Was The Turkish Referendum Rigged?

04/21/2017 06:25 pm ET Updated Apr 24, 2017

Turks went to the polls on Sunday to make a critical choice on a referendum to change the country’s constitution. The ballots contained no questions, but people had to choose “yes” or “no.”

Did people know exactly what they voted for? Of course, no one should try to speak for all the eligible voters, but it would be fair to suggest that this vote represented a choice between Ataturk’s Turkey and Erdogan’s Turkey.

The result forces two obvious realities. First, Turkish society is split down the middle. Second, the people gave notice to both the ruling elite and the opposition.

In Sunday’s vote, the “yes” camp won a narrow victory, defeating the “no” side 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent.

The opposition is demanding the results be nullified because of a contested supreme electoral board decision — an announcement that came only minutes after polls across the nation closed, saying that voting papers missing the official seal would also be counted as valid. However, the electoral board is not a lawmaking body; it is a law-abiding body, and according to the law, ballots without the official seal should not be counted.

That electoral board decision is fueling a strong suspicion that the vote was rigged.

Seasoned politicians say it would not be technically possible to manipulate the results if the no side had won by a margin more than 5 percent.

Are we sure about the math of this potential manipulation? Absolutely, not. The electoral board took away the authority to speak with certainty about this vote count. But it’s fair to say that the no voters did not constitute 75 percent of eligible voters.

Parliament failed to pass this constitutional change because a qualified majority — 367 deputies out of 550 — did not support it. If those whose profession is politics could not pass such a critical change, how could the people decide by such a small margin to change the way the country operates?

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk built this republic as a “parliamentary democracy.” The people have now decided to end this structure, giving sweeping new powers to the president.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has argued for decades that he stands against the politics of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the founding party of modern Turkey. Erdogan calls CHP elitist and says they look down on citizens, disrespect religion and prevent people from exercising their right to practice their religion. Erdogan has been especially critical of CHP rule in the first years after the multiparty system was accepted in 1945.

Many now draw a parallel between the 1946 election and this referendum, as the CHP back then used all its power to win the election.

Erdogan has called the no voters terrorists and traitors. Since the failed putsch last July, the general atmosphere in Turkey has been one of fear. More than 40,000 people have been arrested and accused of being part of the Fethullah Gulen movement, now labeled a terror organization, and about 100,000 state employees’ contracts have been suspended. There are journalists, academics or just tweeters who now behind bars as well.

On one hand, people’s trust in the judiciary is at its lowest in the republic’s history. On the other hand, there is not a qualified majority scrutinizing these developments. How could this be possible? How can people be so indifferent to all these things? But the truth hurts; people don’t care.

So who are we as a people? If we are split down the middle in writing our new constitution, how can we talk about our values?

The ruling elite is not directly taking on Ataturk; pious Turks still do respect their founding father. But today, the no voters feel as though the yes voters have turned their back on him. And this fissure is only growing with the harsh and aggressive rhetoric of the president, who, unlike Ataturk, is not able to unite the nation.

So this constitutional change has been approved, but it probably will not last long. Although the president made it clear that what mattered to him was winning, whether by 51 percent or 100 percent, this narrow victory with questionable legality is meaningful.

Plus, this moment will serve as a reality check for the yes voters, so they can see for themselves what Erdogan really envisions for the country. Until today, he’s been crystal clear about what he stands against, but he’s never really laid out what he stands for. Now the nation will experience what he has in mind — and Erdogan and the ruling party will face their own set of challenges.

The referendum results will go into effect only after the presidential and general elections in 2019. A lot of things could happen in the next two years: an unexpected presidential candidate could appeal to all segments of Turkish society; a new party could emerge to energize the political theater and the voters; the opposition could start performing better, and so could the ruling party.

Time will show how Turkey will adapt to this situation, but this is certainly the last opportunity for people to unite around common sense and a middle way. This will be the most critical two years of this country’s life.

This article is first published at halimiz.com on April 20, 2017

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