ISTANBUL — Alone, anxious and exhausted: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s face shortly after the announcement of the Turkish referendum result was not that of a man celebrating victory but of a man alarmed by near-defeat. Instinctively, one worries for the photographer who took the shot, which tells us all we need to know about the kind of future Turkey faces after granting unparalleled powers to a leader whose lawyers regularly prosecute individuals who insult him and who presides over the single highest number of imprisoned journalists since at least 1990.
Erdogan does not like to look weak or unpopular. He predicted a resounding “yes” vote for the new constitution, which will enshrine his new executive presidency and abolish the role of prime minister, but it passed with only 51.3 percent of the vote, a result disputed by opposition parties and “no” voters in the wake of the announcement on Sunday night, as well as by analysts who are currently examining strange voting swings in unmonitored parts of the country.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe flagged abnormal vote-counting procedure and warned that the referendum took place “on an unlevel playing field,” referring to the blanket media coverage of the “yes” campaign and the intimidation of the “no” campaign in the weeks preceding the referendum, as well as the imprisonment of opposition party leaders. In response, Erdogan told the organization to “know its place,” a warning he has also extended to The New York Times and the head of the U.S. Central Command.
Erdogan’s face was not that of a man celebrating victory but of a man alarmed by near defeat.
For Erdogan, criticism is an invitation to fight. He has been slamming negative coverage in the Turkish press as “fake” and “politically motivated” for years now, long before U.S. President Donald Trump found it expedient to do so in the U.S. For those who expected Trump’s Islamophobic and Erdogan’s anti-American rhetoric to pose problems for the relationship between the two men, their budding bromance is surprising. Trump took it the next level when he called to congratulate Erdogan on the result, joining the leaders of Djibouti and Guinea, while European leaders and even the Kremlin refrained from congratulations. Trump’s call was allegedly made in defiance of concerns voiced by the U.S. State Department about the OSCE report — a fait accompli that mirrors the style of Erdogan himself.
The Turkish and American presidents share many personality traits and spending habits and are reviled and admired in similar measure. Trump came to power promising to represent marginalized, hard-working voters, which is exactly what Erdogan did in 2002, when the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, he co-founded first came to power. Fifteen years later, he is still riding on that ticket.
For many, it seems unthinkable that Turks would willingly choose to extend the powers of a leader like Erdogan. It is significant that the three biggest cities in Turkey — Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara — voted against him. But even if we accept that as many as 2.5 million invalid ballots may have secured his victory, as the opposition claims, we are still left with the fact that tens of millions of Turks voted “yes.” Why?
It is significant that the three biggest cities in Turkey — Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara — voted against him.
This referendum was not an idealistic choice between a parliamentary and presidential constitution. It was not a great contest between secularism and political Islam, although those elements were certainly at play. This was primarily a personality test for Erdogan carried out in an atmosphere of fear.
The failed military coup in July last year may have swung the vote among Turks who fear instability marginally more than they fear an authoritarian president. In the intervening nine months, Erdogan has sought to present himself as a bastion of stability and strength — the leader who saved his country from divisive terrorist forces. Shortly after the coup attempt, he declared a state of emergency, under which nearly 50,000 people have been imprisoned, 100,000 detained and 134,000 dismissed from public sector jobs. In the lead-up to the referendum, he declared that “no” voters would be “siding with terrorists” — only a “yes” vote could guarantee the future of the country.
Meanwhile, since June 2015, terrorist attacks in Turkey have killed over 400 people. While many Turks see Erdogan as the problem rather than the cure for this period of violence, others will have had no wish to rock the political boat by supporting a “no” vote, even if they harbor concerns about the methods Erdogan employs to quash dissent — better a strong hand than chaos.
But while the coup attempt may have swung a few million votes, the core “yes” voting base will have been the same as the roughly 40 percent of Turks who have consistently voted for the AKP over the past 15 years. Their lives have undoubtedly improved during this time, both materially (via spending on infrastructure and public health services) and in terms of civic rights (such as the overturning of the headscarf ban in 2010). They also have almost limitless respect for the man himself.
Erdogan is unapologetically religious, a proponent of traditional family values and a proud nationalist. His supporters see him as an everyman, a champion for their interests whom they must cheer for at every turn — they call him “The Tall Man,” “The Great Master” and “Chief.” He inspires a tribe-like loyalty enforced by respect for his displays of strength and his defiance of the West.
Erdogan’s trademark displays of strength and defiance do not bode well for the next presidency. In his balcony speech on Sunday night, Erdogan suggested a new referendum to reintroduce the death penalty, which would end accession talks with the European Union; within 24 hours, Parliament extended by another three months the already-prolonged post-coup state of emergency, heralding yet more arrests and job purges.
Within 24 hours, Parliament extended the post-coup state of emergency, heralding yet more arrests and job purges.
But the bigger problem is actually that Erdogan does not feel secure. The president is visibly haunted by his near-defeat, even as he embraces his new powers. Three months ago, when he prophesied victory in the referendum, he boasted that “if we were not sure of [victory], we would not have embarked on this business.” Despite everything in his favor, including the near-criminalization of the “no” campaign, he nearly lost.
Perhaps the unthinkable will happen, and Erdogan will be voted out in the next presidential election of 2019. Much more likely, we can look forward to at least a decade of paranoia from an increasingly erratic, modern-day Sultan and to a dangerous level of polarization among his citizens. Already there have been clashes between “yes” and “no” voters in the wake of the result on Sunday. It will not be a happy mix.