Sundays Referendum: Electoral Implications

After a heated campaign period, the “yes camp” claimed victory on Sunday night in Turkey’s referendum which changes the political system from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. The changes will hand Erdogan sweeping powers. Surely, the vote cemented Erdogan’s role as the most powerful leader in Turkey’s history and sets the stage for him to rule the country until 2029. This is even longer than Kemal Ataturk, the nation’s founder.

Although the results seem to be a success for the governing AKP, the narrow margin left a bad taste in AKP leaders’ mouth.  The results of the Sunday’s referendum have broad implications for both the AKP and the opposition. The most striking (and probably alarming) result for the AKP is its revealed weakness in metropolitan areas. The no-campaign managed to secure victory in the three-biggest cities. Istanbul is especially important for AKP, as Erdoğan started his political career as the mayor of the city. The party managed to win the mayoral elections in Istanbul since its establishment in 2002. The clear implication of this result for the AKP is that it has to develop a new game plan for urban voters.

The results of the referendum as well as many public opinion polls present an alarming picture for the AKP elites. The party is usually strong in the eastern and inner parts of the country. The demographic profile of the AKP voters shows that they are usually coming from the less educated and relatively poor segment of the society. It is true that AKP’s support base among the well-educated urban voters have always been weak. However, the most alarming factor for the party leadership is that they could not come up with policies that would attract the educated-young-urban voters. This might not seem to be a problem for now, but it sure will be in the next decade as the urbanization and education levels are rising. For example, AKP leaders usually refer to their success in healthcare, citing the previous state of the government’s healthcare policy: insufficient number of doctors, healthcare facilities, and prescription coverage. This obviously resonates well with the older voters, who compare their experiences of the pre and post AKP era. However, a good portion of the young voters have no memory of a failed healthcare system, or a country grappling with foreign debt.

The results of the referendum clearly showed that the presidential race will not be a piece of cake for Erdogan and AKP. The current state of the economy is alarming. The inflation rate is on the rise, so is the unemployment. We know that many AKP voters give their decision based on the economy. If the current trend continues and the economic situation in the country worsens, they will probably turn their back to the AKP and seek for new alternatives. It is no secret that the leaders of the AKP and Erdogan in particular crafted the new system with one opinion in mind: that the party will control both the parliament and the presidency. Yet, the narrow margin shows that there is no guarantee for a united AKP government. The party might just lose either the parliamentary majority or the presidency, or maybe both. The close race showed that a strategic campaign by a renewed opposition leadership may have a distinct chance of winning the presidency, or the parliamentary majority.

On a final note: the OSCE report regarding the election has some disturbing conclusions about the referendum.  The following excerpts are particularly striking:

“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..”,  “The referendum took place in a political environment in which fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed under the state of emergency, and the two sides did not have equal opportunities to make their case to the voters…”

Although the Turkish government quickly dismissed these accusations as being politically motivated, the report will have political consequences.  Even though, the report might be politically motivated or biased, perceptions are just as important as facts. Turkey should work on improving its electoral practices to gain the confidence of the international community and ensure the legitimacy of its elections.

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