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The Beginning of the End? What Turkey’s Referendum Vote Tells Us

By Beatrice White

A striking feature of last month’s referendum in Turkey was the disparity in voting patterns – which varied greatly by region in Turkey and also by country among the diaspora. The results show a Turkey divided along complex and historically-rooted regional, ethnic, and cultural lines – divisions which seem equally salient among the Turkish citizens living abroad. How and whether these fault lines shift or deepen in the coming period could to a large extent determine the country’s political future.

The referendum held on April 16th in Turkey was a vote to approve or reject a series of amendments designed to significantly increase and reinforce the power of Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. To critical voices, the reforms were perceived as an alarming step towards an authoritarian political system, and a serious setback for democracy in Turkey. For its proponents, they constituted an endorsement of Erdoğan himself and his rule, by allowing him to further consolidate and concentrate power as president. It was a vote of confidence that the president was ardently determined to achieve.

In its bid to obtain its desired outcome in the referendum, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) made “disproportionate and illegal use of state funds and resources across Turkey, including through institutions such as the state religious authority, Diyanet,” explains Kader Sevinç, the representative to the EU of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), adding that “it was a very unfair campaign because naysayers and opponents were called terrorists, have faced threats, violence, and arbitrary detentions.”

Beyond the campaign at home, the efforts and investment made to campaign outside of Turkey and target the 1.4 million Turkish voters living abroad, in order to ensure a ‘Yes’ vote, testified to the importance of these voters who, it was argued, could even swing the election given the tight results forecast by polls.

Battling against the odds from the campaigns to polling day

Turks living outside the country were courted extensively by politicians ahead of the vote. The AKP attempted to hold mass rallies in countries with high numbers of eligible voters, such as Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and France. In all these countries except France, the rallies were blocked on the grounds that they might enflame tensions – provoking furious statements from President Erdoğan in response, as well as violent protests in the Netherlands that were broadcast live on the Turkish state news channels, in a bid to demonstrate the hypocrisy of EU countries who criticised Turkey’s own repression of protests in recent years.

In Belgium, violent altercations broke out outside of the Turkish Consulate in Brussels leaving several people injured. These incidents illustrate how the climate of tension and violence that pervaded the referendum in Turkey was also present elsewhere where Turkish citizens were voting. Despite this voting ostensibly taking place in countries committed to protecting democratic rights and freedoms, it seems that the vote took place under largely the same conditions.

Eyyup Doru, the European representative of the Democratic People’s Party (HDP), whose members were targeted in the attack, argues that this was no coincidence; on the contrary, instigating such a climate served the interests of the ruling party’s campaign for the ‘Yes’ vote. For him, many factors surrounding the way the vote was held abroad mirrored the irregularities and injustices taking place in Turkey. “The violent confrontations in which several of our members were injured were provoked,” he argues, and were designed to intimidate and “to dissuade some people from coming to the consulate to vote”. For Doru, the decision to hold the vote in the Turkish consulate was itself politically motivated. This gave the consulate full control over collecting the ballots, and requests on behalf of members of the HDP to observe the process were systematically refused.

But the move was also designed to dissuade those who were eligible to vote but might feel threatened by, or mistrustful of, the Turkish authorities, such as Kurds and other ethnic minorities, as well as political migrants and refugees. Doru feels this almost certainly had an impact on the result in Belgium – where over 77% voted in favour – among the highest proportion of ‘Yes’ votes of any country.

In light of the recent closures of independent television channels and newspapers, as well as the general climate of censorship owing to the many sackings and arrests of journalists critical of the government, Erdoğan’s campaign also benefited from hugely unbalanced coverage and amounts of TV airtime. This meant that there were hardly any channels through which the opposition could communicate their perspective to the electorate, and this extended to voters outside of Turkey who generally watch and read the same media as their compatriots in Turkey, explains Doru, and are therefore subject to the same bias and imbalance in terms of information.

Despite all this, the referendum passed with only a narrow margin of 51.2%.  Notably, all of Turkey’s largest cities (Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir) voted against the proposal. For Erdoğan, who built his political career in Istanbul where he was previously the mayor, this must have been intensely disappointing, to put it mildly.

In terms of the votes from abroad, Belgium was not the only country with a resounding ‘Yes’ vote; in Austria it was approved by 73.2% and in the Netherlands by 70.3%. France followed with 65.2%, and then Germany with 63%.  Elsewhere the picture was very different however: Turkish voters living in the US, UK, Canada, and Spain all rejected the proposals.

Tenacious conservatism: A paradox of integration?

What accounts for this disparity among the diaspora? Moreover, how do we explain the strong ‘Yes’ vote – in favour of reforms widely viewed as threatening the country’s freedoms and democracy – among Turkish citizens living in some of the world’s most liberal countries?

