By Elena Becatoros, Associated Press, Monday, April 17, 2017 (with extensive additional news and analysis selected by New Cold War.org further below)
ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has finally fulfilled his long-held ambition to expand his powers after Sunday’s referendum handed him the reins of his country’s governance. But success did not come without a cost. His victory leaves the nation deeply divided and facing increasing tension with former allies abroad, while international monitors and opposition parties have reported numerous voting irregularities.
An unofficial tally carried by the country’s state-run news agency gave Erdogan’s “yes” vote a narrow win, with 51.4 percent approving a series of constitutional changes converting Turkey’s political system from a parliamentary to a presidential one. Critics argue the reforms will hand extensive power to a man with an increasingly autocratic bent, leaving few checks and balances in place.
Opposition parties called for the vote to be annulled because of a series of irregularities, particularly an electoral board decision to accept ballots that did not bear official stamps, as required by Turkish law. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who also listed numerous irregularities, said the move undermined safeguards against fraud.
The referendum campaign was heavily weighted in favor of the “yes” campaign, with Erdogan drawing on the full powers of the state and government to dominate the airwaves and billboards. The “no” campaign complained of intimidation, detentions and beatings.
In Istanbul, hundreds of “no” supporters demonstrated in the streets on Monday, chanting “thief, murderer, Erdogan” and banging pots and pans. “We are protesting today because the results announced by the government are not the real ones. Because actually the ‘no’ we voted won. But the government is announcing it as ‘yes’ has won,” Damla Atalay, a 35-year-old lawyer, said of the voting irregularities.
Erdogan was unfazed by the criticism as he spoke to flag-waving supporters in the Turkish capital, Ankara. “We have put up a fight against the powerful nations of the world,” he said as he arrived at the airport from Istanbul. “The crusader mentality attacked us abroad. … We did not succumb. As a nation, we stood strong.”
In a speech before a massive crowd at his sprawling presidential palace complex, Erdogan insisted Turkey’s referendum was “the most democratic election … ever seen in any Western country” and admonished the OSCE monitors to “know your place.”
The increasing polarization of Turkish society has long worried observers, who note the dangers of deepening societal divisions in a country with a history of political instability.
The referendum was held with a state of emergency still in place, imposed after an attempted coup in July 2016. About 100,000 people have been fired from their jobs in the crackdown that followed against supporters of a U.S.-based Islamic cleric and former Erdogan ally whom the president blamed for the attempted putsch. Tens of thousands have been arrested or imprisoned, including lawmakers, judges, journalists and businessmen.
The Council of Ministers decided on April 17 to extend the state of emergency, which grants greater powers of detention and arrest to security forces, for a further three months. It had been due to expire April 19. The decision was to be sent to parliament for approval.
“The way (Erdogan) has closed the door on the opposition, there is likely to be increased political unrest,” said Howard Eissenstat, associate professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. “Forty-eight percent of the population is being told that their voices don’t matter.”
There is also the risk of increased international isolation, with Erdogan appealing to patriotic sentiments by casting himself as a champion of a proud Turkish nation that will not be dictated to by foreign powers in general, and the European Union in particular. Turkey has been an EU candidate for decades, but its accession efforts have been all but moribund for several years.
“They have made us wait at the gates of the European Union for 54 years,” Erdogan told his supporters at the presidential palace. “We can conduct a vote of confidence on this as well. Would we? What did England do — they did Brexit, right?”
“Either they will hold their promises to Turkey or they’ll have to bear the consequences,” he added.
Erdogan has also vowed to consider reinstating the death penalty — a move that would all but end prospects of EU membership. But, he insisted, other nations’ opinions on the issue are irrelevant to him. “Our concern is not what George or Hans or Helga says. Our concern is what Hatice, Ayse, Fatma, Ahmet, Mehmet, Hasan, Hüseyin says,” he thundered as the crowd of supporters chanted for the return of capital punishment. “What Allah says. That’s why our parliament will make this decision.”
