Turkey’s referendum: a victory of whom?

The 16th of April has become one of the most significant days of the Turkish Republic since it was founded in 1923. Referendum, which was held in order to vote the radical constitutional changes that can be briefly explained as the change of the regime due to the fact that the excessive power would be holding by the “President” only, resulted in 48.59 percent of “no” against 51.41 percent of “yes” with 86 percent of turnout. Despite the objections against alleged irregularities such as use of unsealed ballot papers, the outcome has not changed and “national will”, as Erdoğan says, has decided to limit the parliament’s and law’s authority and to be governed by one man.[1]

However, considering the result as the victory of AKP government and Erdoğan in particular, would not be a realistic approach. At the very moment that the result was broadcasted, it could have been interpreted as “Pyrrhic Victory”. King Pyrrhus of Northern Greece, cousin of Alexander the Great, was intending to invade the whole Italy, according to Plutarch. During two years, he had had a leaguer in Sicily and with his 40.000 men army, he came across with the “enemy” that also had an army as huge as Pyrrhus’s, in Maleventum. After a harsh struggle, Pyrrhus defeated the Romans but he lost his entire army in the battle.


As it is seen above, the similarity between two cases is rather apparent. There is no victory or victor at all, even though it does not seem so. Besides the proximity of percentages of yes and no votes, AKP government lost the majority in three big cities, Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, as well as coastal parts and most of the southern region. Despite the support of MHP (Turkish nationalist party) which can be seen as “the elephants” of Pyrrhus, only half of the voters had given “yes”. This signifies a crucial point: the engine of Turkey, the main economic resources of the country has been lost in terms of the support for one man regime. This division must be seen as the most crucial  indicator of no-victory. Surely, the outcome was foreseeable; however, to come to this result, it is really important to point that referendum and military coup served  the social engineering process of Islamist AKP government.

After the attempted military coup in 15 July 2016, the country has been governed through state of emergency for almost nine months with decree laws. Under the name of struggle against terror, hundreds of academics were dismissed, tens of journalists were arrested. Dissidents were silenced through either the threat of prison or self-censorship. Although many legal experts called that the referendum could not be held under these circumstances while the state of emergency was still going on, their voice was not heard. The coup did not only cause a big chaos but also paved the way for a more authoritarian understanding of ruling and discrimination of “we” and “they”.

In addition to this atmosphere of fear, during the referendum campaign, Erdoğan and his deputies adopted an aggressive and offensive language against the people who were in favour of “no” based on potential and risky outcome of the one man regime. Through pre-referendum period, “no” voters were labelled as “non-believers, terrorists, separatists, the ones who do not want Turkey to develop”. Personally, this was and is the most important outcome of the referendum-even more important than the result- as it is seen in the distribution of votes-a deepened social crack. The efforts to create an “other” and target it as the enemy in order to gain more votes on one’s behalf from nationalist and conservative population was the strongest trump of ruling power.

This aggressive approach, undoubtedly, reflects to the micro-power areas like neighbourhoods, districts, cities, even families. Discriminative language has determined the borders among people; it has strengthened the existing gap between supporters and non-supporters of the government. What is more, these two groups, willingly or unwillingly, have been dragged to the extreme poles; not family or neighbourhood bonds but political preferences have become the determinant in personal relationships. Being politicized in every possible area of daily life brings the risk of violent social conflicts which has been implicitly encouraged by the dominant ideology. The result of the referendum did nothing but deepened that crack for a long term.

The offensive language have also had impacts on foreign affairs and economy such as weakening relationships with the European Union and tension with particular countries like Netherlands, Germany and Bulgaria, decreasing number of tourists, retreatment of companies, being reducing the economic degree by rating organizations. Yet, none of them is as dangerous as the interior conflict for the future of the country. In the countries where the social unrest is triggered, there cannot be seen any progress- either social, economic or political. Without meeting the basic need of the people surviving and living together safe, a country cannot provide any development or stability. AKP and Erdogan in particular has created a Frankenstein to feed their desires. And now, it is time to kill it before it destroys the country. In the long term, the referendum might be total defeat for people as well as Erdogan and AKP. Time and history will show us whether they will use this excessive power for a better country or they will just consolidate their positions through that power.


[1]          Since it requires a more specialised and detailed analysis and I am not a specialist in the area of constitutional law, I prefer not to include each amendment in the planned constitutional change. For more information, you can visit this website: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2017/04/13/the-turkish-constitutional-referendum-explained/

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