Turkey’s Referendum: A Suspicious “Yes”

Having seen five elections since March 2014, voters in Turkey know the drill: if he wins, President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a “balcony speech” gloating his success. If he loses, like he did on June 7, 2015, he goes into hiding (to be honest, it was a blissful five days).

However, after the referendum on Sunday, during which citizens of Turkey voted whether to legitimize President Erdogan’s de facto dictatorship, an unusual scene was taking place: Although the Prime Minister Binali Yildirim (whose position will be abolished with this constitutional amendment) was (ironically) delivering a victory speech, President Erdogan was photographed looking remarkably worried.

Erdogan’s expression said a lot: the ‘yes’ vote was reported to win with a 51.4% margin, but he didn’t feel like he succeeded. Erdogan had lost Istanbul and Ankara (which he had never lost until now), and the opposition was stronger than ever.

Perhaps he was well aware that 51.4% was not that significant, taking into consideration the circumstances under which the referendum was held. It is clear in the eyes of the ‘no’ movement as well as international observers such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe that this referendum was not a fair race.

Thirteen parliamentarians from the left-wing, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), including its co-chairs Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas, were arrested and are currently in jail. Thus, they were unable to participate in the no campaign. The media coverage of the No Movement was trivial, since nearly all of the oppositional media outlets have been shut down and journalists remain imprisoned as part of the statutory decrees issued under the state of emergency (which was declared after the July 15, 2016 coup attempt and was prolonged once more on Monday, April 17, despite President Erdogan’s promises that the state of emergency would be lifted if the amendment was accepted).

On the other hand, all state resources, including the state television channel TRT, were dedicated to the yes campaign, with President Erdogan, Prime Minister Yildirim and all ministers actively campaigning for a ‘yes’ vote. Supporters of the No Movement were declared terrorists and putschists by President Erdogan and Prime Minister Yildirim, followed by attacks against many ‘no’ campaigners both by civilians and the police. Families who were forced by the government to leave their homes in Kurdish cities due to threats of execution were unable to register to vote in their new domiciles. Many HDP officials, who were appointed to serve in the elections, were dismissed by the government on grounds of “having bad reputation[s] in the eyes of the public.”

As if these were not enough, during the referendum, the Supreme Election Council (YSK) of Turkey rendered a scandalous decision which violated the legislation on elections: ballot papers which lacked the ballot council stamp would be considered valid unless it was proven that they were brought from outside. However, the clearly unlawful decision made it impossible to detect ballot papers brought from outside, as the only way to understand whether a ballot paper is brought from outside is the ballot council stamp itself (the councils are responsible for stamping all ballot papers in the morning of the referendum).

There are now reports that 2.5 million ballot papers lacking the necessary stamp were deemed valid as a result of YSK’s decision, which is a number that could affect the result. That also explains how there were 400 ballot papers in a ballot box although only 360 voters were registered in the Suruc town of Urfa (not to mention videos where people are seen stamping ‘yes’ votes on many empty ballot papers and photographs of ballot papers in the trash with ‘no’ votes on them). The HDP as well as the Republican People’s Party (CHP) have voiced their objections to these irregularities and applied to the YSK for the cancellation of the election. The YSK, dominated by members appointed by the AKP, dismissed the objections.

If you call a race held in the above conditions a fair and democratic race, and a referendum held in severely suspicious circumstances a legitimate referendum, yes, President Erdogan won.

I, on the other hand, believe that he was not victorious. Indeed, the result of this referendum is perceived not as a defeat by the No Movement, but as an ignition of a New Movement, one that is more inclusive, more democratic and more egalitarian. The protests that have been going on in many cities since Sunday prove this. Erdogan senses the threat that this Movement represents against him. Erdogan’s polarizing politics are losing their charm in the eyes of many liberal AKP supporters, and they are willing to make coalitions with the secular left-wing for the purposes of coming up with a political party (and leader) that will appeal to voters from the center-right to the center-left.

Having positioned myself in the (true) left of that spectrum, and having been betrayed not only by the center-right, but also by the center-left many times, I am not that excited about this prospect. I am nonetheless aware that these coalitions are our only way out if we will continue working within the system.

A new struggle begins today. We will prevail.

Güley Bor is a member of the LL.M. Class of 2017.