April 17, 2017 | Policy Brief

Turkey’s Inconclusive Referendum

Turkey held a historic referendum on Sunday to decide whether to grant the country’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan his long-standing desire to transform the government from a parliamentary system to one heavily centralized around his own presidency. While Erdogan declared his victory within hours of the polls closing, the result is far from conclusive: Not only does the “yes” camp appear to have won a razor-thin victory, but Turkey’s two largest opposition parties have declared electoral fraud and vowed to contest the validity of more than half of the ballots.

Erdogan is determined to concentrate all powers in his office and eliminate the ability of the judiciary and opposition to check his rule. With such a radical change to Turkey’s political system at stake, Sunday’s vote was meant to take the national pulse. While unofficial figures indicate a slight majority in favor of the referendum, the electorate’s response remains inconclusive.

The two largest opposition parties, the secular Republican People’s Party (also known by its Turkish acronym CHP) and the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), are challenging the legality of this weekend’s electoral procedures. Turkey’s election law unequivocally states that ballots without official stamps are not valid. On Sunday, however, the Supreme Election Council changed the rules over an hour after counting had begun, announcing it would accept ballots without official stamps after all. The CHP and HDP argue that an administrative body such as the election council does not have the authority to unilaterally amend electoral law.

It is unlikely for the council to revoke its decision, as its members are appointed by the high courts, which are under Erdogan’s control. Council decisions are legally final, thus any appeal to the Constitutional Court is likely to fail. But whether or not the results are overturned, the election will remain illegitimate in the eyes of most of those who voted against the presidential system. Beyond the election council’s baffling actions, the election process itself looks suspect: Videos circulated on social media showed voters preparing multiple “yes” ballots ahead of the vote, for example, or casting five ballots at a time.

“No” voters hit the streets Sunday night, banging pots and pans and chanting “resign” in protest. Erdogan himself appears cognizant of his tenuous position. Having failed to secure a clear mandate – and by extension, domestic or international legitimacy for his initiative – he appeared distressed during his victory speech, his body language and tone more suggestive of a concession speech than a declaration of victory.

For “no” voters, there is therefore at least one silver lining to the result: This large an opposition is hard for Erdogan to ignore. He may claim to have won a slight majority, but he lost in five of Turkey’s six largest cities, including its economic center Istanbul, where he has never lost an election since becoming mayor in 1994. He also lost in Turkey’s other economic powerhouses – including the capital Ankara and Izmir – suggesting the country’s poor economic performance could become his Achilles’ heel in the days and weeks to come. Amid a years-long economic downturn, the biggest risk for Erdogan is that voters will hold him personally responsible: By making himself the country’s sole decision-maker, he has left them no one to blame but himself.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate. Follow them on Twitter @aykan_erdemir and @MerveTahiroglu.