Thousands of Australians go to Turkey every year on holiday. Probably not so many now, because of the terrorist attacks of the past two years. In their hotels or pensions around the Aegean or Mediterranean coasts they won’t pick up much of what is going on unless they actively seek it but they will be in a country polarised as never before.
The fractures have always been there but now they are gaping. In the referendum on April 16 the entire western coast, the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean, and the southern Mediterranean coast except for a few pockets voted ‘no’ (hayir). So did most of the Black Sea coast and so did the major cities, Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir. The Kurds of the southeast overwhelmingly voted ‘no’. The ‘yes’ (evet) vote came almost entirely from the interior, central west to the central east.
This was the coast vs. the centre, the cities vs. the provinces, with all kinds of political and social shadings to be read into these divisions.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president, who wanted this referendum because it would ratify and extend the quasi dictatorial powers he has already taken, got across the finishing line but only just. The ‘yes’ vote was 51.3 and the ‘no’ 48.7 but considering the resources poured into the campaign this was no real victory for Erdogan even if it was a true victory at all.
Pictured: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, “Father of the Turks”, looms over the pretender.
Allegations of ‘irregularities’ have been pouring in, especially from the southeast. They include the stuffing of ballot boxes by people voting several times and photos allegedly showing bags of ‘no’ votes abandoned on a building site. A video circulating on Twitter, taken on a mobile phone, shows one man putting five votes into the ballot box. In one district of Sanliurfa province, where the largely Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) won more than half the vote in the November, 2015, general elections, the ‘no’ vote was less than 1 per cent but the most serious charges relates to the acceptance of ‘unsealed’ ballot papers.
According to the rules each ballot paper has to be stamped by an official and then placed in an envelope, which the official also stamps before it is placed into the ballot box. Article 98 of the election law as amended in 2010 laid down that ballot papers not bearing the official stamp would be invalid. The Constitutional Court has also ruled that such votes would be invalid.
On the day of the election the Supreme Election Council (YSK) changed the rules of the game while the match was still in play by ruling that unstamped ballot papers would be regarded as valid. Estimates of how many were involved range from 1.5 to 2.5 million. The opposition CHP (People’s Republican Party) has challenged the result, but the appeal would go to the same YSK that ruled these votes were valid. The CHP leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, described the referendum as a coup d’etat against the will of the Turkish people. This follows his accusation that the coup attempt of last July was a ‘controlled’ event by a president who knew it was coming.
The referendum has already been severely criticised by a EU mission and by an OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) team in Europe to observe the referendum. In its preliminary report it criticised the entire process as being played out on an ‘unlevel’ field. This is clearly true. The country has been under emergency law since the coup attempt, with this law now extended for a further three months. About 135,000 people have been dismissed from government employment on the basis of alleged affinities with the alleged architect of the coup attempt, the US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. Thousands of people are in prison, including journalists and the joint leaders of the HDP, along with 10 of their deputies, for alleged involvement, in their case, with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Picture: size does matter! Slogan: The decision is also the nation”.
More than 80 municipalities in the southeast have been put in the hands of ‘trustees’ appointed by the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party). Erdogan’s campaigning was given saturation coverage by the state media, with little time allowed to the opposition. Pro-government media ran fawning editorials and comment from beginning to end. Much of the media was closed down after allegations of being in league with the coup plotters of last July and what is left functions very nervously and cautiously when it comes to criticism of Erdogan. The authorities blocked 170 members of the CHP opposition from observing the electoral process.
Over and above all of this is the question of whether such an important issue, the destruction of the parliamentary system in favour of a presidential system that removes most checks and balances standing in the way of the exercise of unlimited power, should have been decided on the basis of a simple majority rather than, arguably, a two-thirds majority.
Erdogan has rejected European criticism, saying that ‘the crusader mentality and its servants at home have attacked us.’ These ‘servants’, of course, include even on the official count, nearly 24 million Turks. They will not accept this result as genuine any more than Erdogan’s supporters will accept it as false. With no realistic avenue of appeal open against the referendum result, more turmoil is inevitable.
Erdogan’s anti-European abuse was a main theme of his campaign, following the refusal of German and Dutch authorities to allow campaigning by AKP politicians amongst their citizens of Turkish origin. Effectively, he was telling Turks to vote against Europe by voting for him, even though there is no connection between Turkey’s relations with Europe and the issues at stake in the referendum.
The OSCE will issue a final report on the referendum in a month or so. It is bound to be harsh but Erdogan will shrug it off, no doubt with more references to the crusaders trying to pull Turkey down. He talks of a ‘democracy’ which was mostly destroyed even before last July’s coup attempt and of a unity which simply does not exist. He himself is the most disunifying figure in Turkey’s history.