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18 April

A stillborn transformation

Turkey’s constitutional referendum produced a “yes” vote. But it also drove a wedge deeper into an already divided country

It is no surprise that Turkey’s referendum has left the country bitterly divided. Voters were being asked to approve a change in the political system so radical that only a sweeping endorsement would quiet the doubts of the opposing side. That didn’t happen. The “yes” camp squeaked through with the thinnest of majorities.

Of course, the same might be said of the UK vote for “Brexit” from the European union. That too was a drastic decision taken with a slim majority. But the comparison does not hold. The Brexit referendum campaign did not take place under a state of emergency. Nor was the result subject to a last-minute manipulation in the law.

Just as the polls were closing, Turkey’s High Election Board (YSK) decided to consider unstamped ballots as valid. This was in clear contradiction to provisions of the Law No 198 on Basic Provisions of Elections and the Law on Voter Registers’ Articles 77, 98 and 101.  These articles state that unstamped ballots cannot be deemed as valid.  All ballots have to arrive at the polling stations pre-stamped. Nonetheless, YSK received complaints from its member from the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that “substantial number” of unstamped ballots had been cast in the southeast of the country and that it would consider them as valid.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) allege that 2,5 million unstamped ballots were thus counted as valid, and the third biggest party the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), said around 3 million voters had been affected by YSK’s last-minute decision. Both CHP and HDP point to huge discrepancies between the ballot data presented by the YSK and data obtained by them regarding vote counts across hundreds of ballot boxes. Ironically, in 2014, AKP itself contested local election results in the Güroymak district of the eastern city of Bitlis citing the counting of one single unstamped vote. As a result of this appeal, elections in that district had to be repeated. It is now a matter of dispute and confusion where exactly unstamped ballots were cast this time.

Peculiarly “vaporized” voting behavior

Early analyses of ballot data show a highly incongruous increase in support for the “yes” campaign in the East and Southeast of the country. Economist Eric Meyersson’s preliminary research points to electoral districts where the “yes” vote was high in places where in previous elections the AKP had received virtually no votes at all. If you define the “yes” camp  as the total of AKP and National Action Party (MHP) vote – then there was a Turkey-wide decline in support by five million votes,  equal to a drop 10% percent compared to the 1 November 2015 general elections, according data compiled by Efe Kerem Sözeri.

Meyersson points to a  “disappearance of ballot-boxes with next-to-zero AKP votes. ” The geographical distribution of these evaporating votes is even more curious.  To quote Myersson:

 “It gets even more surprising when one investigates which provinces and districts are undergoing this political change of heart. In November 2015, it was predominantly the provinces of Agri, Igdir, Mus, Sanliurfa, Van, and even a few districts of Diyarbakir that swung the most toward the AKP. In 2017, however, the biggest pro-AKP changes occurred in Tunceli, Hakkari, Sirnak, and Diyarbakir. The three former provinces here are among the worst affected by the war between the PKK and the Turkish state.
It gets still a bit stranger once we look at which districts these are. The Diyarbakir district [where the increase was highest] was none other than Lice, which is as much a Never-AKPer as you’re ever going to find. Among the other districts topping the pro-AKP swing distribution are CizreYuksekova, two heavily damaged districts from the military conflict, and Uludere, the scene of the infamous Roboski strike.”

Sözeri draws attention to the same phenomenon. The only 14 cities where the AKP’s “Yes” campaign vote increased relative to the 1 November 2015 elections are the located in the southeast and eastern regions of Turkey; and all of them have been the scenes of massive military operations in the aftermath of the November 2015 election. This has resulted in as much as a half million internally displaced persons (IDP). Despite this absolute decline in population, support for “yes” (therefore AKP) increased by 323,654 votes, according to Sözeri’s data.  At the end of the day, the “no” vote was ahead by an overwhelming majority in the southeastern and eastern regions as a whole-but, so sudden a change of heart in so staunchly anti-AKP districts begs closer examination at the very least.

Bureaucratic populism/populist bureaucracy

An equally curious issue is the  “change of heart” by the YSK to allow unstamped ballots to be accepted as valid in defiance of the electoral law.  There is not yet a written ruling on the matter, as veteran reporters Çiğdem Toker and Alican Ulusoy reported in Cumhuriyet newspaper. YSK’s reasoning for a change of heart in this instance is purely “emotional”. The electoral body, made up of judges, states they felt that the “voters’ choices should be honored”. Such reasoning is line with increasingly populist reasoning espoused by the AKP itself that the will of majority is above the law. By that logic, the people’s might makes right.

In a society as deeply divided as Turkey, discarding rule of law in favour of the “emotions of a disputed majority” is bound to lead to turmoil and further polarization, particularly when it invokes the possibility of rigged vote. As a result there will always be a question mark over the executive presidency and it will never cease to be a divisive issue.  You can use as much force as you want to hold up the walls, but at the end of the day a “house divided” will not stand.

Tags: sezin öney , referendum , turkey , uk , brexit


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