The Turkish people went to the polls on April 16, with a relatively high turnout of 83.3 percent, to vote on a package of 18 amendments to the Turkish Constitution.
That is more than an ordinary constitutional amendment because it changes the way Turkey will be governed in the future.
Instead of the parliamentary republic, which is the present system of government in Turkey, a sui generis presidential government will be introduced.
The government campaigned hard to win the “yes” vote. The outcome was 51.5 percent in favor of “yes,” and 48.5 percent for “no.”
The main opposition party filed claims in the Supreme Elections Board (SEB) alleging irregularities, but the SEB rejected most of them.
According to the Turkish legislation, no appeal could be lodged against the SEB decisions.
A public opinion poll carried out by the French company IPSOS one day after the referendum revealed interesting findings:
• 58 percent of those who voted for the first time, namely the youth, were in favor of “no.” This is surprising, because the ruling party reduced to 18 the age of eligibility for a parliamentary mandate, yet the measure did not bring the expected result.
• The ruling party relies more on the lesser educated electorate; 70 percent of “yes” voters are primary school graduates, 57 percent secondary, 42 percent high school and 39 percent university graduates.
• The razor-thin success of “yes” was secured thanks to the support of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) of Devlet Bahceli, but this support seems to have alienated the MHP supporters from their leader: 73 percent of those who voted for MHP in the last elections voted “no” in this referendum despite their leader’s advice. Bahceli emerges as the biggest loser from this initiative.
• Most of the predominantly Kurdish constituencies voted “no” in very high proportions: Varto 87 percent, Lice 85 percent, Cizre 80 percent, Nusaybin 79 percent, Silvan 77 percent, Silopi 75 percent, Diyarbakir 70 percent. In the light of this outcome, no political party can turn a blind eye in the future to the Kurdish reality in Turkey.
• Five metropolitan cities, Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Adana and Antalya voted “no.”
Opposition parties in Turkey will use allegations of irregularities extensively in the run-up to the 2019 elections. The path ahead is full of hurdles.
Two-thirds of Turkey’s gross national product is produced in these five cities. The ruling party has done everything to win the “yes” votes in these cities, but to no avail.
A discussion is still going on in the Turkish media on whether the allegations of irregularities could be brought to the European Court of Human Rights.
Since all domestic recourse procedures are exhausted, some observers believe that it should be possible, because Turkey is a party to the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and had recognized ECnHR’s jurisdiction. Others say that ECnHR does not cover irregularities during referenda.
Probably Turkey will have to live with these results and focus henceforth its efforts on what has to be done until the first presidential elections, which will be held in 2019.
An OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) team followed closely both the campaign and the referendum, and issued an interim report containing harsh criticism, which includes the following:
• Supporters of “yes” and “no” positions did not have equal opportunities during the campaign for the referendum.
• Restrictions on the media reduced the voters’ access to a plurality of views. During TV primetime, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan enjoyed 53 hours of coverage, AKP 83, the main opposition party CHP 17 hours and the pro-Kurdish party 33 minutes.
• The referendum is held as the state of emergency, enacted after the failed military coup nine months ago, was still in force. Government decrees that amended referendum-related legislation exceeded the exigencies of the state of emergency.
• Fundamental rights and freedoms were restricted by provincial governors’ decision to limit freedom of assembly and expression.
• The work of the electoral boards lacked transparency.
• The efforts of several parties and civil society organizations campaigning for “no” were obstructed.
• The campaign rhetoric was tarnished by a number of senior officials equating “no” supporters to terrorist sympathizers.
• Campaigners for “no” faced police interventions and violent scuffles during their events.
• The continued dismissal and suspension of judges and prosecutors in the referendum period affected the independence of the judiciary.
These and other observations of minor importance have no judicial effect, but they will become the basis for the political pressure that the international community, and especially the Western countries, will put on Turkey.
The opposition parties in Turkey will use these criticisms extensively in the run-up to the 2019 elections. The path ahead is full of hurdles.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party.