Sevinç explains that “the type of immigration has a strong influence on voting patterns, depending on whether it is political and intellectual, or rather economic migration,” adding that, “Turks in Europe are predominantly ‘identity voters’ – which means voting for the social and cultural aspects (or created image) of a political figure rather than his/her policies – this is the hallmark of the identity voters. In this sense, political identities among the Turkish community in Europe are often based on their families’ political orientation back in their native town, and rooted in the domestic politics of the period when people emigrated from Turkey.”

Doru underlines that the migration to Belgium is quite specific, in that “the large majority comes from the same town in the centre of Turkey. If you look at the map of how people voted, this time and in general, it is from these central, largely rural areas where Erdogan generally draws most of his support, which are also places that tend to have lower levels of education”. In this referendum, the division between ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ votes was along quite marked geographical lines, with the highest proportion of ‘Yes’ votes coming from the central region of Anatolia, while the more secular and progressive western coast voted exclusively against, as did the predominantly Kurdish regions of the southeast.

Damla Umut Uzun, is responsible for international relations at Kaos GL (Gay and Lesbian Cultural Research and Solidarity Association), an organisation which monitors human rights abuses and strives to tackle homophobia through media, education, dialogue, and training. In this area, as in others, there has been significant progress over the past 15 years, in terms of shifting social attitudes and gaining recognition and acceptance, despite this period coinciding with the rule of the AKP and its religious and social conservatism, largely through the struggles and efforts of Turkey’s vibrant LGBTI movement which has been getting stronger. Despite some important breakthroughs however, many obstacles remain and many more battles will have to be fought and won before Turkey’s LGBTI community can enjoy the same rights and respect as in some countries in Western Europe where far more liberal attitudes prevail, such as Belgium and the Netherlands.

Asked about the phenomenon of Turkish people living in such countries to vote so conservatively, Uzun describes this as “a complete paradox which has deep sociological roots” – and understanding it requires a historical perspective. In the case of Germany, for example, Uzun, who lived for some time in EU countries herself, explains how she experienced first-hand how “the majority of the Turkish citizens there are those who went there as guest workers – as a cheap labour force – during 1960s and settled there with their families. While they were in Turkey, they might have been regarded as lower class with fewer economic opportunities and lower levels of education, and thus prone to be more conservative. Then when they went to Germany (to pursue economic opportunities) they felt that they did not belong to the country and many hoped to return to Turkey at the first opportunity. But the reality was not as planned, they settled down there for several generations. But this ‘not belonging’ feeling has remained due to the ‘different’ culture and sometimes ‘discriminatory behaviours’ of the people or the state itself (at the same time, they see themselves as secondary citizens in Germany), even if democratic concepts are more embedded among emerging younger generations.”

It is this feeling of marginalisation that has led many Turkish immigrants to cling to their traditions, language, culture, religion, in response to a society that does not seem to fully accept them. This has led to a somewhat paradoxical and very uneven process of integration, Uzun explains, as “generation by generation (even if they became more ‘German’ in some ways) they have become more conservative and traditional in terms of their ‘Turkishness’. In Germany and many other European countries, Turkish people often have their areas where they have their own shops, houses, schools, and many still do not know the language of the country due to this isolation, which in part was also due to the state’s policy of encouraging Turkish people to live together in suburbs of the city, a factor that has contributed to holding back integration. As a result, even if they benefit from the advantages of the countries’ equal, democratic, and respectful policies, they insist on voting for the AKP (in this case by voting ‘Yes’) because they believe that this conservative party will defend Turkey’s religion, traditions, and national identity.”

Despite the headway made in increasing tolerance and awareness of LGBTI rights and issues, there is now a danger that this progress could be stalled or even reversed, given the government’s current orientation and hard line. Although alarm bells had been ringing for some time in this regard, it was the attempted coup of July 2016, and the subsequently-declared state of emergency which has yet to be lifted, which provided the legitimation for overt and widespread human rights violations of all kinds, explains Umut Güner, general coordinator of Kaos GL. The most recent Gay Pride march, which takes place in Istanbul every year and is generally a peaceful and celebratory event, was marred by violence when police attacked participants with tear gas and water cannon in a bid to disperse them. Beyond this immediate physical danger, the work of the organisation faces an existential threat due to the alarming deterioration of democratic and civil rights and freedom in Turkey. An example of this clampdown on freedom of expression was the government’s response to a petition signed by a number of academics under the banner ‘Academics for Peace’ denouncing military operations by the Turkish authorities in the southeast of the country against the Kurdish minority. As a result, many of the signatories were dismissed from their posts or even imprisoned. “Many of these people we used to work with, but we cannot do that anymore,” says Güner. “These might not be direct attacks on the LGBTI movement but the political repression affects our work very much.”

