Turkey’s divisive referendum: Anatolia vs the metropolis

Turkey’s divisive referendum: Anatolia vs the metropolis

Turkey’s most important referendum that resulted in a shift to an executive presidency produced a major controversy with both “yes” and “no” camps claiming victory because the results were so close and the latter announcing that it would issue complaints about the irregularities during the voting and counting processes.

However, the results that were publicized by Anadolu Agency after almost all ballot boxes were counted displayed a narrow win for the large coalition consisting of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and some minor political parties.

In spite of their expectations for a meaningful majority – meaning above at least 55 percent of votes – the constitutional amendment package only received slightly more than the required simple majority, leaving a politically and sociologically divided nation behind.

Here are some initial thoughts about the picture drawn by Sunday’s polls:

A permanent division: An initial analysis of the results displays that a good majority of western towns of the country, including the three big metropolises – Istanbul, Ankara and İzmir – as well as fourth and fifth biggest cities, Adana and Antalya, have voted against changing Turkey’s nearly century-old parliamentary system.

In spite of that, almost all Anatolian cities – except for the predominantly Kurdish southeastern region – voted in favor of amendments that will help Erdoğan expand his powers. Along with the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) followers, the educated, urban electorate of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) stood against the changes although their party leadership institutionally endorsed them.

Further polarization: That’s another indication of the sociological division between the urban and the rural, between the educated and less educated as well as between the higher-income and lower-income classes of Turkish society. It’s likely that the picture drawn through the referendum will continue to further polarize Turkish society.

What if HDP leaders were free: Despite all the obstacles, the “no” camp had a very strong performance during the tense campaign period. CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu became the center of naysayers as the HDP’s co-leaders, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, along with another dozen HDP lawmakers, were behind bars for months. Particularly in the absence of Demirtaş, the HDP seemingly failed to mobilize the party grassroots, especially in the Anatolian regions.

MHP main loser, AKP keeps ground: The sum of votes of the main sponsors of the “yes” camp in November 2015 elections were around 63 percent, around 12 percent more than the April 16 referendum. According to many political analysts, only a small portion of the MHP electorate supported the changes, in a development that could bring about problems for the leader, Devlet Bahçeli. It’s likely that this picture will further encourage the dissidents within the MHP to oust Bahçeli from the leadership. The AKP, however, was able to protect the integrity of its political ground in the Anatolia but with minor losses in big cities.

An uncomfortable rule: Both Erdoğan and the AKP officials were pressing for “at least 55 percent” support for the changes in order to be as comfortable as possible in implementing these powers and in securing future presidential and parliamentary elections which require at least 50 percent of the votes. However, the fact that these changes could only be approved by a small margin means the opposition and civil society will be much more vocal in challenging governmental actions.

Difficult times ahead with the EU: The approval of this package will likely fuel an ongoing row between Turkey and the EU on the basis of the Venice Commission report which warned that this new model would bring about one-man rule and autocracy. The EU will surely examine the extent to which Turkey is still complying with the Copenhagen criteria under this new system while President Erdoğan has already suggested revising all ties with Europe.