Both Germany and France expressed concern [sic] about possible election irregularities and called on Erdogan to engage in dialogue with the opposition. “The narrow result of the vote shows how deeply split the Turkish society is,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said in a joint statement. “This implies a big responsibility for the Turkish government and President Erdogan personally.”
President Donald Trump, meanwhile, ignored the concerns about voting irregularities and congratulated Erdogan on his referendum victory. [Report in The Guardian, here.] The two leaders also discussed Turkey’s support of the U.S. response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack [sic] and efforts to counter the Islamic State group, according to the White House statement on their phone call Monday.
The White House previously sidestepped questions about how the referendum was conducted, but the U.S. State Department had echoed the concerns raised by the OSCE, with spokesman Mark Toner pointing to “observed irregularities” on voting day and “an uneven playing field” during the campaign. Such concerns are unlikely to move Erdogan.
The referendum approves 18 constitutional amendments to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with a presidential one. The president will be able to appoint ministers, senior government officials and to hold sway over who sits in Turkey’s highest judicial body, as well as to issue decrees and declare states of emergency. They set a limit of two five-year terms for presidents.
The new system takes effect at the next election, currently slated for 2019. Other changes are to be implemented sooner, including scrapping a requirement that the president not be a member of any political party. This would allow Erdogan to rejoin the governing AK Party he co-founded, or to lead it.
“Erdogan dominated the national media. He imposed a very restrictive environment for the ‘no’ camp,” said Fadi Hakura, a Turkey specialist at the London-based Chatham House think tank. “He secured a thin majority of one percent. This suggests that Erdogan will become more robust and more challenging to deal with.”
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Zeynep Bilginsoy and Bram Janssen in Istanbul contributed to this report.
News updates on April 19:
Turkey arrests dozens over referendum protests, by Patrick Kingley, New York Times, April 18, 2017
ISTANBUL — Dozens of members of Turkey’s political opposition were arrested in dawn raids on Wednesday as a crackdown began on those questioning the legitimacy of a referendum on Sunday to expand the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mr. Erdogan has claimed a narrow 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent victory in the vote, but protesters in pockets of the country have marched in the streets every night since then to demonstrate against what they assert was a rigged election…
Videos fuel charges of fraud in Erdogan’s win in Turkey referendum, by Patrick Kingley, New York Times, April 18, 2017
Turkey’s two main opposition parties have applied to Supreme Election Board (YSK) to cancel April 16 referendum on presidential powers, Turkish Minute, April 19, 2017
Statement on Facebook by the People’s Democratic Party, morning of April 16, 2017:
Whether the official announcement is Yes or No, we will object to 2/3 of ballots. Our data indicates a manipulation in the range of 3-4%. [End statement]
Video of rally of thousands in Istanbul on April 17, 2017 protetsting declared results of presidential referendum, two-minute video on RT.com‘s ‘Ruptly TV’ service, April 16, 2017
Up to 2.5 million Turkish votes were possibly ‘manipulated,’ intl observer says, RT.com, April 18, 2017
Man who exposed Turkish weapons deliveries to Syrian terrorists detained in Istanbul, RT.com, April 18, 2017
Turkish authorities have detained a former official involved in a controversial 2014 search of Syria-bound trucks. While media reported the vehicles were full of ammunition, Ankara claimed they carried “aid for the Turkmen” and branded the search “treason.”
Former Prosecutor Yasar Kavalcioglu was detained after an ID check on a passenger bus in Istanbul early on Monday, according to Anadolu news agency. Kavalcioglu was put on search list for his role in the truck issue, the pro-Erdogan Daily Sabah notes.
In January 2014, when Gendarmerie intercepted trucks belonging to Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT), after prosecutors of the Adana province got a tip-off that the trucks were carrying weapons for rebel and terrorist groups in Syria. The search exposed large amount of munitions under a thin layer of medical supplies in large containers marked ‘FRAGILE’. The discovery, however, led only to arrests of the officials involved in the search of the vehicles…
Is calm transition possible after Turkey’s referendum?, by a correspondent in Turkey, Al-Monitor, April 17, 2017
With a thin win in major cities and allegations of voter fraud and illegal maneuvering, how long can Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stifle a budding movement resisting the referendum outcome?
