Turkey referendum further polarises an already traumatised country as Erdogan gains sweeping new powers

Kim Sengputa

There were recriminations about erosion of democracy, accusations of intimidation and allegations of voting fraud. But Recep Tayyip Erdogan has emerged from a bitter campaign with a referendum victory which will give him an iron grip on power and change the political narrative in Turkey.

Campaigners for a “no” vote against the proposals which will make the President virtually unchallengeable claimed serious irregularities at the polls, including the use of unstamped voting papers, and pledged to challenge the counts from up to 60 per cent of the ballot boxes.

Mr Erdogan, in his victory speech to supporters, was dismissive of the complaints: “There are those who are belittling the result. They shouldn’t try, it will be in vain, it is too late now.”

He is in a strong position to ensure that is the case. Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Board has given the outcome a clean bill of health.

The head of the Board, Sadi Guven, insisted there had been no malpractice in the “yes” campaign receiving 51 per cent of the vote. He did not want people who had been given unstamped ballots “by mistake” to be “victimised”. There had not been one single ballot paper which had been fraudulent or fake, he maintained.

Teams of international monitors condemned both the government and the Electoral Board. “The legal framework remained inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic referendum,” they said in preliminary conclusions. The full report will not come for another eight weeks and, in any event, has no legal standing in regards to the referendum.

In reality, it had probably been “too late” for those opposed to Mr Erdogan ever since last summer’s attempted coup which had been followed by massive retribution. More than 50,000 people are now in jail, tens of thousands more have been dismissed from their jobs. They include politicians, journalists, lawyers and civil rights activists – the people who would have been expected to be opposed to the President in the referendum. Also among those targeted were the military, the traditional keeper of the secularist flame of Kemal Ataturk in the face of the Islamist policies of Mr Erdogan and his AKP (Justice and Development) party.

The ‘no’ campaign had accused the government of undermining it by detaining its leaders and instigating the disruption of its rallies. There were repeated complaints about imbalance in media coverage. The AKP party issued a decree suspending rules on parties being given equal airtime during elections.

There had been some expectation that Mr Erdogan will call an early election whichever way the result went. But Mehmet Simsek, a deputy prime minister, ruled that out today. A second deputy prime minister, Nurettin Cankil, said that the changes to the constitution would be completed within a year.

But the referendum has left a country traumatised by both last summer’s putsch and its aftermath further divided and polarised.

Three of the country’s biggest cities – Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir – voted “no”, as did Diyarbakir in a region where the government is engaged in combat with Kurdish separatists and where three people were shot dead outside a polling station.

The “yes” campaign drew most of its support from the AKP heartland, the conservative east of the country.

What was more unexpected is the strong pro-Erdogan vote among the Turkish diaspora in western Europe. The “yes” campaign received the backing of a significant majority in France, Austria and Germany; in the Netherlands victory was by 70 per cent to 30 per cent.

European politicians expressed dismay at what has happened. Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurtz held it was “a clear signal against the European Union” and the “fiction” of Turkey joining should end.

Julia Kockner, a senior figure in Angela Merkel’s CDU party stated that road to EU succession was “well and truly shut”. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stressed: “We are awaiting the assessment of the International Observation Mission with regard to alleged irregularities.”

Mr Erdogan is unlikely to take much notice of the views from Europe. One of his first pronouncements after claiming his win was that he would consider reintroducing the death penalty: something which would effectively scupper the prospect of joining the European Union.

The President had made “standing up to the West” part of his campaign rhetoric and it had resonance among some voters. Hulya Budak, a 36-year-old office worker from Konya, where the AKP has in the past received 75 per cent support in elections, wanted to stress: “When I first came to Istanbul 20 years ago with my family I was made to feel uncomfortable because I wore a headscarf. My mother could not get a job in government because of that; we were made to feel backward if we did not dress and behave like the West. Mr Erdogan changed that once he became President and gave us our rights. So of course my family voted ‘yes’ for him at the referendum, we must value or country and culture and not just follow Europe.”

But for Engin Cagatay, a teacher and community worker, the referendum result was another sign that the country was “moving deeper into a kind of dictatorship from democracy – we are worried by the way the voting was done in many places, but I don’t we’ll be able to change what happened.

“We are afraid that the values of secularism we had will be in danger: people will be even more afraid to speak out and yes, our last chances of joining the EU will go. But, more than anything else, we should not have one man with so much power, that is not healthy.”