Constitutional Referendum in Turkey: Victory vs. Great Divide

According to the early results of the referendum, held on 16 April 2017, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AK Party, have claimed victory. That victory means that constitutional amendments that would scrap the country’s parliamentary system in favour of a presidency with expanded powers have been approved by the citizens of Republic of Turkey even if the gap in the votes was minimal: 51.4% for (YES) and 48.6% against (NO).

The “yes” campaign was supported by the President Erdoğan himself, AK Party, and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Turkey’s far-right Great Unity Party (BBP), and some minor political parties whereas the “no” campaign was supported by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), and again some minor political parties.

Because of the tiny margin of victory, two main arguments have prevailed the post-referendum Turkey (1) this was a great victory for President Erdoğan and (2) the results left Turkey even more divided. The first argument has been embraced by mostly supporters of AK Party and the leadership of Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). According to them “President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his top aide Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım fought an uphill battle against an opposition that was armed with European support. They had to brave lies and deceit of all kinds to convince the Turkish people that a presidential system will push Turkey forward. Thus, this was a great victory for President Erdoğan.”[1]

The second argument has been led by the opposition and leaders of foreign states such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the office of the French President, Francois Hollande, etc. In her press conference, Merkel stressed that “Turkish society is deeply divided” and called for the Turkish government to engage in “respectful dialogue” with all political entities.[2] Furthermore, the decision of the country’s election commission to count ballots that did not receive an official authenticating stamp has increased the impression that the referendum was not fair. And also, Cezar Florin Preda, Head of the delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe expressed that “In general, the referendum did not live up to Council of Europe standards. The legal framework was inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic process.”[3] According to some, all these developments increased the impression that the referendum was not fair and the results and fraudulent ballots make the society more divided.

At the end of the day, one thing is certain that a bit more than a half of the nation approved the new presidential system by believing that it will push Turkey forward. In terms of reaching his aim, the result is a victory for Erdoğan. Yet, Erdoğan, AK Party, and all the actors in Turkish political life have a myriad of lessons to take from this referendum.

Erdoğan and AK Party

For Erdoğan, the tiny margin of victory is still a victory. Yet, President Erdoğan should pay attention to public opinion. During the “NO” campaign, the opposition underlined that the amendments will establish one-man rule and a de facto dictatorship. From now on, the President and AK Party must leave no doubts and should prove the opposite. Furthermore, Erdoğan and AK Party had promised a ‘yes’ vote would result in more stability and a return of economic growth. It is time to prove that, as well. And also, since a significant amount of Kurdish electorate sided with the “Yes” campaign, Erdoğan and AK party should re-launched the negotiations with the Kurds.

Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)

The referendum results showed us that MHP is the main loser of the referendum. The constitutional amendments were supported only a small portion of the MHP electorates while their party leadership institutionally endorsed them. It is likely that Devlet Bahçeli will/should be ousted from the leadership, soon.

The Republican People’s Party (CHP)

Despite the impression of the results points out that the “No” campaign and CHP achieved a great success by gathering 48.6% of the all electorates against the “Yes” campaign, the leadership of CHP should not think about that those votes have been casted for CHP itself. Nearly half of the votes for “No” have only been casted to hinder Turkey’s shifts to presidential system.

Since CHP could not prevent that shift, it has now a bigger problem to find a proper rival to Erdoğan in 2019 elections. In particular, remembering the failure in the first public-vote presidential election in August 2014 would help us to apprehend how big the problem is for CHP itself.

The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP)

The “yes” campaign saw an increase in its votes in Turkey’s south-eastern cities. Five out of nine provinces in the southeast voted “no” in the referendum, while the participation in the referendum was determined as 83 percent.[4] Since the HDP’s co-leaders, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ were behind bars, HDP could not be able to manage Kurdish electorates as they aimed. Besides, the results proved that HDP also lost part of its vote in some of its majority-Kurdish electoral strongholds. That could be interpreted by two reasons (1) significant number of people have been forced to flee their homes (2) significant number of people are sick and tired of PKK and its terrorist activities in the region.

Let’s finger crossed and hope that the leadership of HDP picks the second interpretation and build its policies and election strategies on it.

Sum up

As a result of the 16 April constitutional referendum, the Turkish people have decided to change its constitution and declared its will to continue with a presidential system. Over the next months, the Turkish Parliament will work on the transition from parliamentarianism to presidential system.

Hope to see in near future that PM Binali Yıldırım is right by the following statement: “There is no loser in this referendum, but only one winner: Turkey and its noble Turkish people”.

[1] İlnur Çevik, “…and the nation approves the presidential system”,

[2] James Masters and Kara Fox, International monitors deliver scathing verdict on Turkish referendum,

[3] Lack of equal opportunities, one-sided media coverage and limitations on fundamental freedoms created unlevel playing field in Turkey’s constitutional referendum, international observers say,

[4] Rıfat Başaran, Ruling AKP sees gains over HDP in southeastern provinces,
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