Two days ahead of the critical referendum on the constitutional amendment bill intended to make him Anatolia’s ruler-for-life, Turkey’s “Ries” — Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who so far is too modest to accept the epithet “Padishah”, proclaimed the good tidings to the nation. The people would shortly be treated to the magnificent surprise, defying all opinion polls, of a landslide victory for the supporters of “stability”, a “strong Turkey”, “prosperity” and billions of dollars in investment over that ragtag opposition mob who do not want Turkey to stand proud and united.
How could such a prediction be wrong? Apart from the infallibility of its maker, who had campaigned for it indefatigably, travelling back-and-forth for the purpose across Anatolia at the public expense, almost all of Turkey’s media apparatus and an entire army of pro-government journalists and internet trawlers, plus all the state’s resources had been poured into the propaganda, the mass rallies, the glossy posters and massive billboards and everything else needed to produce amazing results. The streets were a festivity of AKP (Justice and Development Party) banners, colourful flags and the face of Erdogan smiling paternalistically down on everyone. Meanwhile, bands of supporters patrolled the streets on the lookout for opposition posters in order to tear them down and to attack the people posting them if the opportunity presented itself. Other bands toured the streets day and night with loudspeakers to remind all and sundry that their interests lay with the “party-affiliated president” system and its champion who will steer the country to paradise on earth. In short, all was set for the stunning victory that would deliver a stinging slap in the face to those tendentious critics at home (whom he had branded as “terrorists”, “Gulenists”, “traitors” and every other name in the book) and abroad (whom he had branded “extremist liberals”, “crusaders”, “conspirators” and so on).
Barely an hour after the polls closed Sunday, cheers and whistles rang through the corridors of power. Only 20 per cent of the ballot boxes had been opened and counted, but the returns showed 65 per cent in favour of the bill. “This is just for starters! The number will get higher as the leader predicted,” AKP pundits shouted, tears in their eyes.
But then the “Yes” vote percentage bar slowly began to sink and the great “surprise” was beginning to look like a nightmare that would shake the very foundations of the party that former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu had described as Turkey’s fate. The ruling party and supporters watched the TV screens mouths agape. What was happening? This was the triumphant theme in Eroica, Beethoven’s tribute to the French Revolution, turning uncannily eerie.
Finally, after 99 per cent of the vote was counted, we saw half to truth. “Yes” won by 51.2 per cent. Even AKP supporters were disappointed. After all the mass rallies, the preparations, the build up, this was all? More objective assessments suggested that if the referendum had been fair, the “Yes” would probably have won around 35 per cent. Describing the referendum as a “sad day for democracy,” Kati Piri, European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur, held that the climate surrounding the balloting process was not at all fair. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) agrees.
As it pointed out in its interim report, the process in general did not conform with internationally recognised criteria for transparency and impartiality. The organisation noted, for example, that in municipalities controlled by the ruling party, opposition parties and organisations were refused permits to hold outdoor rallies and were forced to hold their meetings in closed spaces remote from central areas in towns and cities. Opposition parties and organisations were also restricted in their ability to communicate with supporters and the general public through the media or other forms of communication in order to present their arguments or exchange views on the substance of the amendment bill that was the subject of the referendum.
In spite of all the disadvantages, the “No” vote won around 49 per cent. Looking at the map, one is struck by some interesting demographics. Ankara, Istanbul (the city in which Erdogan once served as mayor and to which he made his triumphant entry following the 15 July coup attempt), Izmir, Antalya, Eskisehir, Mardin and Diyarbakir — all provinces in the capital cities of which the AKP and Erdogan held huge open air pro-amendment rallies — delivered a resounding “No” to autocracy, which has just had its wings clipped.