Here is yet another post from my (understandably) anonymous friends in Turkey. I appreciate their understanding of this disturbing result. Measured optimism? See for yourself.
A Pyrrhic Victory
Pyrrhic victory: a victory that is not worth winning because the winner has lost so much in winning it. (Cambridge Dictionary)
The Turkish referendum of 2017 is over and, according to semi-official figures, the ‘Yes’ vote to giving unprecedented powers to the office of the President squeaked out a narrow victory of 51.4% to 48.6%. Lest our readers, especially those of you viewing these events from afar, think that Turkey has now entered definitively onto the road to dictatorship, we will argue that the referendum results should not be read in this fashion. In our opinion, the razor-thin margin of victory should be seen as a Pyrrhic victory for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling AK Party. What do we mean by this?
First, let us remind our readers of the conditions under which this referendum was held: the shameless and scandalous use of state resources and services for the ‘Yes’ campaign; the total domination of the media, print and broadcast, by the government with no equal time for ‘No’ campaigners; the jailing of leaders of the opposition Kurdish-based HDP party which made it impossible for them to mobilize support for ‘No’; the slandering of ‘No’ supporters as traitors and terrorists; thug attacks on ‘No’ events and cancellation of their venues for spurious reasons; and the conducting of the referendum while Turkey is under a State of Emergency where intimidation and fear has put a damper on freedom of speech, the press and assembly. These were the obstacles facing ‘No’ supporters. RTE, the AK Party leadership and the allied nationalist MHP leadership threw everything they had at ‘No’ supporters and still only managed to win by a mere 1%, a true Pyrrhic victory.
The ‘Yes’ camp was hoping for a minimum of 55% in their column. Not only did they not reach that goal, they managed to lose Turkey’s three largest cities, Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, as well as such major urban centers as Adana, Antalya, Mersin and Diyarbakır. (RTE even saw his Istanbul home district of Üsküdar go ‘No’ and then the entire city, where he had been a popular mayor.) In other words, most of Turkey’s financial, industrial, political, educational and cultural centers opted for ‘No’ in the referendum. These results can scarcely be read as a resounding victory for the President and the ‘Yes’ camp. The weak and divided ‘No’ supporters faced off against the ‘Yes’ Goliath and fared well. The HDP showed via the strong ‘No’ vote in the largely Kurdish southeast and in the major cities that, in spite of government pressure and dirty tricks and even though it was not able to wage an effective ‘No’ campaign, it retained the support of its voter base. No small achievement when the government has been clearly out to demonize and destroy it.
The one big loser in this referendum is the nationalist MHP, whose leadership entered into an alliance with RTE and the AK Party for the ‘Yes’ vote. They simply did not deliver. It is estimated that some 80% of MHP supporters voted ‘No’, following the lead of a group of dissidents who had been expelled for opposing the ‘Yes’ alliance. The MHP’s fate is now uncertain as it may soon face the emergence of a new nationalist party.
In the aftermath of the vote we can now expect a number of legal challenges to the results, based on how the referendum was conducted, major irregularities in the vote tabulation process and allegations of outright voter fraud. In the past, senior dogs have always been comfortable with what we saw as the overall fairness of Turkish elections and we’ve always had confidence in their results. Unfortunately, we don’t think that this is any longer the case. The widespread instances of manipulation, pressure and outright vote-stealing being reported must now be added to the litany of reasons why the results must be considered illegitimate. Since the ruling party controls the appeals process, it is, however, hard to be optimistic that the results will be overturned.
Be that as it may, in our opinion, the referendum’s results were a Pyrrhic victory for Erdoğan, highlighting not his unbeatable power, but rather his weakening grip on Turkish politics. If he cannot deliver – i.e., reinvigorate Turkey’s ailing economy, show something positive for his intervention in Syria, put a stop to the attacks which have crippled tourism and foreign investment, and offer more than a military solution to the ‘Kurdish question’ – we suspect we will see more erosion of his popularity in the period ahead, as the new executive super-presidential system takes shape and he prepares for his run for president in 2019.
In the meantime, we are hopeful that the post-referendum period will see more self-confident opposition forces emerge, raring for a fight back, a result of RTE’s ‘victory’ he didn’t count on. On the evening of the election, he uttered an antiquated Turkish saying, Atı alan Üsküdar’ı geçti (He who grabbed the horse has passed Üsküdar, roughly meaning ‘I won, and everyone will just have to learn to live with it.’). But then again, we saw that in fact, he didn’t even get past Üsküdar.