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Turkey decides: Istanbul reacts to the presidential referendum

April 17, 2017 at 11:17 am

ANKARA, TURKEY – APRIL 16 : “Yes” supporters listen Turkish Prime Minister and the Leader of Turkey’s Justice and Development (AK) Party Binali Yildirim’s balcony speech in front of the party’s headquarters following the unofficial preliminary results of Turkey’s constitutional referendum show “Yes” votes ahead of “No” votes, in Ankara, Turkey on April 16, 2017. Turkish people voted on the proposed change to a presidential system to replace the parliamentary democracy, with 18 articles proposed to be amended in the constitution. ( Emin Sansar – Anadolu Agency )

As morning broke over what many deem to be a new era in Turkey’s modern political history, everything in Istanbul seems like business as usual. The metropolis’ iconic fishermen standing atop the Galata Bridge are still hauling their catches out of the Bosphorus ready to be fried and grilled in nearby Eminonu, and the cafes on the seaside heading up to the historic Golden Horn peninsula are filled with the usual tea drinkers and tourists. If one had not been there and been aware of the coverage, one would not have known a referendum of seismic proportions had been concluded just the night before.

By the narrowest of margins, Turkey yesterday voted “Yes” to 18 constitutional changes, including the transformation of the current parliamentary system into an executive presidency that will see the office of prime minister abolished and its powers transferred to the president. This is set to happen after the new constitution comes into force and presidential elections are held in 2019.

Istanbul, the commercial and cultural capital of Turkey and also its largest city, voted by 51.5 per cent against the constitutional changes, and was joined by the other two of the “Big Three” cities – Izmir and the capital Ankara.

Istanbul’s vote came as a surprise to many, as on the whole it normally is considered a stronghold of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), who led the “Yes” campaign. However, conservative strongholds such as Uskudar on the Anatolian side of the city voted “No”, raising questions about the presidential system that failed to garner the traditional support the AKP ordinarily enjoys in cosmopolitan cities where most of the economic and intellectual output of the country is produced.

Mixed feelings

The results emerging from the three largest and most influential cities should raise some questions in Ankara about the referendum and how to win back the support of their traditional voters in places such as Istanbul.

However, Turks who had just a day earlier taken part in the voting were just as full of opinions today as they were yesterday, and some shared their thoughts with MEMO.

Fatma Betul told MEMO that she woke up this morning feeling jubilant and positive:

I have no doubt that Turkey under President Erdogan will now be more powerful and successful than ever. He has already done so much good for us over the past 14 years, so I trust him to make the right choices for our benefit.

Her thoughts were echoed by a nearby fisherman who overheard her talking, who said that Fatma was right and that “even my tea this morning tasted better”.

The man, who declined to be named, said that he felt that it was a victory for Turkey against terrorism, saying that Erdogan will now have greater power to be able to deal with threats emanating from Daesh and separatist militants like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), considered by Turkey, the United States and the European Union to be a terrorist organisation.

However, not everyone was happy. Kadir Deniz told MEMO that he was unhappy with the result, even though he voted “Yes”.

“How can I be happy with 51 per cent?” Kadir said outside the Yeni Camii complex that is undergoing restoration work in the historic old city of Istanbul. “If the result was more convincing, like 55 per cent or something, then it would be less divisive and the opponents to the changes would have little ammunition.”

Now, the CHP [Republican People’s Party] and their Kemalist allies who may still be hiding in the military will be able to say that the result is not convincing enough, and raise the question of cheating in the vote. This is not good, and could lead to instability and violence that the referendum was supposed to prevent.

The main opposition CHP has already said that it will challenge some 37 per cent of the votes after it emerged last night that the High Electoral Commission (YSK) made errors, including accepting some ballots that were not properly stamped.

'Yes' supporters celebrate their victory at July 15th Kızılay National Will Square following the unofficial preliminary results of Turkey’s constitutional referendum show "Yes" votes ahead of "No" votes, in Ankara, Turkey on April 16, 2017. [Murat Kula / Anadolu Agency]

‘Yes’ supporters celebrate their victory at July 15th Kızılay National Will Square following the unofficial preliminary results of Turkey’s constitutional referendum show “Yes” votes ahead of “No” votes, in Ankara, Turkey on April 16, 2017. [Murat Kula / Anadolu Agency]

Protests and celebrations

Further demonstrating the mixed reception and polarising impact of the referendum was the immediate aftermath.

In the more left-leaning neighbourhoods of Istanbul, dominated by the CHP, protests broke out against the result.

In the Goztepe neighbourhood of the Kadikoy district on the Asian side of the city, several apartment blocks broke out in “tencere” pot striking protests. The din could be heard all around the neighbourhood, and was reminiscent of the tencere striking Gezi Park protests in 2013.

Perhaps in an attempt to rile the “No” voters in these secularist strongholds, “Yes” voters who were from outside the area turned up in quick celebratory convoys that ended almost as soon as they began, demonstrating that the “Yes” votes were a rarity in these neighbourhoods.

In direct contrast to the celebrations that broke out in central Taksim Square from the AKP faithful and in other areas around the city, protesters starting hitting pots and marching up and down the CHP district of Besiktas.

Accusing Erdogan of being a “thief” and attempting to topple modern Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s legacy, the protesters carried banners depicting the hardline secularist symbolic leader of Turkey and vowed to challenge the result.

Erdogan inheriting Ataturk’s legacy?

However, anti-Erdogan protesters who are angered by the perception that an Islamist leader is attempting to dismantle the vision that Ataturk had for Turkey are perhaps mistaken.

After all, Erdogan is now reintroducing an executive presidential system that was instituted by Ataturk himself, who ruled Turkey up until his death in 1938. Ataturk’s system was in fact definitively autocratic in that it was a one-party state which was inherited by his close ally Ismet Inonu.

The first free-and-fair elections only took place in 1950, whereupon the ruling CHP lost power. The Democratic Party under Adnan Menderes came to power, but were toppled after a military putsch in 1960 killed Menderes and reinstalled Kemalist military authority, changing the constitution. Such coups happened again and again, until the present constitution that will now be changed was introduced in 1982 following yet another coup.

Although Erdogan appears to be inheriting a governance legacy that connects back to Ataturk who, as president, had significant control over both executive and legislative functions of the republic, neither Erdogan nor the AKP have ever advocated a one-party state. Instead, the use of Ataturk as a method of attacking Erdogan appears to be largely the use of political symbols, as Ataturk has now become, to ideologically criticise Erdogan rather than challenge the system he looks set to introduce.

The next couple of years will reveal much in the way of how the future of Turkey may look, but considering the fact that Erdogan appears to have restored an executive presidency similar to that utilised by Ataturk, one can look to the past to draw inferences as to governance, if not how the country will shift ideologically.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.