ISTANBUL — During the night of April 15 until dawn the next day, the city did not sleep much. Sitting on the terrace of a Karakoy commercial district high-rise, my friends and I could see lights on all night in most of the neighborhood. On social media, hundreds of people complained about being sleepless and anxious as the referendum on constitutional changes approached…
After referendum, Turkey is more divided than ever
Op-ed commentary Simon Waldman, published in The Globe and Mail, Monday, April 17, 2017
Simon Waldman is visiting research fellow at King’s College in London. He is the co-author of ‘The New Turkey and Its Discontents’.
One rule of thumb in a healthy referendum is that the voting public should be asked a clear and concise question with a simple yes or no answer. On Sunday, when 55 million eligible Turkish voters went to the polls in a nationwide referendum about constitutional changes that would effectively transform Turkey’s parliamentary system to an executive presidency, there was no question on the ballot. There was just a paper slip with the option Yes or No.
The Yes camp of current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared victory – albeit a very narrow one.
The lack of a question on the ballot is just one example of the deficiencies, irregularities and misconduct during the whole process. Meanwhile, the manner in which the election took place was grossly unfair.
Since the failed military coup of July last year, Turkey remains under an extended state of emergency. Not only did this allow Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party government to purge hundreds of thousands of civil servants from the state bureaucracy, but it also hurt the No campaign. It allowed the government to ban public rallies at a whim and make an emergency decree to allow private broadcasters to disproportionately air Yes campaign material without penalty.
The naysayers had no chance; they were playing with loaded dice. That they managed to garner a close vote was an achievement, let alone win in the major cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. The subdued print and broadcast media aired pro-government propaganda incessantly, not to mention hours upon hours of speeches by Mr. Erdogan and AKP officials. Only minutes were set aside for the No campaign. And even this was limited to the Republican People’s Party, as leading members of the liberal and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party were effectively silenced. Many of its leaders remain jailed under trumped up politically motivated terrorism charges. Hundreds of thousands of Turkish Kurds have been displaced in the Southeast of the country, and, consequently, were unable to cast their votes.
Despite criticism from international bodies, Turkey’s government and President used their offices and state finances for the Yes campaign. In every Turkish city, banners, billboards and posters exclaiming Yes dominated the landscape. The No campaign was limited to secular neighbourhoods and in less spectacular style.
Since becoming President in 2014, Mr. Erdogan transformed the largely ceremonial role into an executive position, contravening the constitution. Regardless of his narrow victory, Mr. Erdogan will now claim legitimacy to the power he has already seized and enjoy the additional perk of appointing government ministers without parliamentary consultation. He will be able to lead a political party, giving him sway over the legislative process. Mr. Erdogan will be able to dismiss parliament, call new elections and declare a state of emergency. He will be allowed to veto parliamentary legislation and issue his own decrees (unless they are deemed unconstitutional). He will directly appoint six of the 13 members of the Higher Council of Judges and Prosecution, in effect the new high court and the body that will appoint judges.
In other words, the President can rule without checks or balances for at least another 12 years, and, with a third-term loophole, maybe even longer. Do not expect him to engage in conciliatory politics for the nearly half of voters who chose no.
Mr. Erdogan has been waging a cultural war to transform Turkey into a technologically modern but socially conservative society. Those who oppose his vision and conception of Turkish identity are, as far as he is concerned, treasonous. It is his supporters who constitute the Turkish nation; his opponents side, coup plotters and terrorists.
And he will continue his purge against the opponents. There will be more EU bashing and he might even stick to his campaign promise to reinstate capital punishment. Expect the expansion of Islamic schools and socially conservative legislation mixed together with grandiose public/private partnership projects. With no political need for reconciliation with the Kurds, displays of Kurdish national sentiment, whether violent or peaceful, will be dealt an iron fist. So will anyone who protests against the referendum’s result. Opposition parties and critical media outlets will continue to be persecuted.
Mr. Erdogan has won his greater powers, at a great cost to Turkey’s future.