President Erdogan hardly swept to victory yesterday. But with 51 per cent of the electorate turning out in favour of his plans to transform Turkey into a state ruled by a hugely powerful presidency rather than the parliament, he now has his mandate to reshape the country in his own image – more religious, more authoritarian, and set to swivel away from Europe while forging new relations with its old Ottoman territories.
His supporters celebrated well into the night, lighting flares, driving around the cities with their horns blaring, and waving flags bearing the face of their hero. Meawhile, thousands of distraught people took to the streets in my Istanbul neighbourhood, a proudly secular district which delivered an 81 per cent no vote.
Outside my apartment this morning, the walls and pavements are plastered with the remnants of the side that lost. For weeks, leftists, nationalists, secularists and Kurds noisily opposed Erdogan’s plans in this neighbourhood. ‘Istanbul hayir diyor!’ (‘Istanbul says no!’) reads one piece of stencilled graffiti, above the logo of the Turkish communist party. ‘Tek adam rejim!’ (‘A one-man regime!’) says another. Erdogan’s face dominated the billboards and the public spaces, but the disparate no campaign dominated the street.
But rather than being its strength, the diversity of Erdogan’s opposition is what has continually undermined it for 15 years. They come together when they need to oppose the president, who they posit as a pantomime villain. The rest of the time, they represent only the interests of their respective narrow bases, alienating each other and wholesale failing to come up with the kind of inclusive policies that won Erdogan’s AK Party such widespread support before it, too, started shrinking back to identity politics.
The most serious opposition challenge in recent years came from unlikely quarters – a Kurdish-rooted party, the HDP, which managed to extend beyond its ethnic base (Kurds make up around 20 per cent of the Turkish population) to attract liberal Turks who care about women, gay rights, and social freedoms. In June 2015, the party’s historic election success took them into the parliament and deprived the AKP of its majority for the first time.
Then, it all fell apart. A ceasefire with the Kurdish separatist militia the PKK broke down a month later, restarting a 30-year-old conflict in the east. Erdogan stoked and used the conflict to win nationalist support (nothing lights a fire in Turkish nationalists’ hearts like a war with the PKK), while the HDP moved back towards its own Kurdish nationalist base. More than 2,000 people have died since the ceasefire ended, including more than 100 killed in PKK car bombings in western Turkey.
Last year, in their most ill-judged move, some HDP deputies in the east attended the funerals of PKK bombers, causing uproar in the west of the country. The party’s non-Kurdish vote has collapsed, and even in the Kurdish-majority regions they have lost a significant amount of support (despite what is often portrayed in leftist media, there is no widespread love for the PKK and their methods in these areas, where their insurgency has brought the most heartache). Yet even when I interviewed one of those deputies last week, he still insisted that it was the right thing to do to attend those funerals.
That makes it all too easy for Erdogan – who even his fiercest critics will admit is a master politician – to divide and rule. Throughout his referendum campaign he smeared his opponents as siding with terrorists. The HDP’s charismatic leader, Selahattin Demirtas – one of the earliest and most outspoken critics of the presidential system – is currently languishing in prison along with 11 other HDP deputies, accused of supporting terrorism. Even one fierce secularist I interviewed during the referendum campaign said he was voting no, but with trepidation that he may be casting a vote for terror.
‘The HDP squandered their political capital’, Sue Marsh Akyel, who once stood for the party in local elections, told me. ‘I came to feel that they were disingenuous and not truly interested in making Turkey a better place for everyone’.
The next chance that Erdogan’s opponents are likely to get to challenge him will be in parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019. As he slides back towards his narrow fanatic base, their best chance would be to learn the style of inclusivity he once mastered.
Hannah Lucinda Smith is Istanbul correspondent for the Times