Rethinking relations with the EU

Given the difficult conditions in which the vote has held, in addition to allegations of widespread irregularities both on behalf of Turkish actors and international observing bodies such as the OSCE and Council of Europe, serious doubts have been cast on the legitimacy of the referendum and its result. The HDP and CHP are unequivocal in their stance, both contesting the results, yet so far their appeals have been ignored by a judiciary which has already seen far-reaching purges of members critical of the government. The diagnosis from Sevinç is a gloomy one: “This referendum was not an election between X and Y political figures. It was a choice between saying goodbye to parliamentary democracy in all its surviving manifestations and giving Turkey another chance to reclaim its secular parliamentary democracy.” It is unclear what will happen next and to where opposition politicians can turn.

Relations between the EU and Turkey have become increasingly strained, as a result of the stalled accession process and factors such as the EU-Turkey deal on refugees, so prospects for it to exert meaningful influence on Turkey to modify its course at this point seem very remote indeed. Doru argues, however, that international actors do have a meaningful role to play. “Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe and of NATO, so if this government is not behaving as a state of law this should not be accepted.” For Doru, the fact that many countries have not officially recognised or responded to the result of this referendum is also an important sign, as is the recent decision to subject Turkey to a monitoring process, on behalf of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

Sevinç feels that past missed opportunities and the crises currently affecting the EU undermine its capacity to exert any influence on Turkish politics or public opinion. “If Turkey’s accession process had been well-managed,” she contends, “it would yield added-value for Turkish and EU citizens with multiplier impact and today’s picture would be different. Instead European politics has been held hostage by populism on the rise, and the spread of illiberal democracy in Europe. This rings true in Europe, following the outcome of the Brexit vote which many argue was decided by baseless claims about immigration, particularly the narrative that ‘10 millions Turks were ready to move to UK’.” Yet she maintains there are still reasons for optimism: “after years of disenchantment, a recent poll found that 75 percent of Turks still support EU membership, with support rising 13 percent in 2016.

Moreover, beyond the discussions around Brexit and Grexit, Sevinç argues that prospects for a transformation of the EU could present opportunities for Turkey to find it’s place in the European project. “The institutional system of the EU will have to be overhauled,” she says, “Arguments for reform, taking such forms as the “European integration in concentric circles”, “variable geometry” or “multi-speed Europe” are starting to emerge. As Europe is changing, in parallel Turkey should take on the opportunities and integrate itself into the emerging new European architecture. Turkey is not an oil-rich, nuclear or financial power. For Turkey, “power” means the ability to become a democratic, well-educated, economically strong and creative society. How will the EU accession process help to achieve this goal? That is the main question.”

Strength in diversity: What prospects for resistance remain in Turkey today?

For Doru, the stark polarisation visible across Turkey since the referendum – notably through the contrasting images of the protests by secular youth in the capital and large cities, and the jubilant celebrations of flag-waving Erdoğan enthusiasts elsewhere, – is far from new, and has now become fully entrenched in Turkish politics. Yet beyond the scale of the repression and the attacks on democratic freedoms, particularly against the HDP and its officials, many of whom are now in prison, there is another story to be told about current developments unfolding in Turkey.

In spite of the arrests and sackings of opposition politicians and journalists, the exile of many critical academic and intellectuals, and the intimidation and confiscation of resources from forces viewed as a threat by Erdoğan and his government, the result gave Erdoğan a very mitigated victory. “This referendum spelled the end of Erdoğan because he did not succeed,” says Doru, “he lost in many places and this shows he will continue to lose again in the future. The attempt to instill fear in people, and in particular in the Kurdish population, did not work.”

Doru believes that out of these struggles and difficulties, a renewed determination and resistance is taking hold to fight back.  “Now, things are changing – we’re seeing that it’s possible to form a democratic front to struggle against the expansion of a dictatorship on this territory and that it’s possible to stop it. I think in the coming months and weeks this resistance against dictatorship will increase, so this has given a fresh impulse to organise resistance for democracy.”

HDP is already itself an alliance between several pro-Kurdish and left-wing forces, and as such “it forms a large front, but everyone who defends democratic principles needs to work together to ensure protection and rights for everyone in Turkey,” says Doru. “We need to find common points to build a democratic front and build alliances for a democratic constitution.”

This approach is not limited to the political realm. Alliances are also, and have always been, a cornerstone of the strategy of Kaos GL, whose vision and mission are based around the principle that the rights and freedoms of all marginalised groups, whether on the grounds of language, race, ethnicity, religion, or creed, are inextricably bound up with one another. “Our motto is: The liberation of homosexuals will also free heterosexuals,” says Güner.

“In our party we have Kurdish, Alevi, Arab, Yezidi, Armenian, and Turkish deputies,” says Doru, “These are the real colours of Turkey, and we strongly believe this Turkey of peoples will triumph in the end.”

The Beginning of the End? What Turkey’s Referendum Vote Tells Us