Despite razor-thin margin president reaps vast power and longevity
ISTANBUL – Turkey’s opposition parties are claiming voter fraud during a narrowly-passed referendum on Sunday which will transform the country from a parliamentary system to a highly centralized presidential one.
The vote passed by a razor-thin margin, with Yes winning by 1.3 million votes and gaining 51.3 per cent of the total, though losing in the three largest cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.
In an unprecedented move, neither of the two largest opposition parties conceded the vote, and both expressed major concerns over potential fraud.
“There were some very serious breaches during the day,” said Sera Kadıgil, a lawyer and member of the largest opposition party, the People’s Republican Party (CHP).
“From the beginning the elections weren’t fair – not the process and not the results.”
CHP officials criticized the Supreme Election Board’s (YSK) conducting of the vote, and called on it to annul the results and take the case to the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights.
Party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu condemned the YSK’s controversial decision mid-vote to accept ballots lacking the official stamp, which normally would be rendered invalid.
CHP officials say 1.5 million such votes were counted, and will appeal ballot boxes containing about 2.5 million votes.
Furthermore, videos were shared on social media claiming to show incidents of vote manipulation, and discrepancies seen in voting results released by the YSK, whose website went offline for a short while during the vote.
On Monday afternoon the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) released a statement criticizing the campaigning environment before the referendum and the conduct of the vote itself.
Voters didn’t have impartial information due to pressure on the No campaigners, lack of free media and misuse of state resources, the OSCE said. During the voting, many observers were denied access to voting stations and the YSK’s decision to allow unsealed ballots undermined an important safeguard and undermined the law.
“This is going to cast a shadow over a problematic referendum especially because the final result is so close,” Henri Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told The Media Line.
“The behavior of the YSK will further tarnish the results and a large portion of Turkish population will always believe it was stolen from them. There is nothing that can be done about this perception.”
Soli Özel, professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul says the new presidential system will radically transform Turkish politics.
“The founding institution of the state is the National Assembly, the one that fought the War of Independence, and for all intents and purposes, with these amendments the National Assembly will have lost much of its significance and most of its power,” Özel told The Media Line.
“All power will flow to and emanate from the presidency.”
Professor Barkey thinks parliament will be rendered a rubber stamp. He says parliamentarians won’t be able to scrutinize the actions of cabinet ministers and members of Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will be appointed as a form of political patronage.
“Why is [Erdoğan] increasing the number of parliamentarians from 550 to 600, for a parliament that will have much less to do? Because it’s a sinecure. He’s going to be able to appoint people,” Barkey says.
“They’ll have immunity, and they’ll have whatever goodies the state provides you with.”
Under the new system, the president becomes both head of state and government, no longer having to be politically neutral. The president will be able to issue decrees changing policy, dissolve parliament, appoint ministers and top bureaucrats, and control the composition of the judiciary. The current head of government, the prime minister, will be abolished.
Professor Özel says Turkish society has already gone through several major shocks in recent years and the aggressive campaigning and deep discord over the referendum was also very stressful.
“This is a country that’s gone through trauma after trauma,” he said. “My sense is this traumatic period isn’t likely to end any time soon.”
Professor Barkey agrees, saying the victory for the Yes vote will increase polarization.
“My sense is that this is going to divide the country, and all those people who voted No are going to chafe. There’s going to be depression. More people are going to go to jail and be sacked.”
But many Erdoğan supporters say the presidential system will result in less tumult in Turkey, which has recently suffered through several large terror attacks, a war between the state and Kurdish rebels in the southeast, and a failed military coup last July that left 276 dead.
“I’m saying Yes for stability,” said Ali Osman, a 52-year-old restaurant manager.
“Another result of this referendum is that the government will eradicate the roots of terror. There’s no other way.”
AKP spokesperson Harun Armağan says the presidential system will make the government more efficient.
“Turkey needs a much more dynamic, faster and less bureaucratic decision-making process. The current system was set up 90 years ago when the population was six times smaller and our per capita GDP was 120 times less. Allowing the president to have powers to give executive orders which do not conflict with current legislation will mean changes can be implemented swiftly, avoiding red tape.”
But Professor Barkey says the long-term affect will be the opposite.
“There’s going to be short-term stability at the expense of serious long-term instability.”
Barkey thinks nothing good can come from giving Erdoğan, a deeply divisive figure, more power.
“He polarizes society, he polarizes politics, destroys politics. It’s bad news all over. There’s no good outcome from this.”
Professor Barkey says Erdoğan could hypothetically stay in power until 2033, meaning he’ll have been in power for 30 years.
“Think about somebody who was ten or twelve years old when [Erdoğan] came to power. When Erdoğan leaves power, that person is going to be 42 – 45 years old and will have known only one leader. Think of what it means for a society that’s had only one leader.”