PRESIDENT Tayyip Erdogan won Sunday’s referendum but he could not have been happy with the margin of his victory. Only 51 per cent of the voters backed his proposal for constitutional reform, which was quite astonishing considering the state machinery and almost all the media had been campaigning for a yes vote. Should the state of emergency, during which fundamental freedoms were drastically curtailed, also be mentioned to put into context Erdogan’s narrow victory?
The small team of international monitors from the Council of Europe reported an “uneven playing field” citing the state of emergency, the partiality of the state, the equating by senior officials of no-voters with terrorist sympathisers and the intimidation of the media, which led to self-censorship. The European Commission also referred to “alleged irregularities”. Meanwhile the leader of the main opposition, Republic People’s Party, condemned violations in the electoral process, claiming there had been 1.5 million unstamped ballot papers. It would be filing an appeal to invalidate the result.
In stark contrast to sceptical Europeans, President Trump personally called Erdogan to congratulate him about the result, illustrating the importance his administration attaches to Turkey. Some European politicians interpreted the result as a “clear signal against the European Union” claiming the door to EU accession was “truly shut.” Turkey’s relations with the EU would not be a main concern for Erdogan now.
There are more pressing concerns at home such as his declining support, alleged divisions in his own Justice and Development Party and questions over the continuing support of Devlet Bahceli’s Nationalist Movement Party. To compound matters there has been an economic slowdown with the value of the Turkish lira falling and unemployment steadily rising, Erdogan no longer able to rely on the booming economy to boost his support. The referendum that was supposed to consolidate his one-man rule, giving him sweeping powers, ironically, could have weakened his position, politically.
The ex-editor in chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper, Can Dundar, told a German paper that the referendum result would be a Pyrrhic victory that signalled “the beginning of the end of the Erdogan era.” He thought it inconceivable that the margin of victory would be so small despite the media almost exclusively backing the yes-vote. Predicting the end of the Erdogan era is far-fetched, but there is no denying that Sunday’s result would have shaken the Turkish president. Of course, one thing Erdogan has proved in his political career is that he is a survivor who does not shy away from any challenge.