When Yes Means No

Ayşe Zarakol

The outcome of the Turkish constitutional referendum to expand President Erdoğan’s powers was a foregone conclusion from the moment it was announced. The results were nevertheless surprising because they showed how resilient the opposition in Turkish society is.

Turkey has been under an oppressive ‘state of emergency’ since 21 July 2016. Declared after the failed coup attempt on 15 July (and set to continue for the foreseeable future), it has given President Erdoğan nearly unlimited powers. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested and more than 100,000 sacked, including thousands of academics, judges, prosecutors and union activists. It is a good bet that anyone left in a civil service position in Turkey is either an Erdoğan crony or someone who knows how to keep their head down. The president has captured most state institutions which are supposed to be autonomous or free from political pressure, including the Electoral Board.

The people who have lost their jobs have also had their passports revoked. Private companies won’t employ them for fear of attracting the state’s attention. Many private businesses have been shut down and their holdings confiscated or transferred to the state, including more than a hundred media outlets. Hundreds of journalists are in prison, the highest number of any country in the world, and many are facing sentences of aggravated life imprisonment. Others are in exile.

In the south-east, where Kurds make up the majority of the population, elected mayors have been replaced by state-appointed trustees. The leaders of the pro-Kurdish opposition party, HDP (the third largest party in the parliament), have been in prison since November, stripped of their parliamentary immunity. In the months leading up to the referendum, the ‘mainstream’ opposition, too, was targeted by the state, with several No campaigners being detained on the flimsiest excuses. Even the most milquetoast opposition politicians got barely any screen time. Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s speeches are broadcast live, daily, repeatedly, on multiple channels. The ballot itself did not include any information on the constitutional changes, just a choice between Yes and No.

The idea that a proper referendum could be held under such conditions has always been a sham. The masquerade was easier to pull off because the West is too preoccupied by its own problems and troublemakers to pay much attention to what is happening in Turkey. This may be the reason that initial Western reactions to the result ran along a spectrum from ‘oh well’ to ‘Turkish democracy has died.’ The belated handwringing may occlude the most significant aspect of what was never intended to be more than an expensively produced charade: the bit players went off script, believing against all odds they were participating in a real vote.

Voting day was marked by irregularities. The Electoral Board announced that ballots missing the official ballot box stamps could be included in the vote tallies. A spokesman for the main opposition party, the CHP, has said they believe this allowed for over two million extra ballots – more than the difference between the Yes and No votes. The Electoral Board’s decision cannot be challenged in the courts because it was never officially issued.

There are other curiosities. Hayır ve Ötesi, an election watchdog NGO, has determined that 961 districts voted 100 per cent Yes, despite evidence of sizeable opposition blocks in those districts from previous election cycles. Other districts show every single registered voter showing up to cast a vote. A cursory review of some of the sign-in sheets show that the same person signed in for many different voters. In Kurdish-majority districts in the south-east, a striking proportion of previously anti-AKP voters seem to have decided to reward Erdoğan for the failure of the peace process and imprisonment of Kurdish politicians. The HDP says it has evidence of enough irregularities from the region to trigger a repeat vote (not that there’s any chance of that).

Given all this, it is remarkable that the best result the regime could produce was a split of 51 to 49 per cent. In his acceptance speech, Erdoğan referred to the result as a fait accompli. The arrests of protesters this week make clear that he is unlikely to loosen his grip on Turkish society. But he now knows, and we know, that he is no longer supported by a majority of Turks, despite all the grandstanding and the propaganda. And he has to face another election before the new powers kick in in 2019. No doubt he will try everything to recapture the magic with the masses. He has already promised referendums on reinstituting the death penalty and Turkey’s quest for EU membership. He may yet pull some aggressive foreign policy out of the hat.

But Sunday’s result suggest that the majority of Turkish citizens – especially the urban, educated population – are no longer buying his vision for the country. The distaste for Erdoğanism has spread beyond the traditional secular Kemalist bloc. There are many reasons to be gloomy about the prospects of Turkish democracy, but all of them predate the day of the referendum. What the vote has in fact revealed is a tiny crack of light.


