Before he immersed himself in politics, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was a moderately talented footballer. It is not surprising, then, that when he reflected on mid-April’s constitutional referendum in Turkey, a vote that narrowly approved the creation of an imperial presidency, he used a football analogy to describe the outcome.
Brushing off concerns that such a monumental change to Turkey’s political system rested on a minuscule and hotly contested majority, Erdoğan said, “It does not matter whether you win a match by 1-0 or 5-0; it only matters who gets the match.”
In sports that may be true, but politics is a different sort of game. The controversy and hard feelings that hover over the referendum results are such that Erdoğan can consider himself a winner today, but he and Turkey may end up losing over the longer term.
Given its legacy of military coups, Turkey has never been a model democracy, but, until now, Turks, when they went to the polls, generally could feel assured that votes would not be rigged to the point that it rendered the electoral process meaningless. Many Turks, especially those in urban areas, feel the April 16 referendum crossed a line into arbitrariness.
The two main opposition parties continue to challenge the election results, seeking an annulment. A decision to annul the results is unlikely to happen, but it is noteworthy that the outcome has not been officially confirmed.
Massive discontent centers on the way Erdoğan’s narrow majority was attained. Unofficial results, published by the official Anadolu news agency, show the referendum ended with 51.18 percent of ballots showing a “yes” vote to approve sweeping changes that would curtail the parliamentary system and greatly enhance presidential powers, and 48.82 percent voting “no.” The yes-no gap amounts to an estimated 1.12 million votes.
Here is the main problem: a last-minute decision to change election rules, sanctioned by the Supreme Election Board (YSK), appears to be responsible for Erdoğan’s victory. The YSK, the vast majority of whose members are beholden to Erdoğan for their positions, ruled that as many as 3 million unstamped ballots were valid, despite the fact that election laws clearly state such ballots cannot be considered legitimate. In addition, the YSK itself issued instructions in the morning of April 16 that only stamped ballots would be considered valid, only to abruptly reverse itself later that day. Such a rules change while the referendum “game” was still in progress is unprecedented in Turkey’s electoral history, and it thus is not surprising that many Turks are crying “foul.” The unstamped ballots in question appeared to favor a “yes” vote by a significant margin.
To use a football analogy, the YSK’s decision is perhaps the political equivalent of Diego Maradona’s infamous “hand of God” goal, which helped give Argentina a tainted win over England in a quarterfinal match in the 1986 World Cup.
It is interesting to note that Argentina ended up winning the World Cup in 1986. One wonders about how the April 16 referendum will end up shaping Erdoğan’s political future.
There is no way to know. But the doubt about the legitimacy of his referendum victory could easily create problems. And even if the referendum tally is accepted at face value, the results contain some troubling signs for the president.
Most importantly, it appears he is already losing the cities.
Traditionally, Istanbul has been a source of support for Erdoğan, who has frequently expressed affection for the city. His first electoral victory was there – winning the mayoral election of 1994. Yet the April 16 referendum marked the first time that a majority of the city’s voters did not support him in an election.
The unofficial tally shows that 51.3 percent of Istanbul voters cast “no” votes. And some Erdoğan critics contend that the “no” share would have been higher, if not for voting irregularities. A significant point is that even the conservative district of Üsküdar – where Erdoğan lived for a long time and where he kept a modest home until moving into the presidential palace in Istanbul – rebuffed him in the referendum.
The outcome in Istanbul was the norm, not an exception, when it came to the urban vote. In cities across the country, including Ankara and Izmir, a majority of voters rejected the notion of increased powers for Erdogan, some by large margins. Indeed, the bulk of the “yes” vote in support of Erdogan came from rural areas.
The electoral map could very well create a challenging political environment for Erdoğan. Historically speaking, strong-willed leaders in any given country have needed to control the main cities in order to govern effectively. Erdoğan himself has often stated that “the one who conquers Istanbul, conquers Turkey.”
How Erdoğan’s dimming popularity among urbanized Turks plays out will be something to watch in the coming months.
Erdoğan may also come to rue the day he overhauled the political system, and concentrated so much power in his hands. After all, with power comes responsibility: under a strong presidential system, he will find it much tougher to blame others for the country’s economic malaise, which features high rates of unemployment and foreign debt.
As Erdoğan strives to consolidate his personal power, the economy stands to keep suffering, given that unquestioned personal loyalty, not expertise, seems to be a top priority for him these days when it comes to his personnel appointments.
Indeed Turkey could soon find itself caught in a self-destructive cycle: Erdoğan’s most reliable sources of electoral support – towns in central Anatolia and along the Black Sea – are turning increasingly nationalistic, moved by the president’s ever frequent allusions to a “battle between the Crescent and the Cross.” At the same time, those living in cosmopolitan and urban environments, and who are much more dependent on tourism and strong economic relations with the European Union, are becoming increasingly alienated by Erdoğan’s rhetoric of war against external and internal enemies. The acceleration of this polarization trend will only lead Turkey into a dead end.
Sezin Öney is a political scientist and journalist based in Budapest and Istanbul, mostly focusing over populism and leadership profiles.