Erdoğan has won his vote—he could still lose the peopleby Laura Pitel / May 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
There is a photograph from the night of 16th April that casts Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, in an unusual light. Peering from behind a curtain, he looks out at the lectern where he must address the nation after his shaky win in that day’s historic referendum. He looks lonely and scared.
The Turkish leader has plenty to worry about. The referendum result gave the green light for a radical set of changes to the nation’s system of governance and makes him more powerful. But his narrow victory gives cause for deep anxiety, for Turks and the country’s international partners.
The referendum campaign took place under extraordinary conditions. Conducted under a state of emergency imposed after last summer’s coup attempt, opposition campaigners were frequently banned from holding rallies. Media devoted vastly more coverage to the president than his rivals. The two leaders of a leftist party popular among Kurdish voters were behind bars for the duration of the campaign. And the president compared “No” voters to terrorists.
Despite these conditions, the official result for Erdoğan’s “Yes” camp was just 51.4 per cent. Post-election analysis has suggested that he was abandoned by around a tenth of his own voters and as many as 80 per cent of nationalist voters who he had hoped to convince. Even his narrow victory may not have been won fairly. The opposition has raised concerns about widespread fraud.
That slim victory is a long way short of Erdoğan’s target. During the campaign he had said he hoped for 60 per cent support. It was assumed both inside and outside the ruling party that, after the result, he would call an election to implement the constitutional changes immediately. Instead, he was forced to announce that he would wait until 2019. “We lost three big cities,” said one ruling party insider, referring to Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, all of which backed “No.” “If we held an early election, we would lose.”
Erdoğan was not humbled by his close shave and immediately extended the state of emergency. Would-be protesters were sent a clear message when three dozen demonstrators were rounded up at home in dawn raids. The authorities banned Wikipedia. Then came more arrests and dismissals of suspects linked to the failed putsch, bringing the total number of people detained, sacked or dismissed to well over 150,000.
This should not come as a surprise. Any time that he feels under threat, Erdoğan has pushed back hard. The president’s team includes staff who check his meals for poison and an aide who believes his enemies are trying to kill him using telekinesis. This is an existential battle. During 15 years at the helm, the 63-year-old has survived threats to his position including an assassination attempt during last year’s failed coup. If he loses power, there is a real risk that he and his family could face retribution.
The tactics he is deploying to avoid that fate are exacerbating deep rifts in Turkey, and placing the country’s foreign ties under increasing strain. Neither Europe nor the US can afford a bad relationship with Turkey, a Nato member bordering Syria and Iraq that hosts three million refugees. But, in recent years, Erdoğan has become an increasingly difficult and unpredictable partner.
Donald Trump, who himself has a cavalier attitude to the rule of law, had signalled that he was willing to ignore election concerns by phoning to congratulate Erdoğan. But, days after this endorsement, Turkey launched airstrikes against US-backed Kurdish militias in Syria and Iraq. The US sent special forces to the Turkish-Syrian border to prevent its two allies from clashing.
European leaders, too, were hoping for a reset after an election campaign during which Erdoğan described the Dutch government as “Nazi remnants.” But, following the result, the president railed against Europe’s “Crusader mentality” and reprised his talk of reinstating the death penalty—a move that would end Turkey’s bid for EU membership. Both sides now talk privately of freezing or formally ending accession talks in favour of a transnational relationship based on trade and incentives for hosting refugees.
Though he cannot afford to sabotage ties with the US and Europe, Erdoğan has increasingly turned to non-Western partners. It is telling that his first scheduled foreign trips after the referendum were to India, China and Russia before much trickier visits to Washington and Brussels.
Even before the awkward referendum outcome, the Turkish president had a growing list of problems. The war in Syria continues to destabilise his country. The economy is under strain. There is simmering disquiet over the refugee population. Dissent within his own party bubbles away. There is even fear of another coup attempt.
Now, to this tally of concerns, Erdoğan can add the need to shore up his support before the next election. No one should underestimate his determination to win. For many Turks, it’s how he plans to get there that’s the worry.