Turkish referendum: Erdogan's narrow victory and the country's deep divide

Fifty-one per cent of Turks backed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's push for a more powerful presidency, but no one seems content with the slim majority result in Sunday's referendum, Nil Köksal writes from Istanbul.

Turkey's past in constant conflict with its future

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he delivers a speech during a rally of supporters at his palace in Ankara on April 17, 2017. (Burhan Ozbilici/Associated Press)

It was a sombre, sobering morning, even for Turkey's president.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan had just secured the narrowest of victories in his push for a more powerful presidency, but he began Monday with a visit to the tombs of two of Turkey's former leaders, ghosts of Turkey's past that he used to forge his plan for the country's future.

The first stop was at the grave of Turgut Ozal and came on the anniversary of his death. Ozal himself had brought dramatic changes to Turkey in the 1980s and also wanted to make the country's political system a presidential one.

Erdogan visits the grave of late Turkish president Turgut Ozal in Istanbul on April 17, 2017. (Yasin Bulbul/Associated Press)

Erdogan stood next at the grave of Adnan Menderes, the prime minister who was executed by the military junta that overthrew the government in 1960.

Ozal's dream and the spectre of Menderes's hanging were powerful fuel for Erdogan's campaign.

He referred often to how plans for progress were thwarted in Turkey's past, how elected leaders were overthrown by military coups. He promised a Yes vote in Sunday's referendum would make that impossible in the future.

Fifty-one per cent of Turks seemed to believe him. But no one seems content with the slim majority.

Anti-Erdogan voices on social media seized on the expressions on the faces of Erdogan and his ministers after the results came in.

'What do we do?'

Those expressions caught Hurriyet columnist Murat Yetkin's eye, too. They were expressions of "what do we do with this result?" Yetkin wrote.

"We can see this was a very tiring, exhausting victory. Erdogan achieved his goal, he started a new period in Turkey, but now the job is going to be much harder than before."

Supporters of the No vote chant slogans during a protest against the referendum outcome in Istanbul on April 17, 2017. (Emrah Gurel/Associated Press)

Beyond being another indicator of the deep divide between those who believe in Erdogan and those who believe he's a dictator in president's clothing, the final result was well below the 60 per cent of votes pro-Erdogan pollsters were predicting.

Erdogan lost in his hometown, Istanbul, and the capital he's called home for 15 years, Ankara.

Coastal cities that survive on tourism revenues — suffering drastic drops in the last year — pushed back, voting No.

Erdogan supporters rally in Istanbul's Uskudar district on April 15. In an upset, Erdogan lost the district in Sunday's referendum. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

But the Yes camp is considering what voters did in Turkey's southeast a victory.

They won in majority Kurdish areas. There are many conservative Kurds who vote for Erdogan.

Opposition crackdown

His opponents say that can only be the result of crackdown on Kurdish voices, including the pro-Kurdish opposition People's Democratic Party (HDP), with 13 of its elected MPs, including the party's two leaders, sitting in prison on allegations of promoting terror and still awaiting trial. 

Opposition parties, who said they would contest more than two million votes, now say they want all of the results annulled.

A voter casts his referendum ballot in Istanbul. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

They're alleging many of the envelopes each voter put their ballot in did not bear an official seal and that in some locations voters were given the wrong kind of stamp. All of the referendum stamps were supposed to feature the word "Choice" but some voters were allegedly given a stamp that read "Yes." If true, the opposition says, it might have swayed voters to whom they were given. 

Turkey's election commission says the votes are valid and will be counted.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of Turkey's leading opposition party, the CHP, called that decision wrong and illegal and said it "made this referendum controversial."

A woman checks for her name on a voters' list at a polling station in Istanbul on April 16, 2017. (Nil Köksal/CBC)

"We don't find this appropriate and will pursue this to the end." 

Independent election monitors with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said the vote "took place on an unlevel playing field and the two sides in the campaign did not have equal opportunities."

Unending uncertainty

With all of that swirling after a vote that was supposed to deliver a clear, if controversial, path to a new Turkey, Turks are again trapped in unending uncertainty. And many are bracing for more upheaval.

What could come next? There is already talk of another vote, perhaps an early election instead of the regularly scheduled one in 2019.

But that could prove problematic for an Erdogan now on much shakier ground than before Sunday's vote. Even with near full control of the media, the powers of a state of emergency and what was once a seemingly unshakeable base, he couldn't deliver a strong victory.

Supporters of the No vote protest in Istanbul against the referendum outcome on April 17, 2017. (Emrah Gurel/Associated Press)

Some of the new presidential powers — which even Vladimir Putin's adviser reportedly said outweigh the Russian president's reach — are expected to come into effect quickly, but most will begin in 2019.

Erdogan also quickly raised the possibility of bringing back Turkey's death penalty to energize the crowds that gathered to congratulate him since the results were announced.

Actually bringing back that policy would almost certainly condemn Turkey's bid to join the European Union to death.

State of emergency

But all of these are just possibilities. The only certainty Turks have now is that the state of emergency they've been living under for nine months is going to be extended again.

The powers the government has had to arrest, detain or dismiss tens of thousands of people will continue.

After paying his respects at the tombs, Erdogan returned to the Turkish capital Monday.

Supporters wave flags as Erdogan delivers a speech at his palace in Ankara on April 17, 2017. (Burhan Ozbilici/Associated Press)

He hadn't secured the kind of mandate he and his entourage were counting on, but he was greeted, as always, by adoring crowds.

If the razor-slim victory was a shock on Sunday night, Erdogan regrouped, finally directly addressing the allegations of voting fraud and the concerns of the international election monitors.

"Know your place, know your place," he said to those monitors. Shouting at the rapt crowd in Ankara, he said: "We don't see them, we don't hear them, we don't know them. We'll continue on our path."

  The trouble is, it's a path half the country doesn't want to take.


Nil Köksal is the host of World Report, CBC's flagship national radio news show. She begins her mornings with more than a million loyal listeners. She returned from her post as CBC’s foreign correspondent in Turkey in 2018.