Erdogan's narrow referendum victory?

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters upon his arrival at Esenboga Airport in Ankara on April 17, 2017.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters upon his arrival at Esenboga Airport in Ankara on April 17, 2017. Yasin Bulbul/Reuters

With Turkey’s constitutional reform passed with a wafer-thin majority, political peace seems pretty much off the cards for some time. Opposition parties are trying to get the result scrapped, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is as pugnacious as ever.


The official results, which gave the Yes vote 51.41 per cent and the No 48.59, showed Turkey’s three largest cities – Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir – voting against and much of the Kurdish south-east opposed by two to one.

That would seem to show a geographical polarisation, which is also reflected along ethnic and class lines.

“We have a phrase in Turkey, ‘split in two like a water melon’,” says Cigdem Toker, an op-ed writer for the Cumhuriyet newspaper. “Usually politicians encourage polarisation for propaganda purposes but this time it happened of its own accord. It’s at its highest level ever.”

Fatih Sonmez, a lawyer and activist in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) who campaigned for a Yes vote, does not see it that way.

AKP activist Fatih Sonmez
AKP activist Fatih Sonmez Tony Cross

“No, I don’t think it’s a polarisation, that’s the way democracy works. When you vote on just two options, that’s what happens. It’s the same in the US, it’s the same in Europe. I think this result will force both sides to cooperate with each other.”

Toker blames the AKP for exacerbating tensions between devout Muslims and secular Turks.

“They even offered entry to heaven for voting Yes,” she says. “They used religion in their campaign. Most of the people who voted Yes didn’t read what changes were being proposed. I saw that on the ground.”

Press restrictions weighed on campaign

International observers on Monday commented that the campaign was not a fair fight.

"The referendum took place on an unlevel playing field and the two sides of the campaign did not have equal opportunities," said Cezar Florin Preda of the joint mission of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Pace).

One factor in that inequality was restriction of freedom of the press, which has become more intense since last year’s failed military coup.

Cumhuriyet has suffered badly in that battle, Toker says.

Cumhüriyet columnist Cigdem Toker
Cumhüriyet columnist Cigdem Toker Tony Cross

“Eleven of our staff have been in jail for five months, two of them are the office boy, who posted our letters and things like that, and our accountant. That’s just for our paper. There are more than 150 journalists in prison now.”

She also points to the imprisonment of the leaders of the pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP), “harassment” of No campaigners and the use of state resources, including helicopters, planes and buses, by the Yes campaign, which was headed by a president who breached his current constitutional obligation to impartiality.

Death penalty and Europe

No sooner was the result announced than Erdogan repeated his intention to try to bring back the death penalty, saying he was ready to call another referendum if the move fails to win a majority in parliament.

French President François Hollande on Monday declared that would be a break with European values.

No country with the death penalty can be a member of the European Union, which Turkey has been trying to join for the past 50 years.

So is this a definitive end to those attempts?

It could be, according to Somnez.

“We scrapped the death penalty several years ago and we still weren’t allowed to join the EU. Maybe a relationship with the EU without becoming a member is preferable to being kept waiting at the door and never allowed in.”

“OK, President Erdogan is a strong figure and a dominant one,” Toker concedes. “But just because he says these things it doesn’t mean the whole Turkish people are turning their backs on Europe.”

The EU is by far Turkey’s biggest trade partner, so the business-friendly AKP may not be able to make a decisive break with the bloc, she warns.

Kurdish conflict

The long-running conflict in the Kurdish-majority south-east also weighed heavily on the referendum result.

The AKP kept the support of some conservative Kurds but the majority of Turkey’s largest ethnic minority are deeply resentful of Erdogan’s ending of peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2015.

Sonmez admits he does not know what steps the president will take next but argues that the constitutional change will mean an improvement.

“The great disadvantage in the past was that we couldn’t have a consistent policy on terrorism,” he says. “Whatever happens, whether it’s a new peace process or getting tougher on the terrorist groups, it will be consistent for at least five years.”

“The No vote in the Kurdish region was a reaction to the government’s military solution,” Toker argues.

“We know that we can’t solve this issue by killing each other. We need to communicate and we tried during the peace processes. For two years no-one died and it was peaceful. After the peace process was suspended people started to get killed again. For me, politics is to make fewer people die. People like us know that but I hope the politicians know that human beings’ lives are much more important than their careers."

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