By Gökçe Şencan
The heroic failure of the ‘no’ campaign shows the potential for building a meaningful opposition movement in post-referendum Turkey.
Erdoğan’s victory on April 16th was surprisingly narrow, just 51.4% to 48.6%, much lower than the 60% of the vote the main parties of the ‘yes’ campaign – the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – had collectively swept up in the early election of 2015.
The legitimacy of such a tight result was immediately questioned by domestic and international actors, with widespread allegations of fraud, particularly after the High Electoral Board’s last-minute decision to count ballots lacking official markings.
An initial report by international observers from the OSCE claimed that the referendum was conducted on an “unlevel playing field”, citing problems caused by restrictions under the ongoing state of emergency that has been in place since the coup attempt last summer, including curtailment of freedom of assembly and other civil rights, and a lack of equal opportunities for the different campaigns e.g. in terms of media coverage.
Erdoğan responded to the report’s authors with three words: “know your place”, immediately dampening hopes that, post-referendum, a more secure Erdoğan would no longer be hostile to Europe or label half of the country’s citizens as terrorists.
Right now, the situation may look grim for many ‘no’ voters as the High Electoral Board continues to defend the legitimacy of the referendum. Yet, while the outcome of the referendum is a setback for the opposition, it also demonstrated reasons for optimism. Those who aim to turn the ‘no’ campaign into a permanent force should analyse these opportunities while learning from its faults.
First of all, the ‘no’ campaign succeeded in uniting people from all parts of the political spectrum: nationalists, Kemalists, Kurds and even some AKP supporters. One reason for its success was the campaign’s heavy focus on the proposed changes to the constitution rather than attacks on the government.
In doing so, ‘no’ campaigners found creative and effective frameworks to appeal to those who would normally side with the AKP government, for example, by arguing that they would not want a successor to Erdoğan from the opposition to have similar powers.
Such unity around a positive ‘no‘ campaign may be an early sign of a political movement that could rival the AKP in the general election of 2019. However, a serious challenge is possible only if people from such diverse political backgrounds can gather around a single, inclusive issue.
At this point, the most likely basis for this coalition is an alliance between the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), despite the bad blood between the two parties following CHP’s support for removing immunity from HDP members of parliament.
Like the ‘no’ campaign, this potential coalition could put itself forward as a vehicle for bringing together a divided country; creating a peaceful society, strengthened by its unity, with such a common vision helping to integrate their distinct ideologies into a common campaign agenda.
Second, post-referendum protests prove that, despite extreme measures and restrictions on the freedom of assembly and speech, creative activism in Turkey is still alive and kicking. The High Electoral Board received hundreds of petitions from citizens who called for the cancellation of the referendum, citing videos of fraud circulating the internet and invalidity of unstamped votes.
Protests have been regularly taking place in many cities with the participation of thousands of ‘no’ voters. And most recently, a doctor resigned from her government job and walked more than 400km from Istanbul to the High Electoral Board headquarters in Ankara, demanding the repetition of the referendum.
But while such activism is giving hope to those who feel disenfranchised by the result, it is critical to recognize its limitations: the petitions and protest have yet to result in any significant outcome.
This is in large part a political failure. With the HDP’s leaders arrested, and the insurgent Meral Akşener expelled from the MHP, the CHP was in a unique position to finally widen its voter base by uniting the ‘no’ campaign under its leadership.
A call to protest directly from Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the CHP leader, could have been critical in mobilizing civil disobedience to successfully put the High Electoral Board under immense political and societal pressure.
Instead, Kılıçdaroğlu chose to announce that his party would contest the outcome of the referendum through the courts, leaving many disappointed with his ineffective leadership at such a critical moment, not least because of alarming public distrust in the judiciary. ‘No’ voters urgently need stronger leadership if they are to galvanize civil society and create a meaningful opposition.
Third, despite Erdoğan continuously emphasising that “the will of the nation presents itself through the ballot box”, the narrow margin of his victory has demonstrated that he has only half of the nation behind him.
It is uncertain whether AKP officials will finally listen to the concerns of the opposition that they so confidently dismissed before the referendum. But, unlike in the past, there was a minimal police response to the peaceful protests in major cities like Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.
Such a light-touch approach might indicate that the AKP is avoiding conflict in this sensitive period when the world is closely following post-referendum developments. Yet, Erdoğan still sought to belittle the protesters, disparagingly referring to them as “Gezi people, celebrating the defeat with pots and pans”.
But the newly empowered president has many reasons to avoid an escalation of protests. Gezi showed that police intervention can often fuel the fire of political dissent, with state violence giving his foes, from Kurds to Kemalists, another unifying reason to rally against him.
Regardless of the reason for avoiding confrontation, it is a sign that Erdoğan already feels threatened by the unity of the ‘no’ campaign, which endured his continuous attacks to secure more than 48% of the vote.
Still, given what we already know about how Erdoğan deal with threats to his authority, it would be foolish to assume the opposition will be allowed to thrive from this point on. The state of emergency was extended for the third time the day after the referendum, diminishing the chance of restoring the guarantee of basic civil rights and freedoms. However, I cannot help but feel hopeful as I observe different types civil disobedience taking place as the country once again refuses to succumb to the politics of fear.