  • 20 April 2017 at 8:00am
    Stu Bry says:
    "But Sunday’s result suggest that the majority of Turkish citizens – especially the urban, educated population – are no longer buying his vision for the country."

    21st century democracy is failing to reconcile the aspirations of the bourgeoisie minority with the numerical supremacy of the non metropolitan majority. In the West we have supported - in one way or another - coups in Thailand and Egypt because the democratic outcome was distasteful to our governments.

    Looking at the demographics of Turkey, India, Brazil and other emerging economies it is difficult to see how a western democratic model can function alongside the inherent levels of inequality.

  • 20 April 2017 at 1:34pm
    alpan says:
    Ayşe Zarakol is generally on point, though I'm not sure what is gained by labeling the whole event a "foregone conclusion." Buna ne gerek vardı gerçekten? Of course it's that easiest thing to say after the fact, but why do it? Despite the blatantly, oppressively one sided campaigning and media coverage, some of us still believed it could have resulted in a "no" -- calling it a foregone conclusion implies we were all fools. Well, thanks.

    The story of the southeast vote indeed promises the be the enduring mystery of this referendum. Yet interpreting the results requires some caution, because a referendum and a general or local election are not the same things, both in terms of the actors in play and the matters at hand.

    While Zarakol rightly points out that the peace process lies in ruins, and that HDP leaders have been jailed, that is not the whole story. Erdoğan may yet make overtures towards the Kurds, choosing to sideline the HDP indefinitely. The uncomfortable reality is that while entire towns have been destroyed following the military's suppression of PKK's abortive uprisings, many Kurds in the southeast yet resent the PKK for bringing urban warfare into their lives more than they resent the state for suppressing it. And though the unjust jailing of its leaders was cruelly clever move -- it left the hapless Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu to lead the opposition -- HDP has lost some of its credibility during this period. Erdoğan may yet capitalize on this further in the coming months.

  • 2 May 2017 at 6:27pm
    Sandarak says:
    Lucid and accurate, but the elephant in the room is missing. It's blocking out any chink of light. From now on elections aren't going to count for much in Turkey and government will rely even more than it already does on coercion. Just wait till the death penalty is back and Turkey's links with European Courts are gone.

  • 2 May 2017 at 7:13pm
    kessler says:
    I am greatly bothered by the worry that Turkey's fate may be out of the hands of Turkey, now. Wouldn't be the first time... Their hinge-civilization location may matter more, geopolitically, than anything going on inside their own borders. Expansionist Russia, forever "contained" to their north, now has leapfrogged and surrounded them. To their immediate east and north lie Europe's lifeline-pipelines, looming threats. To their south is one of the Globe's leading hotspots, exploding again. And now even "Europe", their Western Frontier, is in bad trouble.

    So are "stability & strength" Turkey's only options, now? Those have been the refuge of every dictator and totalitarian regime anywhere, in history, justified or not... But does the internal situation in Turkey now really matter? Will not the latest iteration of _external_ "allies" and "threats" absolutely-dictate events in Turkey? My own wish would be for their self-determination, but I see surrounding events snuffing-out that hope and light now, steadily. A pawn in Great Power Affairs again, or a Hinge, or a battleground... I hope very much that I am wrong.

  • 3 May 2017 at 7:27pm
    kynolover says:
    I wish I could be optimistic about the outcome of Turkey's April 16 referendum, even if only cautiously so as Mr. Zarakol. However Erdogan has repeatedly demonstrated he is not a genuine democrat or believer in basic human rights such as freedom of speech and press. He is happy to use an unfair election or referendum, his own free speech, and the largely government controlled media to advance his ultimate goal--the creation of a neo-Sultanate with himself ensconced for life in his new, 1000+ room palace as the both the "Sultan" and "Grand Vizier" rolled into one not so sublime ruler. But any expectation that democracy and basic human rights might be restored during his reign seems at best wishful thinking, at worst naivete and dangerous. With any influence of Europe and the EU effectively at an end, and any influence from the current American administration likely to be deleterious, I feel only fear and pity for my Turkish friends for their future.