Ten Thoughts on the Turkish Referendum

Even after his victory yesterday in Turkey's referendum, President Erdoğan is much weaker than he appears.

Supporters of the pro-Kurdish leftist Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) march in November 2016. PASCAL.VAN / Flickr

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is riding high, it seems.

In yesterday’s constitutional referendum, designed to confer dictatorial powers on the Turkish president, Erdoğan’s Yes camp prevailed, 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent, according to the provisional tally.

The outcome and its consequences, however, are far from straightforward.

Here are some preliminary thoughts on the meaning of Sunday’s result and the democratic possibilities ahead.


The referendum took place under a state of emergency. Despite the use of outright state terror and dictatorial methods against the entire opposition, and the Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) mobilizing all state sources for the Yes campaign, the “yes” vote managed to win only by a slim margin.

A 51 percent “yes” vote by no means legitimizes the fundamental constitutional changes up for ratification. Rather than deliver a decisive triumph (and a social consensus behind Erdoğan), the referendum has produced a situation that is ripe for severe crisis.


It is very likely that fraud played a critical role in the referendum’s outcome. The centrist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) are reporting that about 2 to 2.5 million ballots have been counted as valid without the official stamp of the High Election Commission (YSK), or are to be doubted because of other irregularities.

Yesterday evening, when the polls were closed and the counting had begun, the YSK suddenly and illegally decided to consider these votes valid. This despite the fact that just a couple hours earlier, the commission had stated that “the aim of sealing the ballots with official stamps of the YSK is to prevent fraud.”

Videos have also circulated on social media showing pro-government members of the election commissions deliberately placing “yes” stamps on unsealed ballots. Apparently, most of these fraudulent “yes” votes are in the Eastern provinces, particularly the predominantly Kurdish region. The “no” vote very likely would come out on top if these dubious ballots were revoked.


In spite of dictatorial pre-referendum conditions and probable fraud, the AKP has lost most of Turkey’s power core, i.e. the big cities that determine the politics, economy, and culture of the country.

Istanbul, by far Turkey’s largest city, was long in the hands of the AKP and Erdoğan (who rose to the presidency after serving as the city’s mayor). Ankara should have been another easy win for Yes. Yet the “no” vote triumphed in both cities.

Additionally, economically powerful coastal cities like Izmir, Antalya, Adana, and Mersin all displayed a clear “no” majority. Of the big cities, Yes vote only won in Antep, Konya, Bursa, and Kocaeli. And even in some important conservative-Islamic strongholds, like the district of Üsküdar in Istanbul, Yes came up short.


In the face of direct colonial rule, state of emergency tactics, military repression, and electoral fraud, all of the larger Kurdish cities still voted unambiguously against the constitutional changes.

Although in some cities the “no” vote turned out to be somewhat lower than the HDP’s share in recent elections, Kurds clearly had no stomach for Erdoğan’s imposed dictatorship. And if it’s true that most of the fraudulent votes appeared in the Kurdish regions, they actually voted more or less the same as they’ve done in the past: that is, against Erdoğan.

The president, Sunday’s result showed once again, cannot win the hearts and minds of the Kurds with pure terror and warfare.


The AKP’s alliance with the fascist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) proved disastrous: in all MHP-heavy regions, “no” votes outstripped “yes” votes. This means that the leader of the MHP’s majority faction, Devlet Bahçeli, has lost legitimacy, and the party can expect a severe crisis soon. Meral Akşener, leader of the MHP’s minority faction and an active No campaigner, will probably be Bahçeli’s successor as head of the nationalist-fascist base.

In any case, the conservative-nationalist camp has taken a hit.


The CHP has announced that it will apply for an invalidation of the vote. (Similarly, the HDP has said that it will contest two-thirds of the ballot boxes.)

If the CHP decides to seriously challenge the results, it will only be because it has the support of various factions within the state. In other words, it will indicate that the core of the Turkish state thinks that Erdoğan’s power play is seriously damaging the integrity of the state and society.


A full twenty-four hours after Erdoğan declared victory, only the likes of Qatar, Guinea, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan had directly congratulated him. Turkey’s historic allies — the NATO countries, as well as Erdoğan’s recent friend, Russian president Vladimir Putin — all refrained from reaching out.

Strikingly, the US and the European Union initially announced that they would wait for the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) observers’ report before taking a position. Today, the latter criticized the uneven playing field and expressed its concerns about the High Election Council’s decision to count ballots and seals lacking an official stamp as valid. (State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said today that the US government is aware of the OSCE’s misgivings and reiterated that it is awaiting the agency’s final report.)

Leaders of other countries have said they would respect the referendum’s result, but nevertheless emphasized the need to establish a broad consensus in the face of deepening polarization and the centralization of power.

Clearly, Erdoğan lacks any meaningful backing from Turkey’s foreign allies for a dictatorial push.


Turkish big business isn’t happy either.

The lobbying organization of finance capital, the Turkish Industrial and Business Association (TÜSİAD), has called for national unity and “maintaining freedoms [and] pluralism,” indicating that it would not be content if Erdoğan proceeds with his plans.

TÜSIAD, obviously fearing further economic instability, is simultaneously pressing for draconian “economic reforms.” And these concerns aren’t limited to the more secularist factions within the Turkish big bourgeoisie.

Independent Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association (MÜSIAD), the Union of Chambers and Stock Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB), the Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEIK), and the International Investors Association of Turkey (YASED) all talk of the need for reforms, democracy, and the like.

The situation is crystal clear: Turkish capital is panicking, and they are urging the government to go back to “normal.”


Erdoğan’s speech on the night of the referendum exhibited an attitude of victory and a commitment to press ahead. He stated that people fought “a struggle of reawakening” and that his first task would be reintroduce the death penalty.

Today he went even further: he repeated his wish to reimpose the death penalty and said that they had won “against the crusader mentality of the West and the attacks by their henchman in the interior.” After the preliminary declaration of the OSCE, Erdoğan took his rhetoric to the extreme. He told the OSCE to “know your place” and added that “stopping talks with the EU is not a big topic, we can just go for another referendum.”

Erdoğan evidently has no intention of slowing down, despite the fact that his hegemony is seriously shaking by now. Half the country opposes him, big capital is panicking, the opposition parties are picking up the fight, and international reactions are very cool. If Erdoğan continues to test the limits of his power, it will hardly be long before the power structure supporting him collapses.


On the night of the referendum, tens of thousands of people crowded the streets and squares in cities across the country, particularly in oppositional strongholds in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and Antalya. As we write, these protests are expanding.

Of course, this popular opposition has gone unreported by the government’s media apparatus. But it shows that the seeds of a popular-democratic alternative can still blossom.

This is not the time for a retreat, but rather the ideal moment for an offensive of revolutionary and democratic forces. The established order is on a razor’s edge. And as Nietzsche wrote, “That which is falling, deserves to be pushed.”