Referendum highlights deep divisions in Turkey

Referendum highlights deep divisions in Turkey

A victory may be a victory by any other name, but one can’t help wonder whether this was the “victory” that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım were hoping for. This was, after all, a referendum for a new constitution, the most important legal document of the country, and while 25 million people said “yes” to it, nearly 24 million rejected it. 

This hardly provides the “strong mandate” Erdoğan expected for his executive presidency in order to make this appear unquestionable in the eyes of the world. To the contrary, this result shows a deeply divided nation where half the electorate said “no” to him.

Looking at the map showing the distribution of votes across the country, it is also clear that Erdoğan’s support is in the conservative and religious heartland of Turkey – which is obviously more concerned with having its “man at the helm” than the fate of Turkey’s democracy.

As opposed to this, we see a solid belt along the Aegean and Mediterranean regions which rejected the proposed executive presidency. Much worse for Erdoğan, though, is the fact that the three major cities of the country, namely Ankara, Istanbul, and İzmir, voted against the changes to the constitution. 

His supporters say the “no” vote in Ankara and Istanbul only won by a slim majority, but pushing this argument too much will undermine their overall victory, which also came with a slim majority.

The predominantly Kurdish provinces of eastern and southeastern Anatolia, starting with Diyarbakır, also voted overwhelmingly against the constitutional changes, and this shows another kind of dangerous division in the country which could have dire consequences.

Erdoğan and Yıldırım are maintaining that the nation has voted for change. That will remain a contentious claim given the results of the referendum.

Hürriyet’s Ankara representative Hande Fırat – who became famous after broadcasting Erdogan’s live appeal to supporters over her mobile phone on CNN Türk on the night of last year’s failed coup attempt – had an interesting assessment. 

Citing the views of her contacts in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), she said it was clear to them that the more educated and urban classes had voted against the constitutional changes, while the less educated classes voted en masse for the proposed changes, which means in effect that they voted for Erdoğan’s leadership, rather than the constitution as such.

Given the prevalent anti-intellectualism among AKP supporters, and their suspicions about the “educated classes,” expressed often by their opinion framers in various ways, it has become more apparent than ever where Erdoğan gets his base support from. 

This could result in more social tensions in Turkey unless Erdoğan can come up with a wise and impartial leadership that reaches out to all segments of society. How that will come about, though, since he will also be the leader of the AKP now under the new constitution, is not clear. 

The AKP has a specific religious-based ideological mission and, going by past experience, the fear is that Erdoğan will try to push this to the detriment of other classes.

The bottom line, however, is that to all intents and purposes, Turkey’s parliamentary system of 94 years has been replaced with a presidential one that is not restricted by any checks and balances. This can’t be reversed. 

It is not for nothing that Erdoğan cited an age-old Turkish proverb after the referendum results were in, saying, “He who grabbed the horse has passed Üsküdar (a district of Istanbul).” What he meant was: “despite the efforts to belittle my victory, I have won and those who are not happy with that will have to live with it.”

This hardly augers a good start for a Turkey visibly divided along active social, religious and ethnic